Going digital Bit by byte
By David Goldberg
Special to The Advertiser
By David Goldberg
It has been argued (in the West) that no medium comes into its own until it stops copying the medium that most recently influenced it. By this logic, photography and cinema didn't express their true capacities until artists pushed them beyond what people had grown accustomed to experiencing through painting and theater.
With few exceptions, the work in "DASH," a digital fine art exhibition at Windward Community College's Gallery 'Iolani, is camouflaged by aesthetics of the early 20th century: collage, surrealism, still life, landscape and portraiture; which implies that "digital art" as it is expressed by this 18-artist cross-section has not yet come into its own capacities.
This does not make for a "bad" show, just one that is clearly comfortable with the idea that art is "digital" if it involves computing at the input, processing or output stages of its production. In the end, the print-as-object and the role it occupies in relation to audience expectations is emphasized over the inherently industrial, algorithmic and process-oriented nature of generating digital content. This diminishes the value of the wide array of production techniques the artists in the show actually make use of.
Take Jan Hathaway's "Essence": a seamless composite of a lotus and fluid metallic leaves set against a vibrating ocean surface and bracketed by columns of living water. Is it all Photoshop, clip-art, or a carefully photographed arrangement of magazine cutouts? Maybe she built, lit and rendered all of these objects in a high-end 3-D modeling program.
The same questions could be asked of Diana Nicholette Jean's "Unfathomable Night" series. Her landscapes evoke a North Shore Bayou Voudou populated by spectral images of figures, eyes and architecture morphing into and out of multiple layers of pixel-heavy texture. Classifying Jean or Hathaway's work as "digital" is irrelevant as both artists are concerned with psychological or spiritual subjects that have been legitimized by analog media or popularized by graphic designers who have been leading the exploration of digital aesthetics for almost 20 years.
Scott Groeniger's "40 60 No. 1: Consumption" tries to steal back some of the cult of design's fire with his global-pop, vaguely didactic mash-up of Buddhist petroleum industry architecture, Tezuka's Atom Boy meets Bob's Big Boy, and the threat of China emerging from the static-colored sky described in the first sentence of William Gibson's classic "Neuromancer." Printed on an aluminum substrate that emulates the backlight normally provided by a computer monitor, this piece unifies its inherently contingent digital source with the aura of permanence provided by "fine" art.
A hyperlink away from Groeniger's world and as dense as the circuitry of a microprocessor is Phil Uhl's "Mongkok." Executed in monochrome gray and resolutely pointillist at a level that only computers can facilitate, "Mongkok" simultaneously evokes urban architecture and flows of both population and data.
Uhl's glimpse of a transplanetary city/network is balanced by Peter Chamberlain's intimate visual convolutions. His "Palolo Scape" series pours sections of plants into each other along various trajectories of pattern and color distribution. The effect, especially in "Palolo Scape 6," is of being immersed in a carnivorous garden paused in midhunt.
As time-based works neither Jan Hathaway's "Eternal Improvisation" nor Chris Garguilo's "Digital Stasis" offer actual interactivity, but they deserve to. "Digital Stasis," the show's sole instance of computer programming, features a simple but rewarding animation of a branching orange path (lightning? lava? roots? terrorists under surveillance?) accompanied by a tasty clicking noise that is triggered when the probe reaches the edge of the screen. Like much algorithmic art that is meant to be watched and not played with, "Digital Stasis" and Hathaway's goreous, lushly vegetated journey through the openings and past the valves of a monumental antique brass instrument can unfortunately be treated as cool screensavers. Here, no longer bound by the aura of the object, we find "digital art" struggling — along with video games — to be free of the cultural and functional constraints of the computer itself.
Beyond printing on canvas and using the computer to rapidly experiment with color, composition and texture lies the video game as artistic medium, which with few notable exceptions (see "Okami" and "Bioshock") currently imagines its true aesthetic capacity as photorealistic warfare at 60 frames per second. Given the "media precession hypothesis" discussed above and the largely military roots of gaming, should this come as any surprise?
The shopping-entertainment and military-industrial complexes are way ahead of the curve when it comes to understanding the powers of digital media. Their power comes from dissolving the differences between things (think MP3s and Gollum) and amplifying others (think night-vision goggles and self-guided missiles). The entire history of analog art obviously represents far greater riches, and the "DASH" artists appear to be skilled and capable bearers. It's time to free them from the 20th century and help them into the 21st. In response and anticipation, our educational institutions need to provide local artists of this and forthcoming generations with the toys, tools and anti-disciplinary environments that will foster creative (r)evolution.
David A.M. Goldberg is a cultural critic and writer. He is a lecturer in art, art history and American studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.