Computer-Based Art Radiates Grounded Ideas

All Digital Review
Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland
Cleveland, Ohio
January 20 – May 7, 2006
Originally printed in the March/April 2006 issue of Afterimage

All Digital exhibition imageOn view through May 7, 2006, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA) presents All Digital, a sophisticated, engaging and diverse group of fifteen computer based works by eight artists ranging from Charles Sandison’s large scale installation Index (2006), which immerses the viewer in projected text, to Lynn Hershman Leeson’s interactive installation DiNA (2005-6), which incorporates speech recognition and synthesis. Margo Crutchfield, the exhibition’s organizer and senior curator at MOCA writes, “I wanted to present pioneering work, work that is pushing the frontiers of what we have customarily considered works of art to be. Works that dealt with artificial intelligence, and works that bridge the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ world.”(1)

Entering the exhibition space, the viewer first encounters a large scale projected piece entitled Stack #1 (2005) by John F. Simon Jr. Many of his works presented in the show, however, are more intimate time-based works that are framed and mounted on the wall. His work sometimes resembles and/or references works by Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian. Instead of using paint on canvas, Simon writes computer code and the resulting outcome is presented on either an LCD screen or projected on the wall. Simon states, “I write software to create and observe systems. Software art is not like video, film or computer animation where the image sequences are recorded. The images displayed by my software are created as they are viewed. Instead of displaying a reproduction of a scene, software IS the scene, which evolves and never repeats.” (2) His software generates the vibrant colors, shapes, patterns and forms that are constantly evolving. Simon’s ComplexCity (2000) which plays homage to Mondrian’s famous painting Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-1943), is an abstracted cityscape that utilizes a quilt like interface to present views of the city—from skyscrapers to a birds eye view of the hustle and bustle of urban traffic. Every four minutes the piece cycles from day to night to capture an ever-changing city that never sleeps. While these elements of city life are very stylized—traffic is depicted as a collection of colorful cubes that travel within a maze-like grid—Simon has not forgotten attention to detail. For example, as one studies the skyscrapers in the upper part of the composition, one may notice the birds flying among the buildings.

Simon has recently begun exploring large-scale projections. A recent work entitled Fountain (2004) is software art that projects an 8 x 10 foot diptych. He writes that it is “an evolving visual metaphor for the creative process. Patterns assembling themselves above an ever-changing vortex of color symbolize thoughts arising from the human mind.”(3) Even though this was not the first time that Fountain was shown, it was the first time that it was projected. In an email conversation with this author, Simon stated,

The large projection of Fountain was an attempt to more deeply involve the viewer in the three dimensional space that makes up the Fountain world. Fountain has always been shown on large monitors so, during a discussion about the MOCA Cleveland space, Margo Crutchfield and I explored the idea of showing it even larger…I wanted to see if there was a sense of an immersive experience as the Fountain transitioned. I spent two days in Cleveland watching it run on this large scale and it was very exciting. (4)

Within the same room is LifeWriter (2006) by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, which was commissioned especially for the exhibition. The installation consists of an old-style typewriter on top of an antique table with chair for the participant to sit down and type. Instead of the typewriter generating words or letters, it generates insect-like shadows that are cast on a special light sensitive screen attached to the typewriter that looks much like vellum. If one uses the lever to go to the next line multiple times, the insects are cast out farther on the paper. The artificial life forms that the participant creates by typing have a life span—not only are they born, they grow, reproduce and eventually die. In Sommerer and Mignonneau’s artist statement, they write, “Connecting the act of typing to the act of creation of life is a further step in the development of emergent systems and life-like art that merges the boundaries between real and virtual.” (5)

In an adjacent room is Sandison’s Index (2006), an installation of moving projected text cast on the walls and floor of a 2,000 square foot darkened room. The projected text, which is appropriated from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, at first appears enticing and mesmerizing as it drifts, cascades and intermingles with other passages. However after a few minutes of watching the shifting text that is cast from multiple projectors, the viewer may become overwhelmed and discombobulated—the attempt to make sense of the text becomes nerve racking. Sandison’s goal for this work is “to de-familiarize the viewer to that which they already know.” According to Sandison, the installation has a life of about 125 years “give or take a decade either way.” He asserts, “The words will finally reach the last word in the encyclopedia. At this point the work will no longer be alive and the words will remain in their last active positions regardless of syntax…then the work will be dismantled so it cannot be restarted.“(6)

In the other main chamber of the exhibition, is Anne-Marie Schleiner’s eleven-minute socially critical machinima video, PS2 Diaries (2004). To experience the piece, the viewer sits in a video rocker—a legless gaming chair—and listens to Schleiner’s video with a pair of headphones. Using appropriated footage from five Playstation games—Sims, Final Fantasy, SSXTricky, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Grand Theft AutoPS2 Diaries is a first person open ended narrative that tells the story of a jaded teen aged girl who experiences life in “Sim City.” In an email conversation with this author, Schleiner writes, “Because computer games are simulated models of aspects of real outside game life I found it convenient for my machinima piece to use different games [to] tell different parts of a story of growing up in the United States.”(7) The diary like passages that Schleiner interweaves within the video present sarcastic fragments of this young woman’s daily life and ritual as lived through video games. Schleiner writes, “Computer gaming is a popular, highly addictive leisure time activity that increasingly structures our perceptual and interpretive frameworks. We have come to inhabit game reality instead of virtual reality.”(8) PS2 Diaries use of recontextualized appropriated imagery and sound from video games juxtaposed with a journal-like narrative evokes the question, “how does the virtual game world affect the cultural norms of contemporary society?”

Leeson’s temperamental work DiNA is a sophisticated large-scale foot projected image of an interactive talking head that responds to the viewer using speech recognition and synthesis. Ask DiNA a question and she will draw her answers from the Web to answer you. A pioneer in “New Media” art Leeson writes, “Since the 1970s, I have pioneered the use of interactive computer and video technology to address ideas about the social construction of female identity, the effects of mass media on society and humans’ relationships to machines. I do this most often through the narrative constructs of an alter ego or ‘agent’…This exploration delves into and extend the limits of our understanding of what constitutes ‘presence.’”(9) DiNA is far more than an interactive gimmick. As Crutchfield asserts in the All Digital catalog, “The issues DiNA delves into—such as nature of human thought, information processing, artificial intelligence and artificial life forms—raise complex scientific and philosophical questions that have profound social, moral and cultural implications…The key issue embodied in this revolutionary work of art is what it will mean to be human as we move further into the 21st century.”(10)

Along with Paul Chan’s disturbing animation Happiness (finally) after 35,000 Years of Civilization—after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier (2000-2003) and Leo Villareal’s triptych of “lush temporal abstractions” entitled, Instances (2005), this exhibition presents a sophisticated smorgasbord of computer-based art that proves that this new and evolving art form is conceptually solid and here to stay.

SETH THOMPSON is an educator, media artist, and writer based in Akron, Ohio.

1. Author email interview with Margo Crutchfield on February 1, 2006.
2. Crutchfield, Margo.
All Digital (Cleveland, Ohio: Museum of Contemporary Art), 54.
3. Ibid.
4. Author email interview with John Simon on January 29, 2006.
5. Crutchfield, Ibid., 64.
6. Author email interview with Charles Sandison on February 1, 2006.
7. Author email interview with Anne-Marie Schleiner on January 30, 2006.
8. Crutchfield, Ibid 88.
9. Ibid., 46.
10. Ibid., 51-52.