BY Andrea Scott in Reviews | 09 SEP 01
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Issue 61


BY Andrea Scott in Reviews | 09 SEP 01

'Bitstreams' explored the effects of new media on contemporary art - the 'old' media of painting, sculpture and photography. Middle-aged media such as video and installation were also well represented. Most of the 23 artists selected by curator Lawrence Rinder are unfamiliar names, at least by museum standards (though six were, in fact, featured in the last Whitney Biennial, of which Rinder was also a curator). This emphasis on lesser-known artists served to underscore the alleged novelty of digital practice, when in fact the relationship between art and technology is well past the honeymoon stage.

In the 1960s engineers from Bells Labs created a broadcast system for Robert Rauschenberg and a Doppler sonar for Lucinda Childs under the auspices of Billy Kluver's Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT). By 1970 two major museum shows in New York City (at the Museum of Modern Art and the Jewish Museum), found their conceptual frameworks in 'Information and Software'. In the 1980s Jenny Holzer was making sculpture with LEDs and Julia Scher was playing Big Sister with surveillance technology. While Rinder cites the invention of photography in his introductory essay, he leapfrogs over any historical context. (The show also includes a section of digitally inflected sound art selected by Debra Singer, who traces in her text the trajectory of 20th-century music history.)

In 'Bitstreams' elision was par for the course. Photographer Jon Haddock erases the figures from historical photographs - Vietnamese children fleeing a napalm attack, the corpses at Kent State - which remain recognizable none the less, though they lack much visual interest. Haddock relies on our ability to fill in the blanks, as does Inez van Lamsweerde, who removes her lover from the scene of a clinch, his absent nose and mouth warping her face into a freak show. Craig Kalpajian's picture of an office heating duct, Duct (1999), is a photograph of nothing; the Sci-fi hall of mirrors was created with 3-D computer software.

All the works on view passed through some digital phase to arrive at their material condition, and most build a bridge between old and new media. Painting's torch was carried by Carl Fudge, who manipulates Albrecht Dürer's The Resurrection (1511), deconstructing the image via photocopier, scanner and silkscreen. The grisaille result, Untitled (1993-2000), is dense and puckered, like a shroud for the last painting. Less interesting are Sally Elesby's fey Hand to Mouse Drawings (2000), electronic doodles created by scribbling with a computer mouse over the typed word 'line'.

Two artists who rely exclusively on computer programmes to produce their imagery - Jeremy Blake and John F. Simon, Jr - none the less lean on the armature of painting in both approach and presentation. Blake's formal concern is the relationship between abstraction and representation and he describes his ambient digital animations as 'time-based paintings'. Simon, a computer programmer, cites Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee as heroes, although underlying the frenzied ornament of his bright geometric animation patterns (which are programmed not to repeat the same configuration twice), are lines of code authored by the artist himself. Both artists displayed their work on LCD screens, like paintings from another planet, eye candy eager to please.

By far the best time-based works in the show were Paul Pfeiffer's mesmerizing videos, their power condensed by the small monitors that display them. In the Sisyphean Prologue to the Story of the Birth of Freedom (2000) a man steps through a curtain and moves towards a microphone he never reaches, endlessly thwarted by a single cut. This stuttering failure was echoed in a simple LED sculpture by Jim Campbell, in which a runner stumbles. The work's economy of means was satisfying, as was a projected animation by P. Mutt (nom de keyboard of artist Paul Kaiser), in which planes of light and shadow recall both James Turrell and structuralist film. Jordan Crandall's meandering video Heatseeking (1999-2000), which conflates erotica and paranoia (and includes a lethal game of golf), looked bloated by comparison.

The show-within-a-show of 25 sound works curated by Debra Singer was concise and comprehensive, and the highlight of the show. Presented as a series of earphones installed along a witty foam-lined 'channel' designed by the architectural firm Lo Tek, the offerings ranged from the staccato ping of Stephen Vitiello's amplified sound waves to Pamela Z's taped snippets of computer scientists defining the words 'nerd' and 'geek' and Jonathan Bepler's sampled merging of droning bees and speed metal (the piece is excerpted from the score for a Matthew Barney film). Like 'Bitstreams' itself, the confounding chaos of Bepler's piece was more of a tribulation than a triumph.