Cloud Nine

A psychedelic color field of cloudlike forms trails swiftly along one wall of the darkened gallery of North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), engulfing visitors in a sublime hallucination. Smoke Screen (part of Jennifer Steinkamp: Video Projection), a computer-generated installation by Los Angeles-based artist Jennifer Steinkamp, brings the purist aesthetics of abstract expressionism into the age of multimedia technology.

Visitors to MoCA enter Steinkamp's installation through a pair of heavy black curtains. Inside, the gallery is disorientingly dim and empty, except for two laser-disk projectors placed at the back of the room. These projectors beam continuous images along the width of the front wall: bellowing orange puffs of smoke that travel from left to right, and a chain of smaller, bluish blobs that explode, fizzle, then fade out, heading off in a direction opposite to that of the smoke puffs. A trippy tapestry of colors and shadows rich with constant movement and subtle fluctuations, Smoke Screen is an action painting for the cyber age. The rhythm of the images is accompanied by an ambient-techno soundtrack, background noise that variously sounds like airplanes taking off, humans breathing, wind in a tunnel, or construction-site clamor; the sounds are supplied by Steinkamp's two collaborators, Jimmy Johnson and Peter Ehrlich (a.k.a the L.A. techno group Grain). The work is mesmerizing, meditative, and somewhat nauseating: Produced with a virtual reality computer program, Steinkamp's piece provides a strong sensory experience that envelops the visitor in a dizzying ebb and flow of sight and sound that can result in a slight case of motion sickness.

Computer art, the catchall term frequently used to identify the vast and varied electronic works now being produced by artists, graphic designers, and film- and videomakers, tends to fit awkwardly within the confines of contemporary exhibition spaces designed for the display of traditional painting and sculpture. Most current works made by and for computers are representational -- complex collages of images and sounds that often use a multilayered narrative format to tell a story, often based on historical events or personal experience. While the best of these can be fascinating when viewed at home on CD-ROM A or, to a lesser extent, when seen after being downloaded from the slow-moving World Wide Web -- the question of how to display them publicly has not been resolved.

The most common solution is to install several personal computer terminals in the gallery while simultaneously projecting the images onto a larger screen. But this way only one visitor at a time can play with the piece at each respective station; they can rarely do so in a leisurely fashion, because other people are impatiently waiting their turn. Putting the images on screen so they can be seen by other gallerygoers actually lessens the impact of works made for computers; the graphic quality of the blown-up image is still poor at this point in the technology's development, and, worse, the viewer loses the ability to interact with the piece, which entails sitting at the terminal and clicking the mouse.

Other artists have attempted to make computer art suitable for public display by printing out large-format images made on the computer and then mounting them in the traditional manner of a stretched canvas. Unfortunately a lot of graphic designs that look way cool on-screen fail to elicit the same visual excitement when viewed on a wall as if they were paintings. Steinkamp is much more successful in her approach to electronic art. She conceives her abstract multimedia works on the computer, but they are designed specifically for the gallery or museum space in which they are to be shown.

In town for the show's opening on December 14, the 36-year-old artist explained that she first took measurements of the MoCA site, fed those figures into the computer, and finally made a virtual model of the space on-screen, which she studied from various perspectives to determine where to project the work in the gallery. (At the opening, she noted that collaborators Johnson and Ehrlich were preparing music for a New Year's Eve rave in L.A. and so were unable to attend.) The images are generated with a sophisticated software called Alias (used to create animated special effects for movies such as the current hit Toy Story) and later transferred from computer to video and then onto laser disk.

The artist, who studied graphic design and fine art, was employed for several years by a computer-animation company in New York City. She now teaches computer graphics at L.A.'s Art Center College of Design, where she also creates her own works on the school's $50,000 computer. Steinkamp uses the software's ability to simulate nature A in this case, billows of smoke A to devise the images for Smoke Screen. But instead of applying the technology to construct three-dimensional figures or landscapes, as is done for animated films, she directly appropriates the patterns made by the computer and uses them in their abstract state. By leaving these computer-generated shapes in the raw, she subverts the original virtual-reality purpose of the software.

"I have never taken anything from reality," Steinkamp states. Like Jackson Pollack (one of her favorite artists) and other abstract expressionists, Steinkamp makes art that represents feelings instead of ideas -- works that, as Pollack said of his own paintings, "have a life of their own."

Perhaps the best thing about Smoke Screen is that it is richly interactive. Stepping into the path of the projectors, visitors can see their own shadows become part of the work, bobbing and weaving within the moving shapes on the wall. The more people in the room the better, because the shadowy suggestions of human forms give the work even more texture, as well as the surreal quality of a spectral cocktail party.

While Steinkamp's projected images are largely based on theories of contemporary abstraction, their formal presentation follows that of video artists of the Sixties and Seventies, who created ephemeral installations as a means of publicly displaying what was then a revolutionary electronic art form. A work that is at once metaphysical, playful, and innovative, Smoke Screen attests to the real possibility of making fine art with the tools of new technology.

Jennifer Steinkamp: Video Projection. Through January 20. Museum of Contemporary Art, 12340 NE 8th Ave, North Miami; 893-6211.


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