This has been my thought for so many years: why are technological
artists always been pigeonholed inside special events sourrounding media
research and not simply adressed for what they are trying to communicate
Yesterday I went to the Museum Of Fine Arts to attend what was supposed
to be the wrap-up conference by Marie Fraser for the Mois De La Photo,
which last edition ended a few days ago. You get used in the artworld
with these kinds of blockings in communication, but it turned out the conference
was cancelled. This led me the time to peruse a new exhibition
at the museum which was all about technological art: E-Art, the collection
of Fondation Daniel Langlois.
I was happy to find out that this exhibition included the works
of artists I had been wondering since a long time why I had never
seen their works bought or installed in museums. Mainly, these
3 artists which I believe had created landmark works in
each of their own investigations: Lynn Hershman, Eduardo Kac,
and Jim Campbell. Three artists which under my humble
opinion I thought deserved some career recognition by major
What is very refreshing about the Daniel Langlois collection
installation, is that it gives generous space to each
artist it presents, sometimes offering up to three rooms for one artist.
I have never yet seen this happening for a major museum
group show, where usually each artist is stacked
into a corner. For this amazement along, the parcourse is
well worth a visit. A full retro of Jim Campbell
is even included !! About time, considering
he is one of the few canadian voices who have a
true international career.
Unfortunately the works in the exhibit themselves are not
always fascinating outside of the inherent gadgedtry
that they involved, and you're gonna have to excuse the mandate
of Langlois' Fondation, but the whole premiss for the show is again
waving the flag of technological advancement in artistic research,
which make it hard sometimes to try to join works together
when talking about the show. The whole prospect of media
sometimes diminush or exaggerate the true impact of the proposals.
One thing for sure, almost every works included here involve computers
and monitor screens set-up in dark rooms. So there already I am describing
one cliche outlook of a technological art aesthetic, but maybe
I want to say a little more about each work, but I'm warning you
that I am as scientifically illiterate as most beings on this planet,
so this will have to involve the transgression of daring to speak about
objects I don't fully understand.
Upon entering the dark blueish walls of the first room of the exhibit (the set-up
was designed by Atelier Big City, the local architectural firm whose name you will find linked with much of the contemporary art scene in Quebec), one get soon entangled inside a banging installation that gives the impression that the whole exhibit will rock. It is called "Hyzoloic Soil" and it is a recent work by architect Phillip Beesley. Sort of a complex plastic net taking the form of dozens of stalagtites united at their source into an akward grotto-like miasma, from which hang delicate translucid-plastic sculptures that whirl as you pass near them (the work involves an orgy of movement-censors which are hardly hidden among the structure), this work is a quasi-monstrous, semi-abstract web of oddities meant to be lived through (there is almost no escape, no way to pursue your visit without
experience this work at its fullest). It is a pity that I never yet finished my promissed review of the last Montreal Biennial, because in it I was telling about the work of Bill Smith that I thought it was ready to expand beyong the solo sculpture. Well this is exactly what I meant: it is an expanded version of a work by Bill smith, and both artists share a similar theme of bringing together principles of natural life with the artificial. This is obviously pure coincidence, but I
think both artists should know the work of the other or collaborate. Mr. Smith is
usually more precise in his revendications of replicating the natural, while here
the attempt is more superficial and approximative, but the immersive aspect
gave it the charm of a thrill ride, or a place where you would want to invite
some friends for a cocktail. It looks a little bit fragile though for a project
proposed by an architect as a case for "responsive architecture"... Compared
with your average market window door, that is. Intriguing nonetheless.
