Art has always been interactive. But in a world full of images and technologies that move and move fast, artists, curators, and critics no longer seem satisfied with art that hangs on the wall or sits on the floor. Now, they announce, interactive media have made art come alive. But digital technology is only the latest set of tools available for artists to use or misuse as they’ve been doing for centuries with technologies like charcoal and oil and marble.
Art helps us better understand ourselves and our world by telling us things we wouldn’t otherwise have guessed or confronted (or for a lucky few, by confirming things they already suspected). New technology can help art do this – amplify life for an instant – or it can get in art’s way and amplify only the technology itself. Mediascape at the Guggenheim SoHo offers a range of works that do both. After several months of renovation, the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim has reopened with a show that promises to explore the relationship between technology and culture. The relationship seems at times dysfunctional.
Walking into the Mediascape show at the Guggenheim SoHo is like walking into a storefront church cum vintage 1980s video arcade. The dark walls hide complicated machines in near-empty rooms that fill me with the same dread I used to feel at Disneyworld on rides like “It’s a Small World” floating down a shallow black river in a warehouse full of tiny singing robots. The modern art gallery has in some ways become a hermetic, almost religious environment that Brian O’ Doherty called the White Cube. The sterile power of the exhibition space threatens to upstage the presence of the art on display. The Guggenheim has created the Black Cube, a space in which the artwork is no longer in any such danger. The works themselves are the source of a soothing glow as familiar as television. Here the viewer risks fading from her own view, outmaneuvered by a high-tech, high-rent circus of dead images.
Much of the newer works in Mediascape make exuberant use of cutting-edge technologies: a bicycle the viewer pedals to control a wide-screen display of cities made up of giant letters, an entire wall of video monitors working in unison to display enormous animated cartoon animals, a piano the user plays by drawing marks with a trackball. Trackballs and keyboards and VR helmets are interfaces – ways to get information from the outside of your head to the inside and vice versa. But books, pencils, and chisels are also interfaces, and so are paintings, sculptures, installations, and happenings. Ironically, some of Mediascape’s older, lower-tech works make the most startling, compelling statements about the gap between technology and culture.
Bruce Nauman’s Raw Material: Brrr (1990) is among the simplest pieces in the show, and one of the strongest. Two video monitors and a large screen on an adjacent wall show the artist shaking his head violently from side to side as he blurts a single continuous syllable: “brrr.” Nauman’s face painfully and visibly wears the physical effort of the gesture. As with the most effective minimalist art and music, the sustained repetition, far from being monotonous, sensitizes us and gives meaning to the smallest changes in rhythm or tone. Nauman’s Video Surveillance Piece (Public Room, Private Room) (1969–70), also relatively low-tech by today’s standards, is thought-provoking as only conceptual art can be. In two rooms, one entirely sealed, a video camera pans back and forth. A monitor in each room shows a live feed from the camera in the other room. As the viewer observes the empty room the video camera in front of her reminds her that seeing also involves being seen.
The range of works in this show reveals that making an effective statement has less to do with using cutting-edge technology and more to do with successfully bringing the device to bear on the experience of being human. Vermeer, for example, used the advanced technology at his disposal, the camera obscura, to project real scenes onto his canvases as a guide while he painted. The resulting artworks still fascinate us hundreds of years later. They reward close examination by letting the viewer into the very space of the painting, letting her navigate from plane to plane, beside and behind the figures themselves.
Two works by younger artists represent the best and the worst of what can happen when artists build works around new technologies: Toshio Iwai’s Piano – As Image Media (1995) and Bill Seaman’s Passage Sets (One Pulls Pivots at the Top of the Tongue) (1994–95). Piano offers a trackball that allows the viewer to draw marks on a screen that slopes gently up from the floor to the base of a piano keyboard. The piano plays the appropriate keys as the marks scroll past it onto another screen above the piano where they become four-pointed stars that spin rapidly upwards and out of sight. Passage Sets also provides a trackball and allows the viewer to click on scrollable lists of words to create short sentence-poems. The choice of words triggers combinations of sounds, video clips, and still images.
I watched a young man sit down in front of Piano and start to draw notes. At first he looked dissatisfied with the sounds he was making, but quickly he developed an intuitive sense of how to organize the marks to create the sounds he wanted. People stopped wandering in and out of the room and listened as the young man lost himself to the machine and made music. Passage Sets offered little such gratifying feedback. The connections between the viewer’s actions and the words, sounds, and images on screen made no sense. Every choice had the same flat effect, nothing seemed more or less appropriate. Nobody stopped for very long when faced with strings of words like “standing darkness dead trees suspend a tree.”
As I walked through the gallery for the second time a woman who had just come in asked me, “Where does it start?” I pointed behind me and said, “Anywhere you want.” A few minutes later she passed by me again as I stood staring at a bank of video monitors and asked, “Now which way? That way?” Sure, the layout of museums can be confusing, but if we aren’t capable of interacting with an exhibition enough to pick our own ways from one work to the next, then Mediascape and shows like it might as well be high-culture video malls.
What makes works like Nauman’s Raw Material: Brrr, and Iwai’s Piano – As Image Media so compelling? They beat not with the perfect mechanical rhythm of pieces like Seaman’s Passage Sets, but with a varying, human rhythm. You forget that you’re dealing with a complex machine because the work makes room for you. The juxtaposition of works in Mediascape makes it clear what’s at stake, though perhaps not by design. At their best, high-tech artworks are tools that encourage us to participate in our experience of art, helping us better understand our relationship with the technology. At their worst, they dazzle us with their complexity but are interactive in name only. They keep us in the dark while trying to convince us that we are active players in a glamorous new world of digital media.