In a bold new show artists express joys and fears about cyberspace
SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGERApril241995
Hi-tech art that talks back
In a bold new show artists express joys and fears about cyberspace
SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER
Portraits by Montreal artist Luc Courchesne do not hang quietly on a gallery wall. They chat and, occasionally, argue with each other. They talk to viewers and, if they like someone, will share their feelings and perhaps even confide a secret. If not, they become moody, abruptly ending the dialogue. Courchesne creates this dazzling illusion of art-with-an-attitude in his interactive work, Family Portrait: Encounter with a Virtual Society. The artist’s “virtual beings,” who respond to the click of a mouse,
are stunningly lifelike. They appear suspended in space, as if separate from the computers, video monitors and laser discs that generate them. But electronic wizardry is not the point of Family Portrait, says Courchesne, whose work has been exhibited at the National Gallery in Ottawa and New York City’s Museum of Modem Art. “I’m like an alchemist,” he says. “I try to do crazy things— like turn technology into experience.” Courchesne, 42, is one of six Canadian artists represented in Press Enter: Between Seduction and Disbelief, an international exhibit on art and technology that opens this week at Toronto’s Power Plant gallery, part of the beleaguered Harbourfront cultural centre.
This timely show focuses on artists’ fascination with cyberspace as well as their skepticism about an increasingly wired world. A strong undercurrent of technology has flowed through the art world for more than a decade with the proliferation of microcomputers. “Then, in ’94, there was an explosion as the Internet brought everybody together,” says Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the McLuhan Program at the University of Toronto. “Now, art and technology is literally taking off.” An array of new computer technologies is transforming culture, as musicians perform “live” on the Internet, museums offer tours
via modem, and virtual reality plays on the stage. ‘Technology is evolving our traditional notions of art,” says Mark Jones, publisher of CyberStage, a new Canadian quarterly devoted to art and technology. “It’s also creating new forms of its own.”
Artists are applying their new electronic palette in surprising ways. “They are stretching the use of these technologies,” says Jean Gagnon, associate curator of media art at the National Gallery. ‘They can be playful and ironic and give a humoristic twist to them.” They are also addressing serious issues. De Kerckhove theorizes that artists express the collective unconscious of a society, and “there is a great deal of fear of computers out there.”
That anxiety about cyberspace and individual identity is one of the main themes of Press Enter. And, according to Louise Dompierre, chief curator of the exhibit, most of the artworks are interactive, so people can experience them “in a real, visual way.” Some deal with issues of privacy, notably American Jim Campbell’s Untitled (for Heisenberg), in which, through an ingenious use of computers and video, the viewer’s image pops up in bed with a naked couple. Others, such as German artist Christian Möller’s Electronic Mirror, which unexpectedly erases a visitor’s reflection, illustrate a lack of control over technology.
It was the potential for interaction that first attracted 34-year-old David Rokeby to the electronic medium. “I wanted to repair the rip that had appeared between the audience and contemporary art,” explains Rokeby, originally from Tillsonburg, Ont. Behind him, in a comer of his studio in the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown, two color-splashed canvases lean casually on a bookcase. They were art school projects, painted before Rokeby switched to an experimental program. Since then, Rokeby, who was recently featured in Wired, the U.S. magazine about hi-tech culture, has immersed himself in computers, cir-
cuit boards and cables—the tools of his chosen medium. Now, there are signs that he has realized his art-school dream of “making art that connects with people.” Acclaimed internationally, Rokeby has participated in the prestigious Venice Biennale. And at an exhibit in Hamburg in 1993, visitors lined up for hours to see his latest work.
