It’s More Fun to Compute

This event was an exercise in translation, foreign vocabularies, the language of new media, the dismantling of the “text,” and the failure of spoken language to describe visual events. Translation: if I were to come back, I’d be reincarnated as a French digital artist.

As it is, I am a British artist sitting with an international audience in an large, darkened lecture theatre at an American art college discussing new media and its expansion with four representatives from French culture. (And as a token for a definition of the Internet, this could be described as a good start.) Digital Dialogues, a series run by the San Francisco Art Institute, offers an opportunity to participate in the contexts that are shaping the way artists use the Internet and technology to create and present work. For this particular event, a panel of artists, curators, and producers presented their practice, giving examples of their work, followed by more intensive dialogues about the meaning of digital practice as a whole, with emphasis on French work and how it translates across cultural, political, and geographic divides.

This event described itself as a presentation of what it means to be making, culturally and creatively, digital art now. Mediated by Benjamin Weil, curator of new media at SFMOMA, the symposium suggested a landscape overview of new ways that artists are making and showing work, cutting-edge innovations, and the means by which projects get made, either collaboratively or through agencies or galleries that commission work. Install into this model the particular characteristics of the French experience and those of French artists living and working abroad. Present were Pascale Cassagnau, a producer and commissioner (read funding and money); Erik Adigard, a French new media artist now based in San Francisco; Eric Sadin, whose work includes art, editing an online magazine, and writing theorist texts; and Gregory Chatonsky, a media/performance artist.

Historically this event stemmed from a discussion held for the exhibition Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace, organized at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, then held at the San Francisco Art Institute from February through April 2001. The success of that event led to the Institute’s decision to make a long-term commitment to curating public programs designed to explore the cultural influence of this new media. Underlining these public programs is an understanding of the meanings and modalities of the digital across disciplines — in other words, how artists construct meaning across virtual and physical spaces; how technology influences the work of artists, new media engineers, and screen-based designers; and the significance of collaborative practice utilizing the skills of different kinds of new media practitioners.

Of course, the first question is: why the French context for this event? And without waxing xenophobic, does the French model excel or distract us from other cultural projects? What about Dutch digital work, Eastern European, or Taiwanese, or work emerging from less technologically advanced states and cultures (and thus regarded as less significant)? The symposium failed to address why the organizers had chosen to focus on work from France. It would have been more enlightening to look at Europe as a whole, since culturally and especially politically Europe is promoting itself as a unified whole. To concentrate on French digital work, however appealing and progressive, however well-subsidized and organized, left the symposium with a larger, more urgent question: What is the specific cultural, geographical significance of a tool and means of presentation that is global — that is, without borders? This implies questions of access to new media and technology, either to making or to viewing work. If the individual has no access to this work (either to make or engage with) does that not mean that the new digital actually fails to deliver meaning and thus communicate? This was not a major theme for the event, but it should have been. How can you communicate if you lack interface? This argument may seem petty, since the showing and site context for all art is a loaded subject, but the digital embraces and symbolizes technology and access. Its reach ends with the trigger of an off switch.

The event was divided into three sections — panel presentations, the dialogues themselves, and a performance by Eric Sadin and Gregory Chatonsky. It opened with Erik Adigard, who from behind his PowerBook began to explain that he shied away from the term artist and placed his practice firmly within a design context, and thus commerce. His presentation negated this initial statement — the projects he showed all derived from an interest in making art from the substances of digital material. Adigard’s presentation included a fake documentary, where he interviews people who dream in HTML code and receive letters from dead relatives in JavaScript; a project that visualizes, using Zapf DingBats or Web Dings, the passing of time in abbreviated graphic representation of minutes, seconds, or hours. Whether or not he was criticizing what is now termed “Internet time” remained unclear. Adigard made claims throughout to construct his practice purely as a designer, and here came the definition of the evening — that artists can make work about self-expression, while the designer must maintain his or her client’s voice. But perhaps what Adigard failed to recognize within himself and the work he offered up was that the digital allows these terms and their expected, working contexts to be dismantled, and allows for a subsequent change in the values placed on design or art, designer or artist.

Cassagnau, from behind an oversized microphone, began to describe the work of her agency, the French Ministry of Culture’s Division of Plastic Arts. Both a commissioner of digital work and resource to encourage collaboration, her description was more like promotion than an explanation of how her agency works. For instance, which contexts favor one project over another, which artists get to show work and where, who is encouraged and who denied, and how are these choices made? Cassagnau’s dialogue, though, expressed a very comforting and encouraging sign that the making of any kind today should be regarded as a convergence, as a single unit of creation. That is to say, video, object-based work, public processes, multimedia, no media, television, and film are one and the same. It’s just the translation that changes.

Following Cassagnau’s presentation, the two French artists Sadin and Chatonsky presented short introductions to their work. Both of these artists seemed obsessed with the visual purity of the Internet and its potential over all other media. A heated argument ensued that posed numerous questions: are traditional books better than digital information, and do you have to publish your stuff on the Net because it’s the contemporary thing to do? Why not both, or whatever you can distribute? Does a book have more artistic, creative value than a URL? Is a photocopy of the work just another way of looking at the work, and can a project not exist within different, engaged, and thus connected media? Isn’t it about communication?

So communicate.

This is what drove the event forward: different kinds of translation and communication. A French producer discussing her work in nervous English, a SF-based French designer translating or interpreting the differences between art and design, and two media artists translating the vocabularies of the visual and the visual integrity and power of the Internet.

Sadin and Chatonsky finished the event with a live performance of a new work, RE:ENGINEERING. Shown on multiple projections, this work was a fast-forward through a number of cultural diagrams and signs: Japanese typefaces, urban density, pixilated and manipulated stills, Kraftwerk motifs all looped to a computer-generated narrator describing the building of brands, the operation of multimedia tools and interfaces, the production of global communications and what it kinda means to have a Web presence. And inside all of this was an indeterminate story about a prostitute working the streets on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. The aesthetics of this work are what you would expect: motion type and scrolling images, fragmented through virtual wire-frame landscapes. A remote, convoluted exchange through a sideways glance at the pornography of technology and a series of numbers, words, and expressions that led us back to a half-remembered, half-described story about a prostitute. And suddenly it was there: amongst this heap of information, this catalogue of technical magic was a real individual, with a story, and emotions, and dirt, and sex, and realness.

Sadin and Chatonsky’s work was a spectacular performance that attempted to convince its audience that the digital realm is something that we must buy into: all this work rendered the brilliance of new technology and the potential of the digital as merely a visual commodity.

I am a British artist in an international audience at an American art college watching a French artist’s description of a Manhattan prostitute, through a maze of global references, sounds, and the highly recognizable imagery of the technologically advanced.

God, it’s more fun to compute. Probably.

For more information on these events, visit the San Francisco Art Institute.


— Alex Hetherington is an artist and writer currently based in San Francisco and Glasgow. He is currently working with and developing a large-scale digital media, animations and object-based project. His past work includes public art, performance, video projections and installation. Previous collaborators include Rachel Walton, Robbie Higney-Paterson, Gary Indiana, Forced Entertainment, and Fabienne Audoeud. His writing includes articles on artists such as Douglas Gordon, Ellen Cantor, Mark Lewis, Jason Bowman, and Stephen Skyrnka.