Where Computer Technology Intersects Art
By Roger Green
Booth Arts Writer, Sunday, May 28, 2006
ANN ARBOR -- It's no secret that digital technology has changed the way Americans live -- how we receive and process information, communicate, entertain ourselves and much more. Art, too, has been affected by new technologies, as a lively if somewhat uneven group exhibit shows.
"Technology and Imagination" brings together works by 13 technologically savvy, local and regional artists. Their experimental photographs, drawings, videos, installations and (yes) clothing can be viewed at Gallery Project, through June 18.
Technical glitches had decommissioned one or two pieces during a recent visit to the exhibit; and about the worthwhileness of other, functioning works one had some doubts. Still, much compelling, often provocative art supports curator Ryan Molloy's timely premise: that computer technology has dramatically expanded the bounds of what art can do and be.
From the point of view of visual excitement, software programs certainly have benefited some works on view. Danielle Aubert's "EXCEL Drawings," for example, are products of a program normally used by business people to tabulate information on grids. The program has rigid parameters -- limited palette, fixed options for fills and borders -- that equate Aubert's efforts with exercises in haiku or sonnet form. The geometric abstractions resulting from her delimited efforts mostly are uncommonly sophisticated in their complexity.
Two other artists' computer-assisted drawings merit note. Jonathan Keller's inkjet prints are starbursts of hair-fine lines signifying hyperlinks in digital network analyses. But the linear networks also are aesthetically pleasing patterns whose creation by ordinary, physical means would require Hurculean exertion.
More complex, technically and conceptually, are Scott Owsley's inkjet prints on canvas. One print, "Adolescence," digitally overlays two photographic images representing opposed, physical and virtual realities. The one photo was captured by a camera on a bicycle moving along a road. The other was recorded by a moving camera scanning a computer monitor playing screensaver animation loops. Combined in a frieze-like format, the colorful photos are visually arresting and also mood-inducing, vaguely recalling paintings by James Ensor, the Belgian forerunner of Expressionism and Surrealism.
The most provocative works are by two female artists, Heather Elliott-Famularo and Heidi Kumao. Elliot-Famularo is showing "Fuzzy Math," a nine-channel video installation that skewers President Bush's years of governance. Nine video monitors displaying clips from televised news shows are aligned horizontally on one gallery wall; separating the monitors are symbols defining them as factors in a mathematical equation.
According to the artist's statement, the equation reads, "The total of the September 11 attacks plus Bin Laden minus Saddam Hussein less Weapons of Mass Destruction, to the power of the News Media, (spin), multiplied by the Iraq War and George W. Bush and divided by public fear and panic equals (unknown)." The ninth and last monitor, signifying what's unknown, displays a snowy, fuzzy clip.
Kumao is showing a collection of "Wired Ware" -- that is, of wearable, black garments decorated with audio-activated LEDs (light emitting diodes). Displayed on mannequins, the electrified garments are accompanied by a video showing Kumao trying on examples while offering sardonic commentary.
The most ambitious garment, "Monitor II," comes with an electronic-control handbag, filled with cables and batteries, and studded outside with control knobs. When activated by microphones grouped in the chest area, vertical lines of LEDs illuminate the front of the dress. In the video, Kumao describes the lighted garment as ideal for dance clubs, sports events and political demonstrations.
Less-successful are pigmented inkjet prints by Colin Blakely and a looping animation by Elona Van Gent. Blakely's prints are manipulated, color photographs of scenes in his residential neighborhood. The manipulation consists of superimposing wispy clouds and a length of net onto portrayals of houses and trees.
In his statement, Blakely describes his goal as infusing these scenes "with the sense of a history, one that represents a convergence of multiple locations in time and space." Judging from titles such as "Clear Skies" and "Rain Turning to Freezing Rain Over Night," the clouds and nets reference satellite weather reports. But the metaphor fails to generate compelling art.
In Van Gent's animation "Fallen," a gremlin-like figure tumbles repeatedly from the top to the bottom of a blank, empty screen. The repeated action, presumably meant as a statement about futility, in reality is a sleeping pill. Further, "Fallen" shares basement gallery space with Michael Rodemer's "Verdun and the Like," an anti-war assemblage that positions presence-activated, red and blue LEDs on opposite sides of a "trench." Yet during a recent visit, "Verdun" was not functioning.
Thus, "Technology and Imagination" suffers from certain technological and imagination-based flaws. But these are forgivable. It's in the nature of experimental art, after all, to sometimes succeed, sometimes fail. Gallery Project, a showcase for experimentation, performs invaluable cultural service. If often uneven, the facility's exhibits should not be missed.