From ASCII sunsets to screen-flattened foliage, Artist Laurel Schwulst makes parks for the internet. In a temporary exhibition called Proposals For Future Parks shown on internet-based art space bubblebyte.org, the artist uses different media approaches, both online and off, to explore the abstract idea of a “park,” a loose term that for the artist might signify a constructed landscape that has been made for humans to experience. In this show of four parts, Schwurst designs parks that are meant to be experienced in the manner we are now most accustomed to — through screens, virtually and at a remove.
At once architectural propositions, thought exercises and internet works in themselves, Schwulst’s “Screens,” “Selected Sunsets,” “States” and “Meat” (all 2010) are arranged in a square grid frame on the exhibition landing page of bubblebyte.org. There’s no strict order to the works; visitors simply click a work’s title to open it in a pop-up window or click on a three word description below the titles to open a pop-up artist statement. At right is the exhibition’s description and schedule. Schwurst’s work will be online through April 28, at which point it will join the archive as a listing, not a live site.
Schwulst’s work investigates the relationship between nature and technology, namely the mediation of nature by technology. We have become so fluent in digital viewing, these works hint, that it’s no longer fitting to simply experience nature as it is. It’s not that nature no longer has any value; the problem becomes that organic nature alone doesn’t fit in with the technological aesthetic humanity has come to embrace. It’s the artist’s job to become that mediation between the organic and the inorganic: Schwurst provides our comfortable interface. This idea is most superficially apparent in “Screens,” an auto-animated slideshow of photos depicting rectangular sheets of glass on top of examples of “nature” — tree branches, leaves, grass, a rock wall.
“Screens” is fun, but it doesn’t go as far as other works in investigating the porous border between the natural and the digital. “States,” a Flash-based animation in which the black silhouettes of US states morph into one another, and “Meat,” a scanned steak meant to represent the landscape of an enormous park explorable virtually with the Google Maps API, are both more evocative. The visual vocabulary of “States” brings to mind state parks, abstract emblems of iconic geography, while the mapped meat becomes a fleshy micro- and macrocosm of the human body’s relationship to nature.
As a sculptural plan and digital-only work, “Selected Sunsets” is both the most resolved and most interesting piece in Proposals For Future Parks. Schwurst writes:
This park overlooks a faraway ocean, but is closed at sunset for the ten minutes it takes the sun to drop below the horizon line. During this time, viewers go to nearby viewfinders that translate the sunset into a more familiar language of selected bits, undulating from off to on.
The online manifestation of the piece is a series of animated sunsets rendered in ASCII, explorable by drop-down menu. As the black and white squares and characters shift and change, pixelated ocean landscapes become visible. By dragging the corner of the pop-up window, the landscape scales, becoming larger and abstracted, or smaller and more readable. The ASCII copy of the landscape is a remix of nature, an alternative rather than a cynical replacement. It’s only during the sunset that we experience the digital version; were the experience more mediated, the audience forcibly herded into viewing chambers, a different reading would be necessary. But as it is, Schwurst represents the transcendent natural landscape and the digitally-transcendent landscape as equals, the virtual and the physical existing symbiotically.
The interface between the virtual and the real is also a part of the exhibition context of Proposals For Future Parks. bubblebyte.org is a devoted art space that only exists virtually, but functions as a physical gallery would, mounting roughly monthly exhibitions. The idea of the online-only art space has been gaining steam lately, see an article by Paddy Johnson on the rise of virtual galleries, but spaces like bubblebyte.org and The State bring virtual galleries to a new level of conceptual finish. Distinct from artist sketchbooks like Space Slave Trade (NSFW) or Parker Ito and company’s paintfx.biz, these sites aren’t meant to host open-ended projects but to present work in a strictly defined context that proves very helpful for a good viewing experience. Editorial operations such as Rhizome or 429 often host artist projects, but still lack the gallery feel of sites wholly devoted to exhibition-hosting. Is this the internet equivalent of the white cube?
Proposals For Future Parks is on view at bubblebyte.org through April 28.