TECHNOLOGY AND IDENTITY
S.J. EXHIBIT EXPLORES HOW THE DIGITAL LANDSCAPE IS SHAPING PERCEPTIONS OF THE HUMAN MIND
By Jack Fischer
The changes that digital technology will bring to individual consciousness are still in their merest infancy.
The much-honored inventor and technologist Ray Kurzweil predicts that the continued merging of technology and the human mind over the next 50 years will make it ever harder to know where one stops and the other begins. Online gaming, where people assume new bodies and alter-egos, already is exploding.
And artists -- the canaries in the coal mine of culture -- don't need to wait to begin to explore these ideas. In ``Heavenly Bodies,'' an exhibit of seven new-media installations at the San Jose Museum of Art through April 9, several contemporary artists attempt to examine how the first twinges of the uncertainty already feel.
Those who watch themselves live on a video monitor know a bit of the vertiginous sensation of wondering whether they are ``out there'' or ``in here,'' as it were.With one exception, the artists in this show have us bear witness to variations on this theme, as opposed to experiencing it directly.
San Jose museum Senior Curator JoAnne Northrup, who organized ``Heavenly Bodies,'' has framed the discussion in philosophical terms, noting an observation of great thinkers from Buddha to Einstein: that individual consciousness -- the sense that each of us exists separate from the greater universe of which we are a part -- is something of a delusion. But for most of us it is technology, not meditation, that is driving the change in our perceptions.
The exhibit feels a bit like a place holder for the museum's announced intention to be a center for art and technology as it awaits this summer's major exhibition by new media artist Jennifer Steinkamp (also curated by Northrup) and ZeroOne San Jose, an international festival of art and technology which the museum is helping to host.
``Bodies'' opens with Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist's ``You Called Me Jacky'' (1990), a single-channel video of the artist lip syncing a song called ``Edna and Jacky'' about a love affair gone to seed. It's a means to send up both Madonna and MTV's version of the creation of identity. An artist channeling a pop star who is creating a persona, ordered up by a music video corporation -- ah, role models in the twenty-first century.
Ajna Joy Lichau's ``San Shi (Dispersion) '' (2005) is a haunting change-up. It's a simple work: The darkened gallery offers a wall projection of Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, which the artist sees from her window at home and where her grandparents were detained when they emigrated from China. In a second projection, this one on the floor between the viewer and the island, a woman floats facedown in the water. Is it the old identity being shed upon arrival in a new land?
In ``Dance, Voldo, Dance'' (2002), Chris Brandt takes a week's worth of video he recorded of two people playing the video combat game ``Soul Calibur'' and transforms it into a suggestive sexual dance that gives the two digital alter egos more independent life than the game's makers ever intended.
Nelson Henricks' ``Planetarium'' (2001) is a jokey video along the B-movie lines of ``Plan 9 From Outer Space'' (Henricks quotes the film's director, Ed Wood). This planetarium is a place where the celestial object we see comes from the beam of a small flashlight while Ramones' lyrics scroll up the screen: ``. . . twenty twenty twenty twenty-four hours a day, I want to be sedated.'' I'm not sure what this has to do with identity and the universe, but if it keeps Henricks off the street, I'm in favor of it.
Electrical-engineer-turned-artist Jim Campbell has a rare ability to turn technology itself to soulful ends, usually with an admirable simplicity. In ``Self-Portrait (With Disturbances)'' (1991-92), he deploys a simple black-and-white television monitor and a video camera pointed at the viewer to suggest an unlikely mingling of spirits.
The monitor features a grainy image of the artist himself and combines it with the ghostly outline of the viewer. As the viewer moves on the screen, Campbell's face turns to follow it -- two spirits trapped in one box.
With ``No Sunshine'' (1998), Berlin-based Bjorn Melhus offers a comically discomforting world apart in which twins -- part human, part based on the features of Playmobil figures -- wrestle with the difficulties of growing apart. Accompanied by distorted samples from the music of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, the work also serves as commentary on the inadequacy of language to bridge the distance between two people.
``Bodies'' closes with Ruth Eckland's room-sized installation ``Star Fields'' (2005), a piece of eye candy that the museum has purchased for its permanent collection. The work started with images that Eckland captured of stars twinkling on the waters of the Santa Barbara pier.
The artist then puts the imagery -- included for its meditative potential -- on steroids by projecting it onto a series of floor-to-ceiling translucent scrims that both reflect the twinkling stars like a screen and allow you to see through them, creating a faux holographic affect. It's transfixing, if more noteworthy for its means than for any underlying ideas.
But in light of all the perplexing possibilities for identity that have preceded it, it's also a respite from thinking. It thrusts us out into the cool and dark, like that baby in Stanley Kubrick's now quaintly antiquated ``2001: A Space Odyssey.''
new-media installationsInformation: http://www.sjmusart.org/