Guggenheim Exhibit Reveals Promise, Pitfalls Of Electronic Art

'Multiscape' at the museum's SoHo branch stirs thought about new vs. traditional mediums

To inaugurate the renovated SoHo branch of the Guggenheim Museum in June, director Thomas Krens did not cut a ribbon, he flipped a switch. Instantly, 215 video monitors of a work called "Megatron" by Nam June Paik lit up. As Madonna's recorded voice blared the lyrics "over the borderline," a barrage of images flitted across rows of screens. In hyperkinetic succession, video footage of Olympic runners switched to Korean dancers, a garish sunset, and an animated goose flapping giant wings.

Ron Sommer, chairman of Deutsche Telekom, the exhibit's sponsor, called the rehabilitated space "the museum of the next millennium." If so, prepare for Star Trek meets Vegas.

According to Mr. Krens, this branch of the Guggenheim has redefined its mission to be "responsive" to its surrounding culture. A thousand or so software and multimedia companies have sprung up in SoHo, dubbed Silicon Alley. Hence, the museum plans to showcase the latest developments in technology and visual art. Its opening exhibition, "Mediascape," through September 15 presents 14 works by 10 artists working in multimedia and computer-based digital art.

Viewed in the continuum of art history, the pieces are an updated version of machine aesthetic. (If this were a computer program, the reader could now activate hyperlinks to earlier art-and-technology fusion movements like Futurism, Constructivism, Bauhaus, and kinetic sculpture.) Yet in many ways, digital art is new. It is, says John Fujii, 1996 conference chair of the computer-graphics organization SIGGRAPH, "growing like wildfire."

Some of the works in "Mediascape" are immersive environments created by established artists like Jenny Holzer and Bill Viola. Other interactive works depend on viewer participation, converting art from a noun to a verb. As the most visible of an increasing number of recent shows of digital art, the exhibition reveals both the promise and pitfalls of electronic art.

Digital multimedia art has been around for over a decade, but the museum-going public is just beginning to see it. Emily Hartzell, artist in residence at New York University's Center for Advanced Technology in Digital Multimedia, defines it as "generally a combination of sound, image, and text." She adds, electronic art is "usually interactive; that is, the user can drive the playback of the piece in different ways." Through pointing and clicking a mouse, the viewer chooses which portion of preformatted content the computer program will display.

Bill Seaman's "Passage Sets/One Pulls Pivots at the Tip of the Tongue" takes up an entire wall. A left-hand panel contains words of a poem, while at right is a video of a figure gesturing in slow motion. In the center, the viewer can click on a menu to change text and images, generating a new poem. The atmosphere in the darkened gallery resembles a Beatnik-era coffeehouse, as improvised poems float on the screen to the tune of bongos and moody jazz. "I'm interested in the notion that the artist has an intention and the viewer, in navigating the work, takes an active role in completion of its meaning," Seaman explains.

This is a basic difference in how digital, compared to conventional, art works. "The strongly interactive aspect is virtually unprecedented," says Daniel Sandin, professor and co-director of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory specializing in virtual reality at the University of Illinois, Chicago. "This has got to be a new medium."

Which raises the question, "Who's in charge here?" Or, as Randy Pausch, associate professor of computer science at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, puts it: "Is this a story-telling medium with a director or author in control of a predetermined sequence, or is the creator at best a tour guide?" In practice, the interactive medium "promises the viewer collaboration in creating the piece, but in fact, there are usually only two or three preconfigured options," Hartzell admits. Seaman compares the process to a building created by an architect, where the users decide which rooms to enter. "I've loaded the dice so they can do interesting things," he says.

Another major difference between the new art as process, compared to "old" art as product, is its scope. "The works in 'Mediascape' are more three-dimensional than an object that exists in one location," says Matthew Drucker, co-curator of the Guggenheim show. "The concept of being in a room that is itself a work of art is the case with this work rather than being in a room that holds works of art."

Total auditory and visual immersion is the goal, with each gallery space dedicated to a different perceptual experience. In Jenny Holzer's untitled installation, light-emitting diode (LED) bands of words in red, green, and black race across three walls of a white-painted room. Aphorisms stream by without letup. After a few minutes, the racing letters blend into bands of color reflected on the floor. It's like being saturated with pulsing color inside a fluorescent tube.

"It's important that each piece has a realm for itself, so the viewer can concentrate," says co-curator Ursula Frohne, whose institution, ZKM/Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, loaned most of the works to the show. Since multimedia art requires "more energy from the viewer," she adds, "viewers have to spend time to see the whole piece."