The Lynn Hershman portion of the exhibition was filled with surprises, refindings, and deceptions. I felt joyful to be able to see a work that I had never seen in a long time. Room Of One's Home (1993) was this tiny sculpture-video work that you could have seen in Montreal if you had been lucky enough to attend the large exhibit that accompanied Isea 95 symposium when it reached Montreal in 1995. I remember it very well, it was either at the beginning or the end of the exhibit path depending of how you started. Since then I had seen this work on magazine covers and featured
in documentaries on video art, but always wondered which museum had bought
the original. Well, it was at Langlois Fondation, people. It's a 30 seconds video loop that you need to see through a periscope, and which aesthetic announced Janet
Cardiff which was debuting at the time (at least as a video artist). The work
had a lot to tell in a time when every student was reading essays on video art by
Rosalynd Krauss. It was about mirror, gaze, feeback, voyeurism, the whole-shebang, and of course, feminism. It's simply this little micro-puppet-theatre featuring the images of a women saying to stop looking at her but to look at yourself instead, on a small tv set which featured a video feedback of your eye watching through the peephole. A coolish, pertinent work that hasn't dated an inch, it's a classic of video art. Soon after Lynn Hershman would start working with more sophisticated technologies that pulled her apart from the standard artworld/exhibition venues. It turns out I also had seen Dina (2004) when it was shown at her gallery Bitforms where it was premiered. I remember being very perplexed by that work, because to me it looked mainly like an adanced avatar-friendly version of the good old programEliza
from the 1970's, the first program which meant to simulate artificial intelligence by presenting a catalog of a choice of responses depending on how the spectator communicated. As far as the delicate intricacies and differences between the technologies (this time the avatar responds through an implemented voice recognition system), it is hard for me
to decipher what is actually intelligent about "Dina", and how does it
improve exactly on Eliza. There didn't seem to be much point to the conversation
when I talked with Dina, and I was shocked by her lack of reaction when I mentioned
Eliza. Oh come on, Dina, return to school ! Next to this piece was a series
of extremely long video works (4 pieces of about an hour each), which will
remain a pain for the duration of the exhibit for the casual passerbys. How
can curators organize things like this? Hershmann should just sell them as a dvd
compilation, so her audience could allow them the patience they require.
Nevertheless, some landmarks of 80's video art are included here, like Electronic
Diaries (1986), which was a refreshing addition at the time when all artists were making introspective films about seeking or promoting their personal identities. But skip that, and you find yourself in the next room, unprepared for the real treat of Hershmann's participation to this show. A full installation of a new work, which current-state-of-technology appeal is very hard to deny. It is an entirely virtual work of art ! Called "Life Squared" (2007), it is one that occurs in the domain of Second Life, the online-services 3d virtuality application. Hershmann used the domain to replicate a work that was sabotaged in its real life presentation
in the 1970's. Here of course it is hard to fully grasp the wittyness of the project
at first sight. We see images of 3d animation on the wall, artefact documents and
photographs concerning the original project in a long glass curio, and an interactive system where you can move a character into Second Life, seen on 2 monitors from 2 camera angles. Only an obscure documentary film in another corner will explain you what this all turns down too. Nevertheless, once you grabbbed a pen and wrote down the name of the project, most of this can be viewed from the point
of view of your home, if you apply in Second Life for a visit to Hershmann's archives. Because in the end this is what is the most fascinating about the project, that the artist is using the virtual world to both archive an art project, and make an art project with it in the meantime. This represents an entire cut or separation from the reality of exhibition space that I find very important. A revigorating reframing of the stage of visual arts is proposed and I think that you should pay attention and follow Hershmann for a few moments.
The next artist in the exhibition is Catherine Richard, which installation
"Method And Apparatus To Finding Love" (2000) was highly recommended
to me when it was exhibited in Ottawa a couple years ago (but I bypassed it,
evil me). What brought hesitation then was that the description talked
of a work on text, involving a system of visual flickering while looking
at the text. I was worried that there was going to be too much to read, and
I felt somehow that I already received much of the work from its description.
But the fact that this exhibition appears in a collectiv show
about technological art is interesting so much the work actually ironicizes
science, and once you let yourself abandon to reading bits of the text,
it is a more accessible piece than the scary scientifical words
and mathematics on prints would have let you presumed on sight.
