The Digital Revolution
by Jack Foran
Deciding and reducing what is real, taking away and re-imposing narrative
An unofficial theme of the Beyond/In Western New York biennial art exhibit is what could be called the digital world. Digital is more than just a topic for discussion, however. It’s the medium of the discussion. And it’s a revolution. And like any real revolution—think French Revolution, Industrial Revolution—of infinite and unknowable implications.
So pretty scary. And in this case, not just future implications, but implications here and now.
The epicenter of the digital topic art is Squeaky Wheel, but maybe the best of the digital art pieces—at least in terms of most explanatory of the digital phenomenon—is at Hallwalls. Other digital art installations/explorations are at the Albright-Knox, the Anderson Gallery, the Buffalo Arts Studio, and CEPA.
Digital is scary because it challenges the idea of one-to-one representation. Photography, the new art form, the big art form, of the last century, was valued, is valued, maybe most prominently as a means of documentation. Photos can be beautiful, but even more interestingly, you know something happened, or something is, or was, because there it is in a photo. The Hindenburg exploded and burned. The Eiffel Tower exists. Those were your great-grandparents. That’s what they looked like. Or you know something is beautiful because there it is—beautiful—in a photograph. The Half Dome at Yosemite. These aren’t just artifacts of an artist’s imagination. They’re real.
Digital photography undercuts all that reality fascination.
At the Buffalo Arts Studio, Yasser Aggour has a series of game hunter trophy photos but with the game hunter removed. You see just the animal. It’s a trick, a manipulation. Manipulation always has existed in photography, but it took a pro to do it. Now anybody can do it. It’s part of the digital process almost. So that what you see in a photograph is not just maybe not what was or what happened, but likely not what was or what happened. The documentation idea goes pretty much out the window.
Or maybe the point is the salutary message that you can never be sure. You could never be sure. You have to dig deeper.
A cousin of one-to-one representation that also seems to get lost in the digital mechanism is linear narrative. Another key principle and procedure for how we know what we know (or think we know). Linear narrative is cause and effect. The method of science. Observation of sequence.
Two installations at Squeaky Wheel take on the idea of linear narrative. One by Geoffrey Alan Rhodes, on the model of shuffling a deck of cards, deconstructs the memorably dramatic/violent/erotic shower scene of the Hitchcock movie Psycho into 52 morsels that the audience can then re-sequence in infinite ways. (Well, not infinite, actually. Merely 52 factorial ways. Something like eight to the 67th power.)
To what purpose? For one thing, to affirm that in the digital world, the choices, alternatives, possibilities, are infinite (or 52 factorial). But more than we can usefully deal with. Nor, seemingly, would any but one of them make sense.
But ultimately, we impose linear narrative. We impose meaning. Fifty-two factorial sequences, and we’d make them all make sense. Moreover, recollecting the original scene, even dimly, weren’t there some pretty startling cuts—manipulations of sequence—by the master himself? Weren’t the startling cuts and jumps a large part of why the shower scene became a classic? The point being, there’s more than one way to tell a story.
Also at Squeaky Wheel, Barbara Lattanzi deconstructs digitalized films by slowing them down and blowing them up to the point that the narrative is lost and the screen a mosaic of black and white pixels of colossal size that can be read from time to time as a vague image, but usually just as a pattern. As the digital process reduces all information to bits, of equal weight, equal importance.
The matrix movie, a 1937 Chinese remake of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, gets stretched out from its original 113 minutes to 15 hours. A slightly more extreme version of Lattanzi’s work is at the Anderson Gallery, where Thomas Ince’s 1912 silent film The Invaders, about the sad plight of the American Indian in the face of national westward expansion, is stretched out to 40 hours.
Here the artist seems to want something two ways—she seems to want to take credit for reprising the admirable political message of the Thomas Ince movie, but that message seems completely lost in her version. The Lattanzi manipulations do seem truly to destroy linear narrative. We impose meaning, but in these cases the meaning can hardly have much to do with the original cinematic work.
The installation that seems most explanatory of digital reality is Jason Bernagozzi’s at Hallwalls. He turns video imagery—mostly of body parts, but largely unrecognizable as such under his manipulations—into graphic displays illustrating the digital mathematics of the visual information. They look like three-dimensional topographic maps in infinite permutations and overlays.
Alternatively, he videographs books, type, which the digital process deconstructs into pixels so that words and sentences—meanings—dance back and forth between linear narrative legibility and abstract patterns, when the digital mechanism asserts itself.
On another kind of scary, at the Albright-Knox, Mark Shepard explores how a system of total information in filable and retrievable impersonal bits can imperil personal privacy. The audience can monitor itself—or actually, other audience members, but most of the time nobody—on video display screens in one part of the gallery connected to surveillance cameras in another part. Which of course is how surveillance is conducted routinely everywhere these days.
An innovational aspect of Shepard’s installation is that the monitors and cameras talk back and forth to each other, in a wry dialogue that simultaneously makes light of the surveillance practice and underscores its almost praeter-human Big Brother aspect.
Finally, a complex digital installation at CEPA by Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse purports to be a virtual but actual manufacturing facility for production-on-demand of jeans in several styles and price ranges. It seems to be primarily intended as a commentary on the exploitation of workers by capitalist production systems. But the message is diffuse. Confusing. Is it an attack on digitally enhanced worker exploitation (or virtual marginalization of the worker), or is this a sweatshop you can feel okay about because no actual workers are involved?blog comments powered by Disqus
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