The digital revolution has radically altered the way we perceive art. Since the arrival of the Web, art has changed in form, content, and delivery. Electronic bits are sent over telephone lines, by microwave relay or satellites, through a scanner hooked into a Sony 700VW-Betacam video camera, and end up on a board installed in a late-issue Macintosh.
Centuries ago we needed atlases to guide us through unexplored territories. The new guide takes a fluid form, for author, spectator, and image. The term appropriation (the idea of manipulating an original) has dramatically expanded. Compressed video blurs distinctions between what is real (original) and what is manipulated (artificial). Artists can distort, tone, and stretch visual messages once they are filed and stored on computer terminals. Later the original signal can be shown in different contexts. Even the old tension between intention and chance -- as so often comes out in photography -- gets blurred out there in cyberspace.
We live within a huge, globalized data-network system, which has produced a new form of virtual reality. This means people can exist in imagined spaces, contiguous to other individuals and realities. As a result of the Information Age, virtuality literally opened up space, freeing us from simply watching, reading, or listening. The idea of what's real has been broadened to include make-believe. We feel as if things are what they seem. As it turns out, that's one function of art. If appearances can become a form of reality, then Oscar Wilde's dictum "life imitates art" was way ahead of the game.
There are pros and cons. In a way the individual loses his privileged position. In cyberspace one can be, by choice, a fish in a tank, a droplet of rain, or the embodiment of a different gender. The individual can enjoy a sense of community not necessarily defined by geography but by consciousness, ideology, and desire. The notion of human interaction changes with the ability to "move" with a virtual body. Distances are optional and relocation is independent of space and time. Virtuality allows us to manipulate, construct, and navigate fantastic universes: One may talk to objects or become one. We go to places wearing different personas and are nowhere and anywhere simultaneously. Surfing can be construed as going into "worlds" inside worlds, as computer games have let us do.
The best part is that virtuality is to a large extent an aesthetic phenomenon. An important example is installation, one of today's most salient art forms. Installation developed throughout the Nineties as a result of a shift from a single perspective (pervasive since the Renaissance) to a fuzzier, virtual-environment standpoint. Installation suggests a kind of mind experiment, buttressed often by audio and image. One dwells in rather than looks at this art. The effect blurs the old object-subject distinction by putting us inside a milieu where we are part of the work itself.
With this paradigm shift, however, comes problems. Virtuality may create the illusion of intimacy at the expense of meaningful reality. Some people are concerned that cyberspace threatens to disengage us from the real world. They see the Internet and the Web as newer forms of human alienation. Others even see the digital revolution as the harbinger of a Big Brother, a techno-state society under digital surveillance.
But back from the future, surfing art spaces can be rewarding and exciting. At the click of a mouse, we can gain access to distant artists' works and important museum shows; we can delve into art by genre, country, or time period. Most museums have sites, though many offer little more than a virtual brochure. Yet content delivery is rapidly changing, and museum sites are becoming more aware of their creative and educational potential.
And they're trying to get some artistic attention. A prize of $50,000 has been offered by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art together with the Webbys (a Web award show). The winning artist or artists will exhibit at e.space (www.sfmoma.org/espace/espace_overview.html), SFMOMA's online gallery. Also, SFMOMA will host on May 13 an international symposium focusing on online art, with exhibitions of creative work in the medium.
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Some other sites worth checking out are Canadian iceflow (www.interaccess.org/iceflow), which defines itself as a "social space where multiple mediums converge." Iceflow offers a provocative trip through prose, imagery, and carefully nuanced spaces. Diane Fenster's Attic Window is a prize-winning site exploring "symbolic solitary environments," as she puts it. Fenster presents five gateways of images and texts on (www.art.net/studios/visual/Fenster/). Her Canto #8, based on Vicente Huidobro's poetry and mixed with manipulated photographs, is a treat. The Journal of Contemporary Arts (www.jca-online.com) is built by a team of 45 arts professionals. They debate issues of virtuality and include discussions about and portfolios of upcoming artists and arts writers.
Also of interest is the Beecher Center for Electronic Arts (www.bcea.org) in Youngstown, Ohio, the first institution solely dedicated to cyber art in the United States. If you surf this one, take a look at the Ars Electronica Museum (www.aec.at/). One of its artists in residence, Dave Pape, has built Mitologies, a highly complex virtual-reality artwork. Loosely based on the Cretan myth of the Minotaur, Dante's Inferno, Dürer's woodcuts, and Borges's Library of Babel, Pape's project successfully presents multiple levels, intermingling the written word, the image, and the symbol, all of which become central to the unfolding of the narrative.
The InterCommunication Center in Japan (ICC) aims to promote dialogue among science, technology, art, and culture and to envision a future society that is rich in imagination and creativity. Exhibitions at the ICC (www.ntticc.or.jp/) will be divided into the permanent exhibit and special exhibits. The permanent looks to the future to explore new possibilities for scientific and artistic expression through works incorporating advanced technologies and virtual reality. Tachibana Hajime's Design is a surprisingly amusing interactive project triggered by the user's mouse. Visit the ICC's "Sound Art" exhibit to find featured artists, a concert, and symposium. Click on Terre Thaemlitz's link; he's a graduate from Cooper Union with a provocative Website.
Don't miss "The Kingdom of Elgaland/Vargaland" (www.it.kth.se/KREV), a kind of incorporated imaginary empire with embassies, consulate ministries, and a national hymn. The hallucinatory short history of Elgaland/Vargaland reads: "All border territories between all countries on earth, and all areas (up to a width of ten nautical miles) outside all countries' territorial waters, we designate these territories our physical territory. These territories [are] usually called No Mans Land or Border Crossings...." But since this is cyberspace, expansion is not bound by physical terrain: "Territories could also be annexed such as the borderline zones of mental diseases, near death experiences, hypnosis and mesmerism ... strokes, delirium, various influences of drugs such as peyote, LSD, Ecstasy, cannabis, thinner, alcohol ... possession by spirit, good or evil, dusk and dawn, terror, love, orgasm, interference, the state of contradiction or hesitation." By the way, while in the kingdoms, click "Other Related Projects," go to Aesthetic Meat Foundation, and select "Apocalyptic Art." I promise you won't regret it.