Drawing from Marcel Duchamp's Great Glass (1923),
the Patent text (read it here
on the web (PDF Alert)) describes an impossible machine
which could be described as a walkit-talkie of love, an apparel able
to distinguish likelyhood in receiving the signals of similar apparels,
following complex schemes of electromagnetics and data mining
technologies, influenced by personal user input into the machine. I
am not sure if I'm exact because I really went through fast (sorry, artist),
but a similar device of censoring human heat or magnetism
is installed on a table where pages of the patent are aligned under
glass. It turns out that pages either illuminate or disappear
under opaque glass depending of how the censors respond
to your body. A statement on the deshumanization
of science, pehaps, or the disembodification of communication systems,
but you get the punchline very quick. The rest the text, of which large
extracts and drawings from art historical figures are printed on the wall,
is quite an interesting essay if a bit hardknocking on the history of
the psychology of desire and its affect on aesthetics in general. It is
a works that takes a lot of turns before it delivers its fun,
yet which wit you can apprehend quickly by walking across the room
if you read the slightest guide about it, like you just did here.
Next room is Luc Courchesne, the Quebec guru of technological
art if there ever was one. He's simply everywhere
in this province when an event about technological art occurs
(and I think he is among the people who started the Sat, that space
in Montreal that was supposed to be about art, but for many years turned
into a post-rave-era dance spot, until they delivered their basement).
I will tell you what I think about Courchesne's art in a glimpse:
the man used to astonish me with his interactive film
installations in the 90's. Then there was the Panoscope
which put everyone in awe in 2000. Then from there
it's been repeat of the same trick over and over again.
Actually here there is an artistic statement implied since
his new film Horizon (2007) is meant to be an hommage
to Michael Snow, as the circular camera moves
from a dense scape into a place of pure circular horizon.
But I don't know if an intellectual relecture of panoscopy
is necessary anymore. Maybe Courchesne could publish a huge book
of his travel photographs aka La Terre Vu Du Ciel (Yannus-Bertrand)
and it would be very popular and would resume
his legacy on that topic. He even did a whole 360
degree shot of Sept 911, can you imagine?
(yes, he was there). There is an undeniable
beauty to 360 degree cinema, but attempts
in panoscopic cinema actually have an history
before Courchesne, and I'm sorry to say that I haven't
yet been moved on an artistic level by what he has done
since The Hall Of Shadows (1996) and
his other interactive film which featured passerbies in
a park talking to the audience (Landcapes One? (1997)). Or even
his public videophone bench ! Hey, stuff was happening there:
I remember seeing a drunk man showing me his cock at
2 am on that machine. The exhibition here opted
instead to include Portrait No 1 (1990), a tiny and
early version of Courchesnes' interactive cinema, but this
one looks so much like your average cd-rom art nowadays
(even though its technology preceded cd-rom art), that he should
probably just put it on the web: there shouldn't be a need to
go see this one in a museum.
Next is Marie Chouinard, who amazed the gang at the Elektra Festival when she started
to produce micro-frame video performances which borrowed a lot from early Granular Synthesis, but in a much more humourous way (Elektra are also big fans of Granular Synthesis, which by the way, I am too. Not interested in buying some of Granular Synthesis art, Mr. Langlois? I want a retro of their work NOW. Make it a canadian premiere. Come on, man, I know you can). But back to Chouinard. This version of Cantique No 3 (2004) is the "toy version", which features an application where you can edit the work yourself (I am confused regarding wrether the original title was
simply callled Cantique and this interactive version would be the third format). Personally I think they should have exhibited the whole original which involved multiple screens. This "gadget" version looks more like the sidekick that could be publish on cd-rom and sold for fans of the original show. It is annoying to have to watch other spectators play with the darn thing when none could ever be able to spouse the precise rhythm and exact evolution of the original piece. But media aside,
what could series of repeated milliframes of two faces (a man and a woman) gargling at each other could be telling us? It seems to parody the rituals of facial sexual seduction. A couple is making facial mimicks to attempt to attract one another, but the game is exaggerated to absurdity, and often involves forms of rejection. As the repetition of the video occur, vocal sounds are provoking a rhythmic drone, the
resulting edit proposing these as a musical micro-opera which never miss a chance to make the audience laugh (surprising when so many choreographies in Chouinard's ballets (yes, you are supposed to know that she is a respected international dancer/choreographer) evoke the tragic and dramatic). Another canadian piece that got me wondered why it hadn't show up in museums, and I'll repeat that I still miss the original. Bravo.
The work by Jessica Field, a new artist which you are likely to have never heard from, requires a little patience before you are able to understand what is at play.
