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What’s Wrong With Technological Art vs. the Maker Faire

by Ellen Pearlman on October 2, 2012

Robert Smithson, “The Eliminator” (1964) (Photo via Marina Galperina/Flavorwire)

What’s Wrong With Technological Art?” was the vexing question posed by the tony New Museum panel assembled by Megan Heuer featuring Heather Corcoran, the new executive director of Rhizome, and art historians Judith Rodenbeck and Gloria Sutton. The event inadvertently dove tailed with the recent September Artforum issue about the frayed divide between the art world and technological art. The bon mot award for the evening came from rehashing the 1967 quote from Philip Leider, editor of Artforum, who once penned the uber-snarky statement, “I can’t imagine Artforum ever doing a special issue on electronics or computers in art, but one never knows.”

Granted, the panel was based on the New Museum’s recent Ghosts in the Machine show, but it actually turned out to be a response and homage to the astute 1969 letter that the artist Robert Smithson penned to György Kepes:

Technology promises a new kind of art, yet its very program excludes the artist from his own art. The optimism of technical progress results in political despair … If technology is to have any chance at all, it must become more self-critical. If one wants teamwork he should join the army. A panel called ‘What’s Wrong with Technological Art’ might help.

Smithson, no stranger to the art form he was kvetching about, fashioned a sculpture, “The Eliminator,” back in 1964, a dazzler that overloads the eye with red neon flashes, diminishing the viewer’s memory or dependencies with “void intervals.” It explores the connection between visual perception and cognition, predicting “dematerialization.” Smithson worried that technological art excluded the artist themselves, highlighted their fear of automation and that machines would take over jobs, and ultimately the role of artist. His largest anxiety was that team spirit would compromise artworks, comparing such a situation to troop movements. A tangent discussion ensured amongst the panel about “boys with toys” and their relentless need for technical know how. This was contrasted with the exclusion of technological art informed by feminism and the feminist body, as illustrated by the work of artists Joan Jonas and Valle Export.

John Cage’s “Variations VII, 9 Evenings” (1966). Billy Kluver and Robert Rauschenberg, with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and others. (Image from userpages.umbc.edu)

In 1966, the New York Armory, a large space known mainly for its military drills, presented Billy Kluver and Robert Rauschenber’s legendary “Nine Evenings: Theater & Engineering” a wildly, politically incorrect collaboration between ten artists and thirty scientists and engineers from the Bell Telephone Laboratories. They used “closed-circuit television and television projection … on stage for the first time; a fiber-optics camera picked up objects in a performer’s pocket; an infrared television camera captured action in total darkness; a Doppler sonar device translated movement into sound; and portable wireless FM transmitters and amplifiers transmitted speech and body sounds to Armory loudspeakers.” Military cameras were used for the surveillance of 300 people moving throughout the space. Heather Corcoran noted, however, that the experience of working in media art is an “embattled one,” with artists often struggling to make a piece implement without its breaking down from either software or hardware failures. And, she added, “bad art spans all genres.”

“Solar Symphony” by Chris Caczmarek with rapt viewer (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Try talking about military technology, technological art informed by feminism, bad technological art, politically incorrect collaborations, or condescending Artforum editors to the hoards who streamed non-stop for two days through the gates at the World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science, despite the inconvenience of the Number 7 train being unexpectedly on the fritz.

The fair was chockablock bursting with babies, kids, teenagers, geeks, college students, and parents, in that order. Every science nerd in a 250-mile radius was out in full force. Engines, motors, computer chips, electricity, radios, TV, printers all became art objects, as did NYU ITP graduate Laewoo Kang’s adorable robots that moved according to Twitter feeds, with kids practically tearing down the house jumping all over themselves yelling, “Look Mom, robots!”

“I Want To” by Laewoo Kang.

Frank DeFreitas displayed a 1,245-page, or 773,746-word, version of the Holy Bible stored in a holographic chip, projected as one tiny red laser dot of light. Katy Perry was portrayed as a flaming unicorn that sneezed glitter dust (shades of Jeff Koons), and there were sniff bots and derby races amongst the endless lines for lemonade, hot dogs, and chiliburgers.

Roaming Sniff Bot

Eric Hagen’s “Cycle,” an interactive video sculpture, allowed the user to experience the rise and fall of a fictional city via the actions of the viewer rotating bicycle wheels. The wacky eggshells used for Chris Caczmarek “Solar Symphony” were powered by harnessed, solar, soaking-up-ambient-light energy, causing egg shells to clack into one another andproducing a merry cacophony. Biomodd, a computer system with a living ecosystem inside it, “creates symbiotic relationships between plants and computers.” It uses algae to cool the processors and heat generated by the computer to make a hot house to grow vegetables. The team, led by Belgium biologist-turned-artist Angelo Vermeulen, gathers an ever-traveling show of “artists, biologists, computer scientists, game designers, gardeners, community organizers, and members of the local community.” So much for Robert Smithson’s hysteria about “working in groups.”

Archway of the Brooklyn Bridge as seen from below.

But, it terms of a smackdown between the the New Museum and Maker Faire, the winner is neither. It’s the dark horse coming from behind, the Dumbo Arts Festival, where under a blazing full moon scores of Brooklynites massed on the filthy cobblestone streets directly beneath the Brooklyn Bridge to watch the Stan Vanderbeek–like immersive projection mapping light show until the clock struck midnight. They voted a resounding yeah to technological art for the masses, all from the position of their fully relaxed, totally supine bodies.

“What’s Wrong With Technological Art” took place at The New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) on Thursday, September 27 at 7 pm.

The 2012 New York Maker Faire took place at the New York Hall of Science (Flushing Meadow-Corona Park, Queens) on September 29 and 30.

The Dumbo Arts Festival took place all over Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood on September 28, 29, and 30.

 

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  • Erin Donovan

    It’s important to note that in the black and white photo above, the musician seated to John Cage’s left is his long-time collaborator and pioneer analogue electronic musician David Tudor (seated in center of the photo).

  • punktoad

    A lot of collaborative art and a bit of technology at Burningman too

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