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May 4 , 2001

A Bit Underwhelming
Bitstreams at the Whitney Museum of American Art, March 22-June 10, 2001
Roxy Paine at James Cohan Gallery, closes May 5

Okay, I admit it. I didn't spend much more time in this show than you, dear reader, devote to any given site when surfing the net, present dot com(pany) excluded. But then, how appropriate! This is channel-chopping art if ever. Great art demands time, but a lot of contemporary art which is actually time-based merely imposes duration. You probably know the gag, "How many performance artists does it take to change a lightbulb?" "I don't know; I left after four hours". Well, there ought to be some variant on that for video installation and its underwhelming update, internet installation, with the punchline involving microseconds. I went to Bitstreams with the best intention, genuinely wanting to be wowed, titillated, bewildered, intrigued. I like computers. Here I am, publishing on the world wide web, having a ball with Dreamweaver and Flashworks and FTP. But I'm afraid BitStreams is a bit of a let down. The "So What?" factor sets in fast.

Bitstream's curator, Lawrence Rinder (it's his debut show at the Whitney) claims that "Nothing since the invention of photography has had a greater impact on artistic practice than the emergence of digital technology". When Mr Rinder says "nothing" he means, of course, nothing technical. Artistically and philosophically, plenty has had more impact than cameras and keyboards. Abstract art, the readymade, the Bomb, women's lib… Mr Rinder can't have us believe these have been less galvanising upon the artistic psyche than the ease and convenience of camcorders.

This morning I finally got hooked up to DSL which means I'm on the prowl for megabyte gobbling gimmicky sites to zip through, to marvel at the speed of my connection if not the depth of content greeting it. But nothing at the Whitney had me jotting url's on my shirt sleeves. My roommate warned me that by this time next week we'll be totally complacent about our ten-times faster internet connection and moaning about a few seconds delay here and there. Wandering around the Whitney the spoilt brat factor was instantly activated. "I want another paradigm shift already!"

Visually, with just one or two exceptions, the best Bitstreams seems to offer is pretty candy-colored graphics and psychedelic (record cover recalling) morphologies. John F. Simon's Color Panel is a fun-enough program of bouncing shapes and colors, but stilted and tame next to Canadian animated films of the 1960s doing much more funky things with form. It takes the eye and mind about a nonosecond to adjust to and fully accommodate the fact that the arrrangement of saccherine hues and predictable shapes in, say, Lew Baldwin's installation in the stairwell shifts in sync with the human traffic inadvertently interacting with it. Mr Baldwin's website is titled, and those of us with memories of the schoolyard remember just what's around the corner.

But then, frankly, there is a level at which the whole enterprise of digital art - a medium in its adolescence, after all - is puerile. Not so much in content, or at least no more than in the shop-soiled media (the Damien Loebs and Paul McCarthys of the artworld prove that low-tech media like painting and performance can be puerile aplenty) as in the sheer nerdish satisfaction that arises from techno-novelty. And then, to make matters worse, there is the unavoidable fact that the genuine technical creativity isn't happening in artists' studios but out there in the marketplace. There's nothing in Bitstreams that looks half as sexy as, a company that does, um... well, as with a really clever TV commercial I've completely blanked on what they actually do, but they just won an industry award for technical innovation and I had a lot more fun clicking their buttons than milkmilklemonade's.

The selective principle underlining Bitstreams seems predicated on desparate special pleading. Too many exhibits demand a pat on the head for the mere fact of their having been done digitally. The very same objects simply wouldn't be tolerated on plastic terms if our knowledge was unencumbered by academic production details. Take Michael Rees's Ajna Spine Series. "Like genetic engineering experiments gone awry", according to Mr Rinder, these "are uncanny concoctions of various body parts (ears, uteri, etc.) and unidentifiable organic appendages strung along highly detailed spinelike forms. Each of these works was modeled on a computer using a CAD program, and then transposed directly into physical form as a 'rapid prototype'". Now, surely the Anne and Joel Ehrenkraz Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney knows enough art history to look at what Arp, Moore, Noguchi and Dali did half a century ago with their hands, eyes, and imaginations and compare their biomorphic adventures with these spindly, inconsequential "concoctions"? We come up against the painful realisation that, formally, art must take huge step backwards just for the, let's face it, bureaucratic, sponsorship-driven and populist satisfaction of a technical stride forward.

Roxy Paine PMU (detail) 1999-2000, courtesy James Cohan Gallery

Again and again, the actual products of the techno wizadry in Bitstreams are puny inadequate reminders of the futurism of yesteryear. A whole bank of earphones greets auditors with digitally manipulated sound effects ("illbient" is apparently the term for it, this neologism fusing "ambient"- Brian Eno's term for muzak- and "ill", which in hip-hop terminology denotes serendipitious juxtaposition). The installation provides a sloping, padded wall for the visitor to lean against while subjecting themselves to squeakygate sound experiments. Just as well. Anyone who has heard "experimental" music from Edgar Varese to Diego Masson will fall asleep on their feet listening to this stuff. Now, why should a renaissance in artistic culture completely depend on 50-something year-old audio and visual tropes to sound and look novel? Funnily enough, of course, early photography traded just as heavily on clichés of old-master technique to look like "art". These paradigm shifts sure have a way of repeating themselves.

Robert Lazzarini Skull, 2000, approx 14" x 3" x 8", resin, bone, pigment; courtesy Pierogi 2000

One work in the show bucked the trend to produce something with new technology that is genuinely moving and could not have been produced any other way and makes the crucial link between technical means and aesthetic results (to be, in other words, that oh so rare thing, the digital equivalent of painterly). This is Robert Lazzarini's Skulls. Each skull starts from a scan of a photo which he distorts on screen and then "prints out" in 3D as a rapid prototype which then serves as the basis of a cast in solid bone. The result is a genuinely earie, disconcertingly unresolvable anamorph that the artist and critics have variously compared to El Greco and Bacon. This suggests to me a vital clue in the problem and solution of digital art. It is a medium that needs to skip any kind of renaissance and get stuck in, straight away, with mannerism if it is to be in anyway meaningful.

An artist with a real genius for humorously integrating art and technology is Roxy Paine, who is not included in Bitstreams. The centerpiece of his show at James Cohan, which closed May 5, was the most advanced and ambitious version to date of his PMU (Paint Manufacturing Unit). This is an elaborate conveyor-belt, fully computerized, that dips a canvas into a vat of paint with a combination of programed randomness and meticulous control of effect to produce oddly beautiful minimalist abstractions. More than just a savvy update of Tinguely, this a genuinely funny happening whose punchline is the more memorable for the delicacy and uniqueness of the art generated. A generic problem with the kind of interactive pieces in Bitstreams is the gulf between the experience of an individual visitor fiddling around with mouse and screen and the crumby illegible results projected overhead for everyone else in the room at the same time to look at. Paine is fully conscious of a lesion between process and product. It is the very point of his art.