What first grasps the view is an aesthetic of robotic retroness almost harking back to Robot B-9 days from Lost In Space Tv show (and which you can now own a replicate
version for a mere 24 500.00 US dollars at Hammacher Schlemmer). This again
brings irony into the whole "avant-technologies" circonstances of the exhibit
purpose, and proves that Langlois is selecting his choices with less cold seriosity
than when he was sponsoring Bill Seaman installations, and that can only be a good thing. A the moment you stop screaming at the machines of Jessica Field, expecting them to react or reply in any way, and focus on reading the red text printed in kitsch-scifi-laboratory large leds right in front of you, you start realizing that the two structures in front of you are actually communicating together about your presence, and that the sound they emit are underlining these statements. Semiotic Investigations In Cybernetic Behaviour (2004) is another work which involves a scary title and which attempt to dumbfound the spectator with the sillyness that it is
actually presenting. To me this was a nice farce on artificial intelligence, or the
utopias that science reserve regarding it. I will be curious mostly to see in the future where this artist's aesthetic world will being her, because it is undeniably original. Don't we love technology when it is so visually... insisting?
I am sorry to have to say that David Rokeby interventions in this exhibition
left me cold. Actually, let me reiterate: the first video 4-screen panorama from
Venice, which I had already seen at Pari Nadimi Gallery within a set of similar
video canvases some years ago, is actually of flamboyant beauty. The complex
hierarchies of time that their video superimpositions and subtle edits involve
remind us of past works by Jim Campbell, but the choice of filming
Place St-Mark indeniably adds to the piece the impact of a reunion
between video technology, art history and the Renaissance masters.
This would probably be the true "artful" moment of the show if a dozen
Jim Campbell wasn't following it. But alas, the two "digital poetry" installations
that are presented in the next two rooms bored the hell out of me. I understand
I was supposed to be wowed by the lacanesque experience proposed
by The Giver Of Names (from 1991, but I think this one was the latest version,
the one I had seen at University Of Ontario, because there were many
older versions of this piece), but the problem with this piece is that
it offers no clue to the viewer as to understand how the work actually
functions. What is the catalogue of the text, and how is it connected
with visual data? What sort of data? Actual object forms, colors, frame
topography? Most of the babbling oozing out once you have installed a few toys under the video scan sounds like old age dada cut-up poetry. Why these words? Why this rigid tone? Why not select random-breathing-singing-choirboy (that's a standard edit in digital voicing)? It's an installation about toys, man: make it more fun! As
far as an artificial demonstration of the connection between interpretation and language, it didn't convince me. I doubt we are yet ready to reflect the conscious with computers. This is a simulacra of the artist perception of singular forms and colors and it is all inscribed in the way the artist have connected his words to the shapes that they should respond too. It's all about programmatic.
It's the artist attempting to exercise hiw own "Lacan" retroactively and I'm not
getting a bit of what is going on through his head. His last piece here, N-Cha(n)t (2001) (which won an important price at Ars Electronica) offers a much more interesting premiss: 7 computers are working their way through pronunciating random words out of a similar catalogue than used in the precedent work, until they all "fall" on the same words which they keep in memory and re-use until the text pronunciated it at unison between all computers (hence the reference of the title to both computer chatting and religious chanting). But things get a little complicated when a microphone is added to each monitor, giving the opportunity to the spectator to "disturb" the piece (which he will do willingly, without really understanding what is going on), and a system of video codes is implemented (the main visual aspect of the piece: an image of an ear with 3 possible hand gesture), apparently communicating to the human intruder how it is about to receive this new extraneous data. The major problem here is that the main intriguing aspect of the interface, the fact that different digital "gleaners" slowly but surely come together
when they have amassed enough of the same data, rarely reach its optimal state
because there is always a lunatic (I was the first) that will come in and disturb, confuse, interfere, destroy the whole thing ! So what the visitor is confronted with is actually an even worst chaos of intellectual cut-up poetry as offered through the previous piece, and to really experience the magic of the whole thing would seem to indicate for a secret visit at 2am when even the museum guards are asleep. Interesting idea on paper as it was, I wasn't satisfied by the product as a work of art. I suggest Mr. Rockeby to turn the Rubik Cube's of his investigations once again and find a more audience-friendly elocution, something that would make his art bang-obvious from the first sight-ear-ing.
