ARTISTS TALK TECHNOLOGY
[This piece first appeared in Vanguard magazine, September 1984, 49.]
Computer programs, essays and clay pots exhibit greater or lesser traces of advanced technical means in our culture. The Artists Talk About Technology conference (sponsored by the Association of National Non-Profit Artist Run Centres) included art works, panel discussions, and presentations about work by the artists themselves, but no working definitions of 'technology' as it applies to artists were proposed.
As might be expected, given the ongoing computer revolution, issues of computer technology were hotly debated. Among others, Sara Diamond and Garry Kibbins described the increasingly oppressive character of technological progress on workers, while other speakers, notably Red Burns, urged ANNPAC delegates to treat advances in computer technology as opportunities which we pass up at our own expense. Among artists who showed their work, there seemed to be an optimism about computer technology which grew out of a predisposition to like and a familiarity with technical equipment. I think the work itself said something slightly different.. In most cases the art was never as interesting as the updated techniques and the interaction of human being and machine involved in the art-making process itself. The real creativity in computers seems to rest in the hands of the people who design the machines and the software. A ragtag band of artists follow along at some distance.
The most interesting work happened while the artists were playing with the programming capacities of their machines, for example in the work of Doug Back, Nell Tenhaaf and Hu Hohn.
Back's humour was that of a crank inventor, a garage genius. In his piece, a computer was attached to a strange little machine by means of a thick braid of electronic wires. The computer coordinated the motions of the machine, which had a battered Chinese wok as its chassis. The wok engaged itself in a clanky attempt to get away from its computer link-up in what looked like a parody of technology running away with itself. A set of weights and balancing mechanisms ensured that the wok walked, that is, that it tilted back and forth in a completely random way, according to the artists' software instructions.
Hu Hohn's installation had several parts. All the art magazines, all the high technology and scientific journals that Hohn's artist's fee of $200.00 would buy at Halifax's best newsagent were lined up in two sets on a long table. The magazines looked alike, just as they incorporated similar scientific, technical and artistic skills in their production and distribution. In a corner Hohn's Apple II computer was rigged with a voice synthesizer. The voice box issued a set of notes programmed to repeat the sound of the words 'Marcel Duchamp'. The relentless, breathless, artificial voice was maddening: wholly within the tradition of absurdity we associate with Duchamp.
Nell Tenhaaf installed her computerized work in the conference hall itself in King's college. Her machine, a kind of Teledon video game, proved how difficult it can be to acquire a familiarity with these instruments. Tenhaaf programmed graphics and statistics on many subjects, i.e. nuclear war, and gave the user a chance to answer sample questions with a simple keyboard. I took the illusion that the information on the screen disappeared forever when another set of buttons was pushed, as a demonstration of my recalcitrant conformity to book culture. Even though calling up information on the screen was scarcely more difficult than turning a page, it was surprising how little confidence one was able to develop in the activity.
Elizabeth Vander Zaag's computer influenced videotapes had a formal connection to Hu Hohn's graphics and a series of 'Ruin' photographs by Lee Silverman. They all used a grid pattern as the basis of the imagery - a pattern imposed on the work for the technical convenience of the computer. In Vander Zaag's Baby Eyes video the metaphor of a new computer-based vision was most explicit. This vision has a geometrical, mathematical, rational , and classical look: an inheritance of a distinct bundle of associations. Hohn felt that the blocky, grid-like nature of the graphics was a fitting display of the inner workings of the medium. In Silverman's work, the ruins theme included images composed of little brick-like computer-generated squares, as if the images were ruined in an ordered fashion, the way a building could come apart brick by brick. In optimistic moments, I see these works as attempts to think through - to 'ruin' as Silverman would say - the high-tech rationality of the information age.