An Engineer Turned Artist
The electronic sculptures of Alan Rath represent his views on the impact of technology on society. They will be on display at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, through Sept. 29, before traveling to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, where they will be shown Nov. 21 through Jan. 26, 1992.
ITS eyes hold your gaze for a split second before they dart around the room again - restless, searching, sad. It stands on its three legs as gracefully as a lost animal, head slightly cocked as if ready for flight. One can't help but smile at the sad machine with its computer-generated video eyes and its computer brain balanced atop the skinny tripod legs. Aptly named "Voyeur" by its maker, Alan Rath, this weird work of art cannot participate in the life it appears to observe.A machine that evokes pathos, that begs for identification with its "plight," could only exist in the art world. And many of Mr. Rath's electronic works, in the four-room exhibit at the Walker Art Institute in Minneapolis, just now raise issues best expressed in the context of art. His works question the place of technology in our lives, but they quite obviously do not disparage that technology. Alan Rath is no cynic: His creations are witty, many of them wise, and a few quite touching. He offers appropriate cautionary tales about the misuse of machines and then cheerfully puts them to good use. His is a beguiling, friendly, even inspired view of the technological world. We tend to think of art as man-made rather than machine-made, but here the machines are made by Rath's hand, from scratch, and he clearly revels in the systems he creates. So there is a buoyant sense of joy in his work. You see that joy in the children's response to "Bumper II," a large speaker on a tripod that huffs and puffs at odd intervals as it makes them jump and then giggle when they've come too close to the apparently static piece. RATH came to art through the backdoor not long ago. Trained in electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he had begun a lucrative career in industry when he saw an exhibit in London of kinetic sculpture that started a chain reaction in his own thought. He came home from that business trip and resigned his job, still not knowing what he wanted to do. Having written his engineering master's thesis on electronic computer-controlled light sculpture, he had made friends among art studen ts and faculty, and he joined one of these friends in San Francisco. There he found electronic parts plentiful and cheap (Silicon Valley is nearby). Then, too, he took a job hauling art to and from galleries. "I was surprised at the art," he told me by telephone recently. "It was not resonant with the world I knew. That frustrated me. Then I became even more interested in making my own objects. So I started doing it in private." Seven years after his first exhibition, Rath's sculpture has become a natural extension of his training. Humor pervades the work, and sometimes the humor seems a little dark. One piece offers the viewer a joy stick to manipulate the movement of the words "So What?" on a video screen. "That's largely influenced by my stint in engineering. There's a great drive to do things with ever-increasing speed and precision, an engineering obsession that propels that kind of advancement. Speed, precision, more features - these things can be 'improved,' but there's no analysis as to whether it's useful or desirable or interesting. So that's my 'So What?' on that. It is a very precisely made machine, but it doesn't do anything useful, it just does it well." Even darker than "So What?" is "You Can Make a Difference." A telescope is mounted on the wall with a button next to it. The telescope is focused on a large number on a video screen across the room. When the viewer pushes the button, the number increases by a single unit, and a polite "Thank You" indicates that one has contributed to the piece. "You pay various bills and you have these huge account numbers... . There's something about the scale of things in this electronic system, this media environment. We're aware of so much going on around us, and the sheer scale of that electronic environment dwarfs us. We feel powerless to have an impact on that environment... but I don't think people are powerless... . I just want to say, well, there's a reason it feels difficult: You're seeing too much with the telescope." Rath reminds us that the media environment we live in brings so much of the world nearer that we sometimes ignore what is immediate to us. Few vote, for instance, in local elections where they really can make a difference because the media has made the world seem smaller than it is. In another piece, a video screen is mounted at the top of a tall stepladder. The image on the screen is a grasping hand, and the piece is called "I Want, More." Greed drives much technological advancement, and the anthropomorphized machine lets us know that it will take all the power it can get. Technology, like money and success, can be another false idol demanding misplaced human awe. Other pieces warn against technological violence and political misuse of technology. "Something 4 Nothing" reminds us that there are no free lunches, that technology has its price. But though he warns us (gently) of the misuses of technology - and no one could be more aware of them - Rath's affection and gratitude for technology is evident. "My whole life has been entirely intertwined with machines," he says. "I don't see them as so 'other' than ourselves... . Here we are having this conversation over the phone, you're hundreds of miles away, and we have this crystal clear connection. There is a tremendous luxury to this." Machines, after all, are natural to us. "These electronic gadgets are really common. They are all around us... . My work exposes the generic nature, the simplicity, the ubiquity of electronics rather than making them look exotic. We're talking on the phone, and this phone call is a million times more sophisticated than any sculpture I've made, and its a normal part of life. I didn't go to art school and was never indoctrinated with esoteric considerations. I make this work out of my own reactions to what I see in the everyday in an urban American environment. I don't think of it as weird and futuristic. I hope that's why people are responding ... that they are seeing in a new way what surrounds them all the time." In "Wallflower" Rath attached several small speakers to the wall-like flowers on vines. They are hooked up to a small computer that sends rhythmical signals to them, causing them to gently puff in and out in a pattern. "I am trying to make a composition in time, and the formal Bmeans are rhythm and repetition as in music," he says. m actually kind of old-fashioned. I'm trying to make beautiful objects, and I appreciate beauty in a formal way. In a way they are traditional in the tradition of sculpture, form, balance, color." The beauty of "Wallflower," however, is at least unconventional. It is graced with whimsy and strikes me as a little naive. I feel generally delighted as I walk through the exhibit. The very draping of the wiring in every piece is done to please the eye. A favorite piece of mine is called "Hound." It features two video screens upended on their sides connected to long pieces of flexible tubing which in turn are connected to a wooden crate on wheels. The images on the screen are of two human noses, the smaller being more animated than the larger. Visually the piece makes no logical sense. But the humor and the instantaneous recognition of machine aping animal behavior mysteriously heartens the viewer. "I still believe that there can be something uplifting in the presence of creation," Rath says. "This is a modest endeavor... . I like things that are positive, that are humorous, that are beautiful. To think that we can appreciate beauty is such an interesting, fulfilling thought. I mean, what is beauty for? Why do we recognize it? How can we have more of it?"