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Boston 2006, the dawn of Adult Digital Art ?

The Art Gallery, Siggraph 2006

The first impression out of a first walk through the SIGGRAPH 2006 Art Gallery could be termed "Digital Fatigue". But we can also find here some germs, or weak signals, or brand new mottos. Would digital art be on the dawn of its Adult Era ? 

For more than four decades, we have walked and stopped to admire digital painting, sculpture and, more recently, animation and interaction. Technology changes, but does digital art breaks really new grounds ? The 2006 issue of Siggraph may, at first sight, conclude negatively.

True, some very simple ideas, such as the mobile balloon grid  a w-h-i-t-e-v-o-i-d  of Chrisopher Bauder, may still create thesurprise. But that does not shake a general feeling of "déjà vu". No more, perhaps, than at the grand contempory art shows, be they in Basel, Venice or Miami. But with the additional constraints of  an annual event which calls to Industry and Education as much as, if not much more, than to Art. That allots scarce room to bizarre materials (as chocolate walls or fresly oil ointed objects), provocative Thrash (sometimes nauseous), let alone political protestation (let's be PC).  Even if a small card at the entrance of the Art Gallery show warns the visitor that he may be exposed to "Adult Content".

Yes, We,  digital artists of today, are the heirs of an impressive generation of pioneers. And the marvelous retrospective exhibition of Charles Csuri is here to show us the length of the road they traced (and keep tracing with untired eyes) in unbroken ground. By itself, the catalog of this show will stay as a precious milestone. 

On the same vein, but through a a wider angle lens,  the book Art of the Digital Age, that Bruce Wands signed at the conference Bookshop,  details the diversity of these 40 years adventures, from imaging and sculpture to Net Art. The number and quality of image printed here lets spring fully the pleasure or discovering, or looking once more to, the best products of our Community. Perhaps shall we personally regret not to find there the robotic theme, nor a reference to the peculiar way opened by Harold Cohen and his Aaron Code.

But does History of Digital Art teach us where to from here and now ? Very little, at first sight. Even a provocative panel like the one on "Generative and genetic art", with such stars of the field as Willial Latham, Karl Sims, Andy Lomas et Yoichiro Kawaguchi was more a travel through the past decades than a projection in the future, still less a series of projects.

Hence, has digital art a future, other than higher resolution and speed of interaction ? We would be tempted to conclude in the lines of James Faure Walker, who writes sternly (in his book Painting, the Digital River (also signed out at the conference)) : " The digital art movement - if it was a movement - has lost much of the momentum and coherence of that phase (the 80's) and the mood is now considerably less utopian".

Nevertheless has the SIGGRAPH 2006  opened new perspectives, unexpected and even paradoxical. More than on the exhibition floor itself, they could be felt in the succession of presentations that Karla Loring bravely coordinated all along the five days ! Let's try to summarize that, just before boarding our plane, back to Paris.

1. The matter still matters 

After some 20 years or hyped virtual reality, digital painters and sculptors did not disappear physically on the other side of the screen mirror. They keep materializing their work. Rarely on the traditional canvas, for sure. But sometimes on even more old bases, for instant the Korean traditional paper used by Hye Kyung Kim. Or the hand and glue assembled material gicleed by Dorothy Krause. And even more the cloth of Barbara Layne cloth hangings.

More surprising still, coming from a mathematically oriented artist, the Hilbert Cube of Carlo Séquin. He took a long time at his presentation to explain the complex processes of materialis

zation of his sculpture : first a fusion of steel powder, then an infiltration of bronze in the porous material obtained, to reach finally the reassuring rigidity implied by the spirit of the work, uncompatible with the softer rendering of plastics processed by classical rapid prototyping.

2. Brains communicate without words

Along with a large choice of works using "emerging technology", Heartbeats, by three young Israeli women (and is that fortuitous ?)  shows way to non-discursive inter-human communication. They use a simplified ECG device, and make four participants moving and meeting according to their  heart pulses rates.

Direct control of computers by brain (or the reverse) through implanted chips is more and more actual. The years to come will offer rich fields of experimentation to medics, psychologists and other behaviour specialists. For the best and the worst. The digital artists, with their creative imagination and freedom of expression, could rank among the best explorers into this new frontier. 

3. Emotion and thinking go analog in the digital space

Exploring more emotional, or more explicitely sensuous, communication, will the digital artists revamp the high motto of the 60's "Make love, not war" ? And trumpet it towards the film and game industries, which are going just the opposite way.  Mocap, posers and texturing tools remains largely conventional, and even shy , to express the bodily manifestation of our emotions, and do not go far beyond dilatated hips and breasts. Let us hope that blood and weapons will not always saturate the front scene.

Will the little_one , by John Slepian, soften our hearts ? A rather simplistic digital work, showing a babylike form on a flat screen surrouded by cotton bands, lying in a cradle and calling for attention, somehow as a kamaguchi ?

"New Age" may go another way, that Bred Battey invites us to follow him with Autarkeia Aggregatum, image and sound. Inspired by meditation techniques, he aims to minimize "sharp attacks and discrete events".  Let us take that as an ultimate paradox, in a digital world which, by sheer definition, seemed be devoted to discrete pixels and voxels !

4. Dada revives

But the best to reassure us may be the ability of digital art to mock itself as well as the contemporary world.

Contrasting with its formal and technical title, the 8520 S.W. 27th pl. installation of Fernando Orellana displays ridiculous small robots exerting themselves frantically in long boxes to figure "how our bodies work, through countless unconscious decisions". When shall we see a new Duchamp signing a computerized restroom fountain and selling it by $millions to speculative collectors?

The more prospectivist talk was given by Dan Baldwin. Titled Flashimation, the context and culture of web animation. He showed how constrained was now the Comics creators on TV and media, since "Comics are for kids". But, luckily, the Web has opened new spaces where political correctness can let place to more derisive if not kinky contents.

From virtual back to material, from technology to emotion, from war to love, and from hype to humor, is not Digital Art at the dawn of Adult age ?

Pierre Berger