Pixels for Pixel's Sake:

"Golan Levin/Casey Reas," at Bitforms Gallery,

529 West 20th Street, NYC
February 21 - March 30,2002
Reviewed by Flash Light

"Art for art's sake," is a phrase, a philosophy really, that dates back to at least the 19th century. Originally it meant art made without regard to commercial considerations. It has been embraced by successive art movements, each giving it their own meaning as they struggled with what art meant to them. During the rise of abstract expressionism it meant that the work was not about representation, not about social issues, but rather purely about the emotional experience of pigment on canvas, and what that might mean to the painter and the viewer. The work in this show seems to be about the pure use of pixels, and what that might mean to the programmer and the viewer of digital art.

Bitforms Gallery bills itself as the only gallery in NYC devoted to digitial art. It has just mounted its third show, and from the point of view of this ASCI member, the work keeps getting better. The images in the current exhibition are frequently beautiful, and they respond interactively to the input of the viewer. Indeed the terms "gestural art," or "action painting," might also apply, except here it is the gestures or actions of the viewer which the software uses to create the images.

Casey Reas seems concerned with unique interfaces. "Tissue Installation," offers the viewer a peg board interface. By moving metal pegs on a grid, the viewer influences how the software will draw lines on a display screen. The results are "hairy" looking graphics, which redraw at each movement of a peg. Such results seem clearly post-modern.

A more compelling interface is provided for "RPM Installation 2002." Two concentric disks allow the viewer to control the animation being projected on a wall. Rotating the center disk produces changes in color and form. Rotating your finger along the outer disk changes the range or size of the image. Planes revolve through the projected space creating compelling 3D renderings that respond to the viewer's touch. Open GL is the software standard used, and the resulting graphics fascinated this viewer with their interactive three dimensional complexity.

Golan Levin relies mainly on a digtal tablet as an interface. When the viewer draws a line on a tablet, the graphics immediately respond to that line, and interpret the results uniquely. "Ribble," has the effect of skywriting: the viewer's lines deconstruct like vapors in the air. "Qwerms," has the effect of organic forms: each line the viewer draws takes an organic shape possessing an eye, and the shapes move in the manner of worm-like lifeforms.

Because it uses software as a medium, interfaced by standard hardware, Levin's work could be considered conceptual. That is, when you buy a copy of the software, you are buying the idea, or concept of the piece. Any particular installation of the software could be regarded as a "manifestation" of the work, to use the conceptualist's terms of art.

Viewed this way the work addresses one of the problems which has vexed technological art since it was first shown at Howard Wise Gallery in the mid 20th century: How can it be maintained? To the extent that Levin's work is conceptual, it avoids these problems. A particular circuit might fail, a particular computer may become obsolete, but new manifestations of the work might be realized on the computers of the future, long after contemporary works done in pigment on canvas have disintegrated.

Of course there is no guarantee that future hardware will be compatible with this software, especially since it requires a video card which supports OpenGL, and that standard may become obsolete when newer standards emerge. And further it requires an Apple computer to run the card, and the fate of Apple is perpetually in doubt.

Personally, I would like to see cross platform art software. Artists shouldn't have their work vulnerable to the survival of a company like Apple. By embracing the open source movement, and programming for systems such as Linux, artists may find themselves pioneering computer real estate just as as gentrification allowed them to reshape city landscapes.

Of course, just programming this type of art on the Apple platform is monumentally difficult, so it may seem unreasonable to hope artists will be concerned with cross platform support. But I fear history will reward only artists who make the effort to cross platforms by allowing only their work to continue to be seen and survive.

Meanwhile it is fascinating to compare how the artists who show at Bitforms deal with archival issues. Some of the Bitform artists, beginning with the first Bitforms show and continuing here, rely on the strategy of creating archival prints.

A more fatalistic approach was suggested by Kelly Heaton, from the second Bitforms show, who felt that the dead circuits which remain after her work breaks down will themselves serve as a record of the work. In Heaton's case, that would amount to an A.I. networked wall of dead "Furby" toys.

If successful archival strategies do emerge for technological art, it will likely be because of galleries like Bitforms which take on the risks of nurturing the art forms dear to ASCI members. With prices for these limited software editions as low as a few hundred dollars, I hope ASCI members won't find it too hard to support this gallery. The symbiosis of artists supporting galleries and each other has proven a basis for the development of great art movements in the past.