Silicon Remembers Carbon, the art that drew crowds in Europe, also appears in Press Enter. In the installation, Rokeby’s “canvas” is a bed of sand enclosed by a narrow walkway, on the floor of a darkened room. Sounds and images of flowing water, blowing winds, fire and shadows are projected onto the sand in everchanging patterns. The effect is compelling and one that allows Rokeby to play with viewers’ perceptions of art and of their own bodies. If visitors, for instance, dip their hands into the convincing video “pools of water,” they will feel dry sand. That is, if they dare to touch it. “There is no barrier except people’s fear,” says Rokeby. “The question is, ‘what is the art here?’ ” Silicon Remembers Carbon presents an unspoken challenge for viewers to literally cross the line into the sand—and into the
artist’s illusion. “An interactive work creates a radically different situation for an audience,” says Rokeby. “There are no rules.”
The medium presents challenges for artists as well as audiences. Sylvie Bélanger once sold some of her cherished antiques to finance her ambitious electronic art projects. The petite artist with an international reputation works on a grand scale. Some of her early installations traversed rooftops and covered towering church walls. But Bélanger, bom near Montreal, has kept enough pine armoires and ladder-back chairs to lend a distinctly Québécois flavor to her studio home in a converted factory in Toronto’s west end. After 10 years in the city, the 44-year-old artist has also retained her French-Canadian sensibilities. “As a Quebecer,” says Bélanger, “the question of identity has been part of my upbringing.” Now, the artist is exploring the issue in the context of technology and how it is affecting human identity—the theme of The Silence of the Body, her complex installation in Press Enter. There are three parts to Bélanger’s interactive photo-video artwork. One wall has a dramatic, back-lit mural of a
pair of eyes. The adjacent wall features a huge ear. On the floor beneath them is a mouth. Each organ is enhanced, literally and metaphorically, by electronic technology, and exaggerated to superhuman dimensions. Taken together, the three elements suggest a face. But they are physically fragmented, not quite human. ‘Technology disembodies us,” suggests Bélanger, “but it also allows us to create a new self.”
While Bélanger focuses on the future, Alberta artist George Bures Miller looks at how existing technologies, like television, affect personal communications. And, indeed, his work space over the old Woolworth’s in downtown Lethbridge looks more like a TV repair shop than an artist’s studio. Miller is convinced that the artwork he rigs out of cables, monitors and cameras “can humanize technologies that aren’t very human.” He adds, “Man, there’s all this stuff happening with computers and TV and we don’t think much about it.”
One of his pieces, Conversation/Interrogation, shown in Press Enter, provides what he describes as a “rude and scary” awakening to the fiction of television. The installation is simple and spare. A wooden office chair sits in front of a blank TV screen. Off to the side, a surveillance camera focuses on the chair. But this art, unlike a painting or a sculpture, is incomplete without a viewer. Only when a visitor accepts the posted invitation to “please sit down,” does the artist appear on the screen. In a tone that ranges from suggestive to intimidating, he draws in the viewer, whose own image appears on the screen—but without sound. “You remind me of your lover,” Miller intones. “You know all of my conversations with you are recorded.” The viewer becomes the viewed, and the experience is, at once, amusing and unsettling. “I wanted to make the viewers physically aware of how TV leaves us voiceless,” says Miller. “A painting would not have the same emotional impact.”
But is it art? ‘There are people who still don’t think that it is a valid medium,” says Rokeby. “But then there are people who still don’t think photography is a valid medium.” Gagnon, de Kerckhove and other experts say that resistance to electronic media is rapidly disappearing as the art form gains critical legitimacy. Still, few private galleries display the works, which often fill entire rooms, and even fewer collectors purchase them. “Most buyers for that kind of work are museums,” says Gagnon. Part of the problem lies in the technology itself. Equipment can be difficult to operate, sometimes breaks down and quickly becomes obsolete. “It’s a very expensive medium for collectors and artists,” says Courchesne. He, and others, survive through grants, teaching jobs and sheer determination. “Electronic art is particularly pertinent right now,” says Rokeby. “Like it or not, we are surrounded by technology and we need to understand how it transforms the way we experience the world.” As long as there is a cyberspace, artists will be exploring it with cyberart. □
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