Weekend March 31 / April 1, 2001

Virtual corridors of power

By Ralph Rugoff

Displayed on a solitary video monitor, Craig Kalpakjian's "Corridor" consists of a single mesmerising shot. It takes us on a journey down a curving office corridor that is coldly institutional and suspiciously immaculate; indeed, the space is utterly devoid of any trace of human touch. And it is also seemingly endless: no matter how long we watch, the shot continues to advance at a hypnotic pace, moving us along an evenly lit hallway that stretches on forever, unrolling towards some ever-receding destination.

The effect is eerie and vaguely sinister, conjuring a sense of claustrophobia and infinity at the same time. That this uncanny sensation is akin to what many of us feel in the face of our culture's ever-expanding electronic landscape is perhaps no coincidence. Kalpakjian's deceptively plausible footage is in fact a computer-generated animation, created sans camera using only the zeroes and ones of digital code. In the artist's hands, its creepy perfection becomes an apt metaphor for the impersonal spaces of corporate architecture.

Kalpakjian's remarkable work is part of 010101: Art in Technological Times, an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A timely look at art that examines and reflects the pervasiveness of digital media, 010101 includes an online component and even boasts a virtual reality installation. But the show is hardly a trade fair for techno-fetishists. While many of the featured artworks are made with the aid of computers, others employ traditional media - such as painting, sculpture and photography - to explore the ways that digital datascapes are altering our perceptions of the world.

A handful of odd and innovative works in the show adumbrate tantalising possibilities for the future of contemporary art, suggesting new directions for producing it as well as displaying it. German artist Karin Sander, who contributes a series of figurative sculptures that are small models of actual people, uses a process in which multiple digital cameras record the appearance of each portrait subject in a 360-degree scan. Files containing that information are then fed into a computer-driven modelling apparatus that produces a likeness in plastic resin. For the final touch of realism, an industrial air-brush artist colours in each figure, matching tones to photographs made during the original scan. Rendered one-tenth life-size, the end result is essentially a three-dimensional photograph.

Some viewers, no doubt, will wonder whether such machine-produced artefacts can truly be considered works of art. (Though Sander chooses her subjects, she is not even present for most of the production process). In the 19th century, of course, critics raised similar questions about the status of photography as an aesthetic medium, rather than a merely scientific one. Sander's work inevitably recalls that moment if only because it produces an effect that is fascinatingly unlike anything achieved by conventional artistic means. With their disconcertingly life-like details - postures, facial expressions, and the hang of rumpled clothing are all replicated with stunning precision - her works seem less like sculptures than miniaturised beings.

Another German artist, Jochem Hendricks, likewise eschews the touch of the hand in order to embrace digital tech-nologies. Hendricks creates drawings with his eyes, using a head-mounted scanning device that tracks the motion of his pupils while he reads or gazes at an object or picture. A computer plotter then translates the gathered data into "eye drawings" whose ziz-zagging lines suggest bizarre forms of musical notation or delirious electrocardiograms.

It may sound like a limited gimmick, but Hendricks' drawings are strangely compelling. Whether produced by the movement of his eyes in reading a newspaper or staring at pornographic materials, they offer a revealing record of visual perception in action. In this sense, they also unexpectedly evoke the splatter paintings of Jackson Pollock, which were famously described as the residue of that artist's physical activity as he circled the canvas dripping and slinging pigment.

Painting is given a hi-tech makeover by Jeremy Blake, who is arguably the current poster boy of digital art. Blake's contribution to 010101 is a pair of painterly digital animations, each seven-and-a-half minutes in length, that are displayed on long horizontal plasma screens. Feat uring changing grids of luminous colour and dissolving panels that part like drapery to reveal decorative and architectural motifs, they are at once techno-cool and lushly sensuous.

By comparison, the works on canvas in the exhibition - most of which recycle the look of computer graphics - seem flat-footed and merely illustrative. While they busily quote the shapes and forms of designer software, Blake's work actually transports painting into the digital age.

Some of the best work in the exhibition, however, demonstrates that traditional art forms are still up to the task of capturing the pixel-inspired spirit of the times. An intriguing architectural sculpture by Shirley Tse made from Styrofoam packing moulds, and a hallucinatory installation by Sarah Sze featuring a deconstructed Jeep splayed across three levels of the museum, both shrewdly conjure a Photoshop view of the world. Besides invoking the plasticity of digital identities, each of these works reminds us that sculpture - which forces us to reassess our perceptions as we observe it from different angles - can be just as "interactive" as any virtual reality program.

010101 falters most seriously when it succumbs to a feel-good, techno utopianism. With information texts scrawling on computer monitors, the show's sleek installation occasionally recalls something out of a modernist World's Fair pavilion. A feebly conceived environmental installation by Brian Eno, meanwhile, suggests nothing more challenging than a "chill room" from a 1990s rave club. Other environmental works, such as a "Melatonin Room" by the Swiss architectural team Decisterd & Rahm, in which glaring green and ultraviolet lights supposedly boost and lower the viewer's melatonin levels, are equally simple-minded.

A "Malfunction Room" would be more to the point, as the exhibition suffers from the usual breakdowns associated with technology-dependent art (on the day I visited, three major works were "closed for repairs"). Until museum staffs include computer engineers, mounting and maintaining such shows will always be a dicey business. In the end, 010101 offers no satisfying critical framework for understanding the array of works it gathers together, but it may be too early to even attempt to understand how new technologies are changing the vocabularly of art. What the show does deliver, though, is an often beguiling survey of potential trends looming on the horizon.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether any of these new media will significantly facilitate the development of novel aesthetic languages. Art, after all, is not simply about saying things, but about discovering new ways of saying them. And that difficult task doesn't require new technologies so much as the imagination and insight needed to pose old questions in ways that allow us to experience them anew.

'010101: Art in Technological Times': at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until July 8.