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Previously in Digital Culture:

"The MP3 Revolution," by Charles C. Mann (April 8, 1999)
Yes, the recording industry may have something to worry about. If the much-talked-about digital format (or something like it) catches on, we could be carried back into our musical and cultural past.

"The Weathermen," by Harvey Blume (February 24, 1999)
Two recent books forecast a digital future of wearable computers, neural implants, and silicon-based immortality. But something is missing from the picture: sex and advertising.

"Virtual Reality Bites Back," by Mark Dery (January 28, 1999)
"It's not that cyberspace fails to resolve the social contradictions of the 'real world,'" Julian Dibbell writes, "but rather that it doesn't even resolve its own." An e-mail exchange with the author of My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World.

See the complete Digital Culture index.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
Bits of Beauty

Yes, it's art. Now what is there to say about it? A report from the recent Cyberarts Festival in Boston

by Harvey Blume

June 3, 1999

The first Boston Cyberarts Festival, which took place in May, floats atop a longer-running cyberfestival that extends from Hollywood to Wall Street. Recent entries in the national festival, not counting the Dow, include the films The Matrix and eXistenz, both of which take up the theme of digitalization run amok. In The Matrix smart machines foist digital delusions on humans in order to keep them happy while the machines devour them. In eXistenz the characters find themselves stuck in an infinite regress of virtual-reality game within virtual-reality game. It's Plato's Cave, the digital edition, and where, oh where, is the analog sun?

The Boston festival dealt with the effects of rapid digitalization on the arts by sampling it rather than by attempting to summarize it, which would be premature at this point. The festival let us pause, engage, and begin to find language for issues of cyberart that we've barely begun to formulate. How, for example, does cyberart come to terms with inherited art-world formulae? How does it fit digital and non-digital into each other? And how does it make use of an overabundance of purely visual enticements? The festival suggested some answers to these questions, and others.

Such a wide variety of work and such wildly varied uses of the computer were on view at galleries in and around Boston that one might conclude that the search for the digital masterpiece -- that yeti of cyberart -- is misconceived. Digitalization seems to be leading not toward the gesamtkunstwerk but to the fact of many more people making many more kinds of art much more rapidly. If such a thing as a digital Ninth Symphony did arise -- a Symphony 9.00, that is -- it would be preceded by 8.99 and followed shortly by 9.01. At this stage, at any rate, the process tends to swallow the product. Even excellent work calls attention to itself only briefly before disappearing back into the flux it has helped to generate.

One thing the festival made clear is that in a time of accelerating digitalization, a little analog goes a long way. That's so, for example, in Jen Hall's Acupuncture for Temporal Fruit (at the DeCordova Museum), a piece that consists of a series of tomatoes being pierced by acupuncture needles sensitized to activity around them; the more motion they detect, the more they jab. Yet it's the tomatoes that steal the show. Each of them leaks, caves in, and grows moldy around its wounds at its own rate and in its own fashion. The needles, by comparison, lack personality; they are slaves to a repetition compulsion. (A similar relationship between digital and analog obtains in The Matrix. The manifestations of virtual reality in that movie wind up feeling like wallpaper. The real chill, at least for this viewer, comes from the Oracle -- a plump, middle-aged woman who bakes cookies, smokes cigarettes, and neither morphs nor mutates as she foretells the future. In the cyberuniverse a little ordinary reality is sometimes the weirdest special effect.)

Real and virtual meet again in the work of Regina Frank (Clifford-Smith Gallery). Hermes' Mistress, Frank's boldest photograph, depicts her performing in Tokyo. She appears to levitate above a stage in a voluminous red dress, embroidered with concentric circles of letter beads spelling out text gleaned from cyberspace by a computer at the far left of the picture. There is a marvelous witchery about this photo of a woman whose growing garment is the Internet.

Mummy II, by Rod Bradfield

At times digital and non-digital bring out the best in each other, as in a display of prints at the New Arts Center. Many of these show the computer off -- with its cold, clear colors, its perfectly rendered tricks of perspective, its love affair with recursion and iteration, its endless algorithmic homages to Escher. It seems any patch of reality will smile for the digital camera (plus a state-of-the-art graphics program and a hi-res printer), just as any dry patch of skin will perk up for the electron microscope. But to my mind the most successful print at New Arts bears the smallest technological footprint. Rod Bradfield's Mummy II depicts a woman, drawn with charcoal and then scanned into the computer, as she confronts a digitally manipulated world of overgrown everyday objects. It's as if Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World has been translated to VR. The computer helps evoke this dreamscape but does not intrude upon it or weigh it down with digital glory.

Next page: "The ancien régime of the visual..."

Harvey Blume, a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a frequent contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

Images: Detail of Radial Entity (top), © 1999 by Dennis Miller; Mummy II, © 1997 by Rod Bradfield.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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