Wandering lost among the cyber art galleries

Cyberspace rookie HAZEL FRIEDMAN, art critic of the Mail&Guardian, is introduced to art on the World Wide Web … and decides that there’s nothing to beat the real thing

I am haunted by a serial nightmare. I’m travelling through space on a surfboard, when this little guy — a brunette John Denver — flies up to me and flashes a sign saying: “Before entering Netscape, you must pay your bill.”

It doesn’t take a Jungian disciple to crack the dream code. In semiotic-speak, I’m a rookie recruit to the Internet — that mystical, techno-voodoo network offering a window on a belief system more sublime than the concept of family values. I have seen the future of art. And it irks.

I guess I’m one of those techno-dysfunctionals who has yet to sort out my bits from my bytes. To me, RAM and DOS are still verbs and stiffy is a lewd insinuation. As for the prospect of becoming a cyber-critic, well, I was raised in an art hierarchy which upholds the sacredness of the object and its place in the most rarefied of cultural deep-freezes, namely the gallery. But these days, even the traditional art museum is in the process of defrosting. The Louvre now boasts the largest art database on the Internet, with the rest of the international art cathedrals following in hot pursuit. Even the South African National Gallery has set up a site in cyberspace.

In the last year, the international cyber-art lexicon has grown faster than a rapid-eye movement, creating litanies of data on artists and international galleries (although, to date, the addresses are mainly American) as well as a dizzying line-up of performance art, animated art, street art, conceptual art, artists’ statements, anthologies and articles on art history and criticism, not to mention the occasional artistic tagline (the latter is the cyber-equivalent of graffiti art). (Click here for a list of sites to visit).

And predictably, local art luminaries have also set their sites on space, following in the footsteps of international megamedia performer Laurie Anderson, and intertextualist Trevor Rheingold. For example, Malcolm Payne has done some networking and Nina Romm is rumoured to be changing her name to CD Romm. Artist and filmmaker William Kentridge will soon be launched into cyberspace, as will Barry Coetzee, whose Scy Productions was behind the release of Cry, the Beloved Country.

Which all sounds very transcendental until you start applying the following equation: artists + computers = bad art. Take the live gallery performance titled Alice Sat Here, which comprises an installation by American artists Nina Sobell and Emily Hartzell, in collaboration with David Bascon, Fred Hansen, Kimberley Neuhaus and Toto Paxia.

A high-tech rendition of Alice in Wonderland, the piece revolves around a video installed in the gallery through which viewers can peer — kind of like Alice through the keyhole — while controlling the camera. Accompanying this example of virtual direction is a poem about Alice peering through the keyhole into Webland. Which all sounds great fun, but on the Internet the work reads as little more than a series of images on a miniature billboard.

Then there’s a series of pyrotechnical performances by David Hall called Mythological Heroes in which the artist literally wears fireworks. His explosive performances lose everything in the translation — it’s like examining a tableau of paper transfers stuck to a cardboard backdrop or a series of electronic brochures presented in the context of a virtual reality frame. Can this really be the future of art?

“Ultimately cyber-art should not be viewed as a replacement for art as we know it, but as a supplement,” says artist Michelle Sohn (right), who — in South African terms — is to the Internet what the Impressionist Seurat was to the technique of pointillism. Responsible, together with international art critic Benjamin Weil, for curating the only Internet exhibition on the Johannesburg Biennale, Sohn’s Jouissance Internet Design Consultants has joined forces with VWV Studio to create VWV Cyberforce, the premier Web publishing house in the country.

“The creation of the art object will always be important, but the Internet is a global, unlimited and fluid mode of creation and consumption. Unlike the privileged gallery space, it has no boundaries. The process is multi-disciplinary, multivalent and synaesthetic. It makes for the perfect post-modern artform.”

Sohn differentiates between art-as-electronic-brochure, which sets up “an arbitrary diivision between art and science”, and true cyber-art which creates an overlap between the two disciplines and engages with the medium without letting it dominate the message.

By way of illustrating the latter principle, she describes her own cyber-gallery located at the sub.cutaneous web-site, which specialises in over-the top, collaborative, confrontational and tightly scripted exhibitions. Currently on display at this cybergallery is Somewhere at a Distance From Both, a show curated by Rembrandt Gallery manager Stephen Hobbs and comprising images and texts by Roger Palmer and Moshekwa Langa in dialectical juxtaposition to one another.

“The exhibition is heavily coded,” explains Hobbs. “It forces the viewer to critically engage with the medium and the messages and points to the constructed nature of experience. ”

It also has a powerfully filmic quality which is reminiscent of the “montage” editing techniques used by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in the early 20th century. And like the films of Eisenstein, the process by which the viewer is supposed to crack the semiotic code is about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

“We try to straddle the boundary between being too accessible and too esoteric without becoming overly prescriptive,” explains Sohn. “But ultimately cyber-art is about communication, collaboration, interchange and exchange.”

Are there no checks on the free-flow of information in cyberspace, even within a post-modern context which thrives on appropriation?

“The issue of copyright and intellectual property is problematic,” admits Sohn. “The days when people shared information on the Net are over because the space has been colonised by American big business, like Bill Gate’s Microsoft. These days you have access to more, but at a price. From day to day, things change and on the Internet the learning curve is particularly steep.”

What of future cyber-site-specific shows? Sohn plans to exhibit The Body Bible by Veronique Malherbe, and a show called Three Bright Young Boys by Cape-based artists whose work is heavily influenced by British conceptualist Damien Hirst. How they plan to digitalise dead animals immersed in formaldehyde remains to be seen. But that’s all in the virtual future. For now, I think I’ll stick to shadow boxing. I’m not ready for full-on Net-petting just yet.

Art sites to visit yourself:

  • Michelle Sohn’s sub.cutaneous site is at http://sub.cutaneous.org.za/!

    Other sites of interest include:

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