Joseph Squier, assistant professor of electronic media at the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana, curated a 1995 exhibition of digital art called "Art as Signal." He says, "The revolutionary, fundamental difference is that electronic art is not an object or a thing on a wall. It's experiential." At the Krannert Art Museum show he installed, "The atmosphere was not quiet like going to church. People were very active, talking and laughing."

"Cyberpainter" Roz Dimon curated a much-discussed show of electronic art at Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York City. "The gallery was alive with people of all ages. There was a three-hour wait to get in," she says.

Besides appealing to people's curiosity about the latest gadgetry, audiences are drawn to the new art because it reflects their daily lives - especially the experience of a generation weaned on MTV and video games. "Young people are very excited about multimedia art," says Marge Myers, assistant director of the Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "Those are the ones we're worried about losing as art appreciators, so if we can appeal to them, the effect will be only positive."

Some worry that the high-tech rather than high-touch approach may transform art into entertainment. Others applaud the art world's becoming more populist and connected to pop culture. "That's where electronic work is going," says Professor Squier. "The artist can make a work that's seductive with entertainment value, but which functions on a higher plane as well."

Denying a "dumbing down" tendency, Guggenheim co-curator Nancy Spector says the criteria applied in selecting works for "Mediascape" are "the same as with traditional art." Admitting a certain amount of dazzle with new media, she says a relevant question to ask is "Does the work transcend its own equipment?"

By this standard, "Mediascape" has hits and misses. Jeffrey Shaw's "The Legible City" is a big ho-hum after you get over the novelty of riding a stationary bike in a gallery. By turning the handlebars, the user navigates through a cybercity, shown by block letters on a screen that spell out banal sayings.

Well-known artist Bill Viola also commits much-ado-about-the-obvious. "Threshold" features an electronic signboard broadcasting a Reuters newsfeed. The viewer enters a darkened room through the middle of the signboard to discover the truth behind the headlines. Projected on three walls are images of gigantic sleeping heads. "Disaster strikes - dimwits doze!" as a tabloid might title it.

Toshio Iwai's "Piano - as Image Media" adds elements of play in a successful composition that achieves synesthesia of sight and sound. Viewers move a trackball to choose notes that visually zoom up a treadmill and "play" the keys of a grand piano. As the notes sound, they rhythmically generate, on a vertical conveyer belt, images of whirling diamonds. Like abstract art, the content is elusive. Form and pure sensory experience dominate.

If this show contains the best examples of electronic art, one wonders if the hula-hoop effect is operating. Will digital art be the latest fad, then fade fast like Op Art or holography? "For artists working in digital media, we've invented canvas but nobody has figured out brushes," says Professor Pausch. "When you compare interactive multimedia to oil on canvas, it's painfully obvious that it looks lousy."

Even much-hyped virtual reality is still a crude articulation of 3-D cartoon animation. Has anything like art with a capital "A" been produced in multimedia digital art? "Absolutely not," says David Yager, chair of visual arts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Although software is evolving rapidly, the tools and the media are still in their infancy.

Another problem is lack of standardization in presentation. The size of a computer monitor, the number of dots on the screen, the variable color, which fades when printed, all affect the viewer's experience.

Emily Hartzell describes artists' frustration at using the new medium: "We know how to create, but when we change our tools, figuring out how to reach people on a primal level is difficult."

One big difference is that the new art is a result of a "Renaissance team" rather than a lone artist. So many skills are needed, including sound recording, programming, animation, and video editing, that rarely can an individual artist master them all. "The practice of art and design is changed by collaborative partnerships," says Alan Samuels, dean of the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Mr. Samuels believes the new model of digital artist as team player will predominate.

The most electronic multimedia art is now produced in the two Silicon sites - Valley in the San Francisco Bay area and Alley in New York - as well as in Los Angeles.

Bryan Rogers, chair of art and director of the Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon, says, "This is not just a new trick. This is a major wave going through the culture." The hope is that, as technology transforms society at an unprecedented pace, artists can interpret it. "If there is to be an art in our times, it will evolve with our times," Mr. Rogers says.

Computer imaging has the potential to illuminate more than surface reality. It reflects what's most distinctive about human beings and how we work. According to Rogers, "This is not just about new toys to make pictures faster. The frontier opened up is trickier, more exciting, and scarier at the same time. We should feel both threatened and find joy in it all."

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