Speaking of art that comes with a bang, Jim Campbell is probably the most
successful part of the show, probably because his art respond well
to the museal context. This man is like the Monet of digital art. Most
of the works here (there is a retrospective worth of them) take
the format of small to medium-size canvas made with small to large
leds (or sometimes, tiny bulb lights). These assemblage of lights are used
as gigantic pixels from which emanate video data, often in the form of shadows.
There is a blurry evanescence that accompany a good portion
of the works, hence my link with impressionism, but other works
explore effects of light and memory through different means.
Though at first sight many of these videos seem to use the same trick
of filtering leds and bulbs, there is a striking difference with each work's approach to the media, except when the work is presented as a series. Most of the video signals are utterly simple: people walking, people near a church, image of water at sea (in a very beautiful homage to Wavelenght by Michael Snow, second
work in the show to quote the same source), flickers offered by the contours of a landscape (in a work strangely reminiscent of Dan Flavin). Some of the later works offer less breezy subjects, like automobiles or cyclists, but their
forms are stretching light to a degree where images are turned into abstractions. Another canvase even offers 12 images of war protest superimposed, and even though you can hardly decipher its subject, it just "feels" like it is a work about protest. There is something to be said about the meanings of light and colors in these works. How much visual info does one need to get before the memory strikes on a recognizeable figure. Did the message in its pure light format first affected the viewer on a subconcious level? The images of Jim Campbell seems to stand at that flicker moment between definition and the unintelligible, between familiarity and chaos. Asthetically, their effects are rather titillating. Some of the old works by
Jim Campbell have much more anecdotal agendas but are equally fascinating. Here, a copy of the bible hangs on the wall, with a speaker reading parts from it (the entirity?) in a digital voice. The piece is called I Have Never Read The Bible (1995), and I suppose the artist has indeed created the gadget to read it at his place. On a more humanistic scale, the emotionally-filled pieces are the
two portraits of the artist's mother and father, which flicker between complete definition and blinding blur, as a translucid crysto-liquid screen is lighting on and off over them. Personally, though I know nothing about the history of Campbell's family members, I thought the piece formulated a strong case for the
topic of death and the evanescence of memory. You have to see this show !
Subtitled Public (2005) is a work that presents itself as an empty dark room.
If you happen to be alone in the museum, it will take a while before
you grasp what is happening. A system of surveilling censors is
throwing projections of words unto the viewer. Words that
could pervertly affect the perception of strangers of your persona
if they happened to read them. Indeed when other visitors start
coming in they usually giggles at some of the most embarassing
etiquettes. The technology involved is so genuine that it is hard
for me to grasp how this system work, especially now that I know
that, apparently, the work is able to tell when one person is touching another,
cutting off the subtitle effect on any spectators that are in physical touch with
each other. How does he do it? And why does he do it? Some comment about
the current civilization of surveillance, and the no-intimity of government
civilian files data. But why does the surveillance trick stop when we are touching one another? I am amazed by that part. Is it proposing some form of humanist intervention against the cold dead realm of technological society? Or is my reading too naive? The important aspect that I retain from this artwork is how
much it is immaterial and quasi-invisible. And also how it hardly functions with a single member in the audience (just like when playing the original Pong from Atari). I am not sure if this is the great art of the future, but I was marked by the originality of the artist's approach.
The final piece in the show is from an artist whose art we rarely
have the occasion to see, but whom I find have developed a couple
landmark projects in the realms of everything contemporary. First
he was a big step in the use of interactive videos and broadcast
performances in the 80's, and they are works of his from this
period that I have seen described for as long as I have read about
technological art (that would be around the time of Images Du Futur
in Montreal, late 80's), but that I have yet to have seen in person.
No one seems to want to show Kac, and that is probably due to the controversy
that his more recent art brought up. That is, the "transgenic" art from the 1990's.
Genesis (1999) is another "classic" that I had waited to see for many years.
