Imagine a city that doesn't have just one or two Times Square billboards but almost 70. Imagine Los Angeles without the film industry, the palm trees or the movie stars, a city of quartz with 10 million mobile phone-happy citizens, and 10-lane highways cutting through the heart of downtown. This isn't the city of the future but a description of Seoul, a town that makes the City of Angels seem like small-town America, and New York's relentless pace feel like stately, old-world charm. Destroyed by the Japanese during World War II and rebuilt with little concern for Korean history or tradition, Seoul is less a place than a state of perpetual motion and displacement - of people, information, capital, products, you name it. Perhaps that's why it was the ideal setting for 'Media_City Seoul 2000', a new biennial devoted to the intersection of art and technology.
While the thought of yet another mega-show for the international art circuit wasn't immediately appealing, this one, in principle at least, had the attraction of being concerned with one of the hot topics of the day. Aside from the usual litany about the Internet and how it's changing the world, digital technology has obviously transformed not only the way we communicate, but the way images are created, processed and distributed. Even in the most conservative circles this has everything to do with art. Nevertheless, it's hardly clear what 'being digital' means for art, and the annoying paradox of hot topics is that all the verbiage that goes into them tends to muddy, rather than clarify, the issues.
'Media_City Seoul 2000' didn't go out of its way to tell us what 'digital art' might be, or make any attempt to develop a critical awareness of its underlying issues. Instead, it relied on a more familiar term, 'media', by which it simply meant video. But aren't paint and marble also media?
As with many of the new international extravaganzas, 'Media_City Seoul 2000' was made up of several sections that left you to ponder the problems of its focus for yourself. The most important sections were 'Media Art: e-scape', a museum show devoted mostly to video art and curated by New York MoMA's Barbara London, and 'City Vision', a compendium of short video clips curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, which were shown once an hour on one of Seoul's many electronic advertising billboards. 'Media Art' turned out to be a historical overview, but offered some nice contrasts, mixing work from the 1970s by Vito Acconci and Laurie Anderson with pieces by younger artists such as Jane and Louise Wilson and Steve McQueen, andsecond-generation figures such as Gary Hill and Bill Viola. There was also 'Digital Alice', a section devoted to educational programmes for children; 'Subway Vision', which installed art works throughout Seoul's transit system; and 'Media Entertainment', a section devoted to the latest in hi-tech gadgets.
Altogether, the show felt disconnected. Still, moving from the museum to the trade show-like atmosphere of blinking lights and gadgets pointed out how the black box that video art relies upon is largely implicit in the virtual systems of game designers, who are trying to get beyond the monitor in ways that video art has done successfully in recent years.
'City Vision', meanwhile, took the guerilla art approach: filling billboards normally devoted to advertising with Pipilotti Rist's Open my Glade (2000) and Douglas Gordon's One Minute of Silence (2000), a soundless protest against the unending stream of information and messages of the 'mediascape'. One clip, Flush (2000), by Song Ilgon, was quickly removed by authorities because it depicted a loosely composed, rather gruesome montage of a girl giving herself an abortion. What would have happened if that video were shown in Times Square, I kept asking myself. To be honest, I have no idea, but, the politics of abortion aside, it was the sheer physicality - the gruesome scene of blood and flesh - that no media art could successfully incorporate into what's normally called a message, a media event. One of the more intriguing devices on view as part of the entertainment section was one that translated facial expressions into a computer animation. The space of theatre and the space of interaction here became one and the same - media incorporating the viewer into the spectacle. That, it seemed, was what so many of the projects, from Acconci's Command Performance (1974) to Sam Taylor-Wood's Killing Time (1994), were all, and have always been, about.