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Bits of Beauty -- Page Two (of two)

Beauty, too easily come by, too much a function of the digital technology itself, is an unsolved problem for cyberart. The twentieth century has taught us to see beauty in ugliness and in the ordinary, or to cultivate other values in art -- experimentation with its very ground rules, for example, and appreciation for the conceptual rather than only the perceptual. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp displayed an inverted urinal and challenged the art world to say why a well-designed upside-down piss pot could not be art. No conclusive answer was forthcoming. Though digital art is only now unfolding, its aesthetic is in some ways pre-Duchampian. Everything troubling and difficult is excised from art, and the ancien régime of the visual -- Duchamp would have said the retinal -- is restored to power. Nevertheless, computers do foster at least one powerful vein of resistance to retinal rule: their facility with interactivity makes for new ways to define and behave toward an artwork.

Radial Entity
Radial Entity, by Dennis Miller

Dennis Miller (Computer Museum) dodges the dead weight of computer beauty by making prints that are just strange and unfamiliar enough. Biomorphic art, which explores biological form, may be common today, but Miller's prints could be termed "theomorphic": they seem to propose possible shapes for the divine, at least as described by one great scholar of religions, Mircea Eliade. Eliade wrote: "When something sacred manifests itself (hierophany), at the same time something 'occults' itself, becomes cryptic. Therein is the true dialectic of the sacred: by the mere fact of showing itself, the sacred hides itself." Miller's Radial Entity, for example, conforms to Eliade's prescription in that it is simultaneously fierce and inscrutable, proximate and inaccessible. Some of Miller's other prints feature a hot whiteness at the core; they explode at you in all their glossy cyber glamour at the same time that they draw you in. This is how a god might present itself, pace Eliade, if a god ever decided to be digital.

  From Galápagos, by Karl Sims

Karl Sims's Galápagos (DeCordova) both illustrates evolution and tests out interactivity. Galápagos consists of twelve computer screens, each wired to a platform and each displaying a cyber entity that is a unique combination of shape, rhythm, motion, and color. By stepping on the platform for a screen, the viewer selects an entity to fill all the screens with its progeny; for example, you might generate a mostly pink "species" by selecting to reproduce the pinkest entity in each generation. The success of this interactivity, though, depends on circumstance. If there are a lot of kids jumping on and off platforms, interactivity will deteriorate into interference, and natural selection will devolve into channel hopping. If, on the other hand, you have the chance to pursue your preferences down through the generations, you may find that interactivity is an unexpected route to the slow time of aesthetic contemplation.

At Boston's Computer Museum, the festival highlighted Rapid Prototyping (RP), a technology with increasing uses for industry and an obvious if not irresistible appeal to the artist. Sometimes known as "3-D printing," RP lets you model a desired object using CAD (computer-aided design), then materialize it via an RP printer in a medium such as plaster reinforced by epoxy. In other words, with RP, between the conception and the act there falls no shadow (only a fair amount of CAD). If you ever enjoyed making Xerox copies of your body parts, think of how much fun you'd have making 3-D copies of your whole body, as Tim Anderson did in the pile of replicas he calls Human Barrel Of Monkeys. Michael LaForte, another RP artist, uses the technique to clone the odds and ends of the real world such that they take on an otherworldly pallor. His radiator pipe and fire hose, for example, are like washed out ghosts of real things, waxen simulacra of themselves.

Ajna 3, by Michael Rees  

The RP sculptor Michael Rees avoids the representational route altogether, however much the firms whose resources he borrows might like him to crank out recognizable shapes for purposes of publicity. Rees, who sculpted for fifteen years before starting to work with RP five years ago, is aware both of RP's danger (its rendering traditional skills unnecessary) and its promise (that of democratizing sculpture). As he puts it, art, under the impact of the computer, "may be dying but also it may be stepping out of its intellectual ghetto." As in Ajna 3, Rees's works are biomorphic in the broadest sense, exploring fantastic and sometimes slightly monstrous anatomies, and then occasionally dissecting them. His sculptures are like stand-alone special effects, leaving the viewer to piece together in imagination the worlds of which the sculptures are a part.

Much of the Boston Cyberarts Festival was simply fun, although certain pieces did seem to keep determined vigil against the possibility of humor. Denise Marika's Recoil (Yezerkian Gallery) is a video of Marika crouching, naked, as she is bombarded by miniatures of herself. You can't help but wonder why she doesn't duck instead of making herself a sitting target, or fling one of the figurines back in the direction it came from, or at least rename the work in accordance with what it really seems to signify: self-torture. There is an art-world preference for the solemn and the serious that some artists seem cautious about defying. Alexandros Psychoulis (Lionheart Gallery) has built a punching bag that knows when you hit it and even vocalizes reasons you might have done so: "for the guy that cheated on me," "for your insinuation," "for endless comparison." The talking punching bag is a great idea, but it might work better far from the conceits of the art world -- in an amusement park, say, where it could include a broader set of responses and noises.

Jen Hall points out that developments in technology, including its commercialization, have far outstripped the resources of critical discourse about art. She asks how the Boston Cyberarts Festival can correct a situation in which discussions among art students about digital work tend to end with a vapid, "It looks good." Hall's question is entirely apropos, but then, why shouldn't critical discourse play catch-up? The discourse of postmodernism has long since begun its seemingly irresistible slide into dogma. Cyberart is a kind of fresh start, giddiness and all. The critical ideas that are relevant to cyberart will have a chance to prove their worth when today's intellectual gridlock has eased up a bit. An event like the Boston Cyberarts Festival can't help but move the process along. George Fifield, the chief organizer of this year's festival, has scheduled the next one for Boston in 2001. In the meantime, for further study, there's always the national cyberfestival -- at stock markets and movie theaters near you.

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

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

Images: Radial Entity, © 1999 by Dennis Miller; Galápagos, © 1997 by Karl Sims; Ajna 3, 3-D print, 11" x 6" x 9", private collection, courtesy of Central Fine Arts, New York, © 1998 by Michael Rees.

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