It’s hard now to go more than a couple months without stumbling across another exhibition showing “artists [who] question the boundary between art and technology.” It’s enough to make you never give another crap about the boundary between art and technology. But I’m not sure the artists involved in such shows actually do either — at least not the ones in Coded After Lovelace. The seven artists in this all-women, cross-generational show curated by Faith Holland and Nora O’Murchú at Whitebox Art Center seem concerned less with boundaries and more with possibilities.
Those start with Lillian Schwartz, a mother of digital art and rightly the star here. Schwartz began making art with computers in the 1960s — long before they were widely available — and in 1968 became an artist in residence at Bell Laboratories. There she made computer-generated and animated films in which shapes of color float, pop, pulse, and swirl to original scores by contemporary composers. Three of these early films can be watched, with the help of 3D glasses, in large succession on the back wall of the space, along with three more recent efforts (now an octogenarian, Schwartz continues to make art with the help of younger artists and assistances). The new works are smooth and mesmerizing, but the ones from the ’70s are truly remarkable in their foreshadowing of what art could and was to become (see: any and all abstract net art).
Schwartz’s films have cousins of a sort in Rosa Menkman’s works, three of which are playing on old TV monitors occupying the center of the room (and set facing the same direction as the Schwartz selections, so that you can watch both simultaneously). With her trippy, glitchy shorts set to fuller, noisier music, Menkman represents a logical step or two beyond Schwartz: computers used not just to self-reflexive artistic ends but to mess/art up ordinary imagery. In this vein, the two Menkman works that suggest outdoor journeys through the lens of a computer tripping on acid — “01: Explosions in Minature aka Lucid” and “02: One Billion Steps aka The longer you sit on a bus, the smaller the world becomes” (both 2013) — are the strongest; her third piece, black and white and entirely abstract, bears a little too much resemblance to a really good screen saver.
Another pioneer on offer, perhaps surprisingly, is Arleen Schloss, she of the 1970s–80s Downtown New York scene. Schloss’s contribution here is a video partly of, partly about her 1986 “media opera” “A.E. Bla Bla Bla,” which she staged at the Ars Electronica festival that year. The opera centers on wordplay with the letters of the alphabet, which in the video takes the form both of people wielding oversize As, Rs, Ts, etc. and of poetry intoned over horns and drums and flashing images. It’s a bit beguiling, but also refreshing for this type of show — a reminder that “technology” does not exclusively mean “computers.”
Schloss’s raw and raucous energy is picked up by Olia Lialina, whose web 1.0–style GIFs show her alternately twirling, hula-hooping, playing accordion, and swinging. Like Schloss, Lialina explores not just technology but the performance of it, turning herself into a kind of standard “Animated GIF Model” (2005) that both individualizes and universalizes her internet presence.
And here we return to that familiar question of what it means to be a person on the internet today, which is taken up in different ways by the last three artists in the show. In her ongoing Non-Facial Recognition Project (2011–), Carla Gannis transforms people’s social media profile pictures beyond recognition, scrambling them into surreal digital portraits; Hart’s stronger work of two in the show, “Caress” (2011), features a creepy, humanoid figure writhing in a narrow, coffin-like space; and Jillian Mayer’s re-creation of skywriting assures the visitor that “you’ll be okay.” But like real skywriting, Mayer’s digital message is fleeting, and as the white slowly fades to blue, we’re left to wonder whether we agree.
With the exception of Schloss, all the work in Coded After Lovelace uses technology as subject as well as medium — a logical fascination given its rapid evolution and pervasiveness. But more than 40 years have passed since Schwartz made those first groundbreaking computer works, and sometimes it feels as though not enough has changed.
Coded After Lovelace ends tonight at Whitebox Art Center (329 Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) with a closing screening event from 7–10pm.