How could this work not have brought controversy? It used Bible quotes to transform
them into genetic bacteria, almost as if aiming right at the religious integrists
and saying "see how I defy your God!". I mean, this is only one facile way to
read things, it actually could be very religious art, but, you know, there has to
be a signification there about using the Bible, and I think using the quote had the effect of making criticism bang its head on the walls trying to decipher
what the artist truly meant (when the work first came out, that is). What matters here is that life have been synthetically created. A new form of fluorescent life, created by gene imititating the shape of a Morse Code which itself transferred from the Bible this very unenerving phrase (you are allowed to giggle, or if you are like me, to be moved): "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth". Hmm...Kind of a relief to hear this when I count all of the earthworms I walked on inadvertently during the rain. Thanks God ! But Eduardo used this sentance quite...err...literally by creating the gene for it. The gene of dominion,
you could call it. And this is what brought some tangible controversy in art symposiums from defenders of ethic in art and science, or simply from anyone fearing the biological impact these little experiences could have on the world in a billion years. I don't think I'm overstating when I say that there's been quite a few debates about the art of Mr. Kac, but that was many years ago. A lot of dust have fallen since. And now, lucky spectator, you are finally getting the chance to see in person this famous work that had been hiding in I don't know which vault for so many years. Are you saying that this was in Langlois' Ex-Centris basement all this times? Damn...I live 2 blocks from the place. So there, what you see is what you get inside this work: one curio with the actual bacterias inside, a large circular projection of them on the wall, a fluorescent print of each the french, the morse code, and the gene version of the Bible text on the walls, and a discrete computer presentation offering more details about the project. If this is not the very advances of technological or science art, I don't really know what Langlois could have come up with to end the show in such a clash. It is likely many viewers will end up leaving the exhibit rethinking this last work over and over (to the damage of the other works featured). I'm not sure art involved so much about the mystery of life itself or God since the time when artists were anonymous monks. My favorite personal question: Is our life also an artistic experience? There is also the political aspect: because of the very recent application of genetic science, the work
is also inevitably framed by our fears of the outcomes of such technology. Now it is merely fluorescent skin, but what about tomorrow, what genetic harm could a lunatic create over the terms of a moonlight? Kac already responded in interviews that science merely exists to serve man and that it is the responsability of man to decide of its outcome. Amen, but we know by reading the news everyday that they are quite a few desperate of these men out there, and seeing applications such as genetics already appear in art, must means that their applications in other less entertaining domains might not be so far. The piece actually looks quite banal on a first sight, but it holds the potential of bringing numerous reflections for many weeks after you've seen an exhibit. And that is what is great about it, because if you don't allow yourself these kinds of reflection, than what does the work really offers visually but the playfulness of halloween-design contact eyelenses? This was all fluo yogourt, folks ! From the distance of medical application, this art could simply be a genetic joke !! So there is a prevalent humor to the work, but that is gloomed much by personal beliefs and values. Is Genesis supposed to be austere art or humourous? Is it a religious art piece? Is the artist appropriating religion from an atheist point of view or is he himself entangled in doubts and mystery? This art in the end brings much more questions than it answers.
My verdict on E-Art is that you should definitely
visit this exhibit and observe how behind the gadgedtry,
Langlois was able to enhance his collection with quite
a couple decisive pieces from the contemporary
arts of the past 15 years, pieces from artists that people
probably know less simply because they have been poorly shown,
but there's some serious chunks to bite here
for any wannabe-thinker about the future of
aesthetic research (as long as you remain cautious
to the idea that this advancement must
or should always pass through improvments
I still want to add: is it just me, or isn't this city proud
to have someone like Daniel Langlois?? Behind all my critics of the show
I am amazed by what this man has done to this city (Montreal), and
as a collectorhe must be one of the most original in the world,
as this exhibition proves. Any artist should feel proud to be part of it,
and I hope we will be able to see more events like this in the future.
PS: the website for the show, featuring images
of most works and more, is here
PS2: I just realized that there was a second title to
the show, "Communicating Vessels", but only
after writting all the above.
E-Art: Communicating Vessels
Montreal Museum Of Fine Arts
1380 Sherbrooke Street West
September 20-December 9, 2007