BY Julian Myers in Reviews | 03 MAR 02
Featured in
Issue 65

Air Portugal

Pond Gallery, San Francisco, USA

BY Julian Myers in Reviews | 03 MAR 02

The relationship between art and technological development has always been a schizophrenic one, ricocheting between affirmation and revulsion. The works in 'Air Portugal', a recent exhibition of digital video, attempted to imagine a third possibility: art that fetishizes digital media even as it gleefully disrupts their intended functions. The show was interesting precisely because its commitments were so constantly divided. Images were appropriated from futurist moments past - from video games and sci-fi, from the homo-socialist electro of Kraftwerk and DAF, and from dark, dreamlike memories of the Cold War - only to be consistently blurred by parody and reverence, by nostalgic borrowings combined with manipulation. The closest antecedent to this approach is in electronic music: in the nouveau-electro of Adult. and in the digi-dub of Pole, music in which error is a thematic concern as well as a compositional tool.

This scrambled relation between technology and nostalgia was evident in Phoenix Perry's video In the Shadow of Digital Living (2001), which began with corrosive digital abstraction and the Pac-Man theme, a tune with eerie psychic weight for those who grew up in the world of Atari. Its tones evoked more than nostalgia: the premonition of a deferred (but seemingly always imminent) technotopia, and a sentimental reminder of consumer technology's graceless puberty. It was this last that clearly interested the artists involved in 'Air Portugal' most; they appeared less interested in aestheticizing the promises of 'new media' (as did San Francisco's MoMA's recent show '010101') than in exploring their own fascination with technology's inevitable obsolescence and breakdown. Perry's video, for instance, was shot with a malfunctioning DV camera; Joao Simoes intentionally transferred his video from European format (PAL) to American (NTSC), rendering its final form blitzed and unintelligible; Sue Dean exhibited her digitally manipulated images through a second-hand television set. This use of broken or obsolete materials undermined the fictions of progress that are inevitably bound to technological change.

'Air Portugal' involved a collaboration between artists working with similar media in disparate locations - one group from Lisbon, the other from San Francisco - but seeing their works mounted in the same space did not give the impression of two distinct perspectives on the vagaries of digital culture. Rather, the Portuguese artists seemed to have produced work primarily for the biennial circuit; their work was witty, consumable, and 'translated' well, often by incorporating recognizable iconography of American culture - although it did so in parodic ways, particularly in Pedro Cabral Santos' video Even a Superhero Needs a Place to Live (2001), in which Batman chain-smokes cigarettes and grouses about how he 'doesn't want to live in Gotham City any more': apparently there are too many criminals. The American artists, on the other hand, had a perspective bound to the cultural geography of San Francisco and a better grasp of the rhetorical possibilities of digital dysfunction. Scott Pagano's Landscape no. 2 (2001) was a digitized tour through Oakland's knotted, alienated underpasses and highway flyovers. It is not a novel project - Ed Ruscha and Catherine Opie, among others, have mapped a similar geography - but Pagano's view of the landscape was made new by submitting it to the collapsed and insectoid vision of the DV camera. Cubed shadows colonized the screen as the computer attempted to simplify the visual information, the software's dysfunction becoming an unstable metaphor for urban anomie.

But it was Perry who best represented the show's ambivalent retro-futurism. Her video, shot with a broken camera and manipulated through 'circuit-bent' software, uses the lens of technology to distort banal imagery into mangled psychedelia. A repeated image of fingers moving through human hair becomes smears of reversed colours and caustic haze; a narrative subtends the image, and tells the story a woman's coming-of-age in digital utopia. This fable is too familiar: it begins with Pac-Man and moves through Usenet, cyberpunk, Donna Haraway, Mondo 2000, raves and the rest of McLuhan's debased dream. Of course, we know the end of this story already: rarely have the mythologies of techno-culture broken down more suddenly and spectacularly than they did for America's tech-industry. But most striking about her narrative is how distant the public figures and intellectual vogues of cyberculture seem. There is nothing more horrible or ridiculous to the modern world than mementoes of the recent past.

Julian Myers is an art historian based in San Francisco. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.