FREE: Digital Space as Public Space
Art in Public Series: Digital Space as Public Space
Free, an exhibition at the New Museum, New York
by Linda Wysong
The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else, Lisa Oppenheim 35 mm slide projection 2006
Free is a fascinating exhibition at the New Museum in New York that looks at digital space as public space and explores how artists are using the virtual town square. It is an expansive group show that brings together a broad cross section of artists and approaches. The point of departure is “Dispersion,” an essay by artist Seth Price, in which he notes, “Collective experience is now based on simultaneous private experiences, distributed across the field of media culture, knit together by ongoing debate, publicity, promotion, and discussion.” (online catalog: http://www.newmuseum.org/free)
Simultaneous private experience as public space is in my mind, both an obvious reality and a radical departure. For digital space is democratic, free and simultaneous, yet the character of the digital is substantively different from the physicality of the public plaza.
As an artist who has experience creating installations in parks and city squares, there is a particular type of dialog that comes from the dynamic of mixing space, touch, and conversation. In digital space there are just as many participants, but the digital viewer reads and responds to the images from his isolated position in front of a screen, making monologue more likely than genuine conversation. There is also the fact that the digital experience privileges sight and sound and diminishes touch, smell, and taste. The shift in the input has subtle but important effects on the character of the discourse. Finally, the World Wide Web was developed by engineers for the transmission of data and therefore perpetrates the assumption that more information is equivalent to greater understanding. The structure of the Internet has little room for contextual relationships.
The curator of Free, Lauren Cornell, brings this important question of context and content to the forefront by beginning the exhibition with Joel Holmberg’s “Legendary Account.” Holmberg posts existential and philosophical questions on Yahoo! Answers. The results are often humorous and always quirky. By using this data focused site, he points out the foibles of open source content and the important link between context and understanding. The disjunctive conversations undercut the often held assumption that information is equivalent to knowledge.
“Legendary Account” exists both online, as a series of answers on Holmberg’s Yahoo! Answers account and as paper scrolls on sheetrock. The 10 printed scrolls demonstrate the difficulty of translating a conceptual and web-based work into a form appropriate for gallery viewing. The mundane graphics and functional printouts tacked onto wallboard are underwhelming in the heightened gallery environment. The physical impact of the work is definitely secondary to its social and cultural concerns. The dichotomy between its intriguing content and its pedestrian presentation raises a second question of context. Does the public space of the Museum enhance or diminish the viewing Joel Holmberg’s thoughtful investigation? Possibly the work is better presented in the manner it was developed, on a screen.
Legendary Account, Joel Holmberg 2007- 2010 digital prints on sheetrock
By contrast Lisa Oppenheim’s “The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else” with its comforting clicks emanating from the vintage 35mm slide carousel needs the gallery space. It is a projection that consists of a series of snapshots of sunsets taken by US soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. She gleaned the photographs from Flickr and then re-photographed them against Manhattan sunsets. The two images taken across the world, one set in war and the other in peace, are remarkably similar, connecting us with the soldiers and evoking our universal humanity. This simple piece is truly global, reminding us of the world we share regardless of our circumstances, the digital network that allows us to instantly communicate our private moments, and how quickly technology reshapes our understanding of time and space.
19:30 Aleksandra Domanovic, 2-channel video, color, sound 2010
Aleksandra Domanovic brings together music and historic TV Idents, the introductory graphic sequences that precede nightly news broadcasts. Since 1970s, the central news show in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was broadcasted at 19:30 every evening. The predictable event gave a rhythm to daily life and the name to Aleksandra Domanovic’s installation. The news is public information. The stories address public places and shared events, but ironically, we often watch them in the privacy of our homes. It is this interstitial space between public and private that is presented in “19:30,” an insightful combination of historic images and dance music.
Last year Domanovic traveled to the former Yugoslavia, a country that had been violently dissolved in a succession of ethnically charged wars that began in 1991. She collected archival graphics and the accompanying sound (1945 –1992) from the now defunct national television network. She gave the audio material to DJs and asked them to use the samples in dance tracks. (To hear these mixes go to http://nineteenthirty.net/adaptations.) Then Domanovic videotaped young men with headphones dancing to this newly sampled music. Finally the artist created “19:30,” a spilt screen video. One channel shows the archival TV footage and the other is the energetic dancing in rough urban landscapes. The viewer dons headphones and both channels move to the music.
The result is a collage that evokes the memory of a lost national identity and connects with an international techno sound track. The group activity of watching the news is placed firmly in the past while we watch young men with iPods dance wildly to a sound track that could be found in New York, Paris or Tokyo. They are lost in their private moment while sharing the universal language of music and dance.
When sitting in front of “19:30″ I was struck by how the Internet has given us a shared soundtrack. The web has transformed current events into performances we can watch on our personal computer. It allows us to instantly view events from around the world but it also blends them into a performance accessible in our home. The era of the grand spectacle may be giving way to the world of private viewing. Our 15 minutes of fame may be about seeing our lives as performance.
Public art has traditionally been physical objects in public spaces. As the definition of public space grows to include the digital, the importance of the object becomes a part of the discussion. Lizzie Fitch tries to bridge the gap by creating large sculptural assemblages that reference the use of the Internet as a creator of style and purveyor of goods. She sources items from the realm of “lifestyle merchandise” and creates installations through a process of cropping and reshaping that consciously mimics the digital effects of Photoshop. These installations also reference the domestic settings where we store our merchandise and plug in our computers.
Pangea, Lizzie Fitch w/Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, David Toro, Ryan Trecartin and Telfar Clemens. 2010
Her piece “Pangea,” a bedroom assemblage illustrates the difficulties of the translation from the digital to the concrete. There are many witty plays on words such as the obvious windows in the bed and inversions and reversals using clothing or accessories that signify class, gender, or culture. Yet the connections are linguistic and the power of the physical world is not used to its full advantage.
Digital space is definitely a new realm of public space and will therefore be incorporated into the vocabulary of Public Art. As in all transitions, there are challenges both for the artists and the audience. One issue is economics, a homeless person can enjoy art in the park but computer access is not universal and will probably continue to be related to class for some time. Then there is the character of the screen; they are getting both larger, smaller and more adaptable but screens remain flat objects that turn on and off. The digital world encompasses time but not space. The almost mystical experience of an Anish Kapoor sculpture that taps into our intuitive understanding of space, touch, and beauty through shifting sunlight, rain, and wind cannot be replaced. But the tent is large and I look forward to the exploration of the digital as a way to expand the dialog.