Artists are beginning to realize the expressive potential of the computer: Witness "Digital Meditations" at Pasadena's Art Center School of Design gallery. To the credit of the seven artists on view and their collaborators, what they have to say for the most part outshines the arsenal of electronic and audio-visual equipment required to say it.
Instead of coming across as the spawn of special-effects-crazed techno-nerds, this art is pensive, humanistic, idealistic, romantic and ironic by turns. At a quick glance it might be mistaken for some form of video art gorgeously projected in big high-resolution images.
The principal way one knows this stuff is digital is by its interactive capacity. California artist Sara Roberts' "Elective Affinities" illustrates several aspects of this art at its best. It consists of the projected image of a country road winding into the distance as if seen from a rear-view mirror. In front of it are four upright kiosks, each with a person's face projected onto a translucent screen. When one stands in front of a kiosk, a soundtrack is triggered and the thoughts of the confronted character are broadcast. From the snippets of each projected character's interior monologue, a story begins to emerge.
That story--loosely based on a novel by Goethe--is less important here than the way a viewer fields it. The piece takes one convincingly inside both a moving car and the characters' thoughts. The sensation of knowing these people is intense, and even more convincing is the sensation of being the author of the story. It's quite a powerful mind-trip and a very impressive example of the potential of interactive media.
Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, respectively Austrian and French, collaborate on works like "Phototropy." It consists of a wall-filling image of computer-generated organic images like hives and pods. Here the viewer participates by shining a flashlight on these natural wombs, causing them to burst open and reveal myriad "virtual" insects.
The idea here--according to an artists' statement--is to manipulate the light properly. Do it right and it warms the insects so they reproduce. Do it wrong and they die.
I fried all the insects, which may account for my reservations about the piece. Although very pretty, computer-made nature looks fake. The work is basically a sophisticated reversal of those arcade games where killing constitutes success. On the other hand, it is emotionally engaging and its heart's in the right place, on the side of life and delicacy.
Bill Seaman's "Passage Sets: One Pulls Pivots at the End of the Tongue" is potentially interactive but it's so beautiful, one is disinclined to mess with it. Basically it's a visual tone poem that ruminates on Japan, the intricacies of communication, technology and romance. There is no overt story in this lovingly melded montage. It's heavily "encrypted," to use this Australian artist's word, but the subtext reveals an aching romanticism that's inescapably endearing.
"Untitled--(For Heisenberg)" is San Francisco artist Jim Campbell's meditation on the Uncertainty Principle. One enters a dark room and sees something horizontal that could be either an undulating landscape or a nude couple making love. In reality, it's a moving image of lovers projected from above on an uneven bed of salt. As one approaches, the image zooms in, so the closer one gets, the less one sees. Glitches dog all shows involving technology. The piece that had the misfortune to be on the fritz this time was Lynn Hershman's "Paranoid Mirror #2." It was a particular pity because this Bay Area artist is something of pioneer of the form. It would be unfair to comment beyond noting that like most of the other pieces, her work concerns identity and the relationship between the sexes.
Local artist Jennifer Steinkamp has two works in the show that come as close to traditional painting as anything here. Very wide, they project abstract images on and between vertical bars. They ripple and undulate like the retinal affects of '60s Op Art and the real effects of that epoch's light shows. Somehow one misses the music that always accompanied them. A little Debussy please.
Organized by Williamson Gallery director Stephen Nowlin and Finnish curator Erkki Huhtamo, this is an artistically accomplished and technically impressive demonstration. In a way, it's a pity it's so heavy on bells and whistles; the projectors and other machinery have a tendency to detract from the truth that this is really very intimate art. On the other hand, the essential machine here--the computer--makes possible what would otherwise be impossible. It's a real technological miracle.
* Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena, through Oct. 1, closed Mondays and holidays, (818) 396-2244.