Instructor, Art History, Theory, and Criticism; Film, Video, New Media, and Animation (2010). BFA, 1971, Brown University, Providence; MFA, 1985, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Exhibitions: The Wrong Digital Art Biennale, worldwide online; Algorists 2009, Santa Barbara; Chain Reaction, Skopje, Macedonia. Publications: Oskar Fischinger 1900–1967; CAA Journal; Leonardo. Bibliography: Information Arts (MIT Press); Chicago Reader; Levante (Valencia, Spain). Curatorial: Imaging by Numbers, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art; Second Nature, Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art; La Finca/The Homestead, Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain. Collections: Block Museum of Art, Addison Gallery of American Art.
Experience at SAIC
Humor : Human :: Stricture : Structure
An Artist's Statement
The circumference of truth has been ruptured. The historical aberrations of technology, the degradation of the environment, the nightmare logic of war, and the cultural falsehoods and bad faith of colonial power compel us to a critical distrust of our motives and our capacity to know and make sense of the world. Anyone who holds out hope for the culture of knowledge, rationality, and tolerance that emerged from the European Renaissance must confront not only the supposedly "exterior forces" of irrationality and intolerance, but the recorded hypocrisy of humanistic culture itself. Many voices urge its demolition, some in expectation of a return to eschatological thought or a lost cultural purity, others equally vehement in promulgating a New Age or a New Order.
Within such a tremendous collision, what can an artist do, who still hopes for a culture where individuals together can make sense of the world and themselves? Political art is certainly one possibility. Humor, I suggest, is another.
Like beauty, that old hobby horse of artists, humor flashes by in a moment of grace, a lightning, lightening glimpse. Unlike beauty, it perpetrates its illusions to penetrate illusion, pausing the game barely long enough to defy gravity. By flouting gravity, that "mysterious carriage of the body to hide defect of the mind," as Tristam Shandy has it, humor offers a sense of scale more intimately human than do all-encompassing systems and universal truths. By disengaging us from our cherished misunderstandings, it staves off the collisions that measure our current rate of change. Humor may suffice to recalibrate culture to the scale of our individual doubts and strivings, discarding the false optics of nation, race, creed, or political allegiance.
If my works on paper, installations, performances and music, created over a span of some thirty years, possess an elaborate formal language, in line with Constructivist art of the 20th century avant-garde, I hope they also own up to a sly mischief, smearing formality with muddy meaning. In the wider scope of my work, of which visual patterns are but one manifestation, I aim for something akin to expressionistic excess, spawning artists and generative systems, laying stricture on structure, mixing media and modality. Complex systems arise from simple systems, and meaning canters in on the back of sufficiently self-referential systems?or so the story goes. Shouldn't a sufficiently complex system be able to ask whether it should take itself seriously? Let the grand metaphysical structures slouch into ruin. With the giddy aplomb of a clown on a tightrope, let us step out?into thin air, into the next moment, into the next epoch.
Art Histories for the Difference Engine
An Art Historian's Statement
Historian of science and literary critic N. Katherine Hayles argues that computational technology has become so interwoven in our experience as to shift the very concepts by which we array our world, constituting a "regime of computation" that pervades all our communications and by extension our entire culture. If the digital is so pervasive—and not only Hayles's persuasive text but also the texture of everyday life in our society, critically observed, confirms that it is—then why don't we see its manifestations and effects everywhere in contemporary visual art? The sturdy avant-garde of the modern era seemed to have an endless appetite for machine aesthetics: witness the cult of speed in Futurism, the industrial forms of Constructivism, the space-time geometry of Cubism, or the absurd anti-art machineries of Dada. Is the computer different from other machines? What did artists do with it when it first appeared? Have computer artists made a unique and fruitful contribution to art history? If so, why are they largely absent from standard art histories? Is the computer transforming art just as it has transformed other aspects of the world—invisibly?
As an artist creating his work with computational technology from the mid 1980s on, these questions seemed especially pertinent to me. I had learned to work with computers at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies in Art and Technology. Obviously, computers mattered to artists, but it was hard to find a corresponding enthusiasm among art historians. My response to this situation was to take on the roles of curator and art historical researcher in the matter. I was extremely fortunate to meet many of the pioneers of computational art, and to witness first hand and participate in the emergence of the broader and more diffuse field of "new media."
Pioneers of computer art regularly noted—in varying tones of resignation, defiance, or complaint—the neglect of computer art on the part of museums, galleries, art historians, critics and mainstream art publications. A number of conferences and a few museum exhibitions within recent years have begun to rectify this situation, notably within the wider context of establishing an art historical discourse on the relationship of art, technology, and science. As part of this discourse, curator Deborah Wood and I brought together some 80 works on paper at the Block Museum of Northwestern University for "Imaging by Number: A Historical View of the Computer Print," in 2008. Most of the works exhibited became part of the museum's permanent holdings and with additional works constitute its second most-visited art historical collection. The exhibition brought to my research an art historical rigor that it had not previously had, and led me to publish essays in CAA Art Journal and elsewhere.
Given the scope of change computational technology has wrought by distributing and decentering economy, culture, and personal consciousness, the forms and concepts of computer art seem poised to acquire increasing depth and significance as representations of human experience. The art history course that I teach at SAIC, "Prehistories of New Media," brings computational art and other precursors of new media into the context of multiple art histories, both to provide points of access for the student interested in research and to provide the artist working in new media with historical and theoretical roots. My studio courses similarly attempt to offer the student a historical context for their practice. "Code Sourcery" in Art and Technology Studies offers a perspective on algorithms as pattern-making practices that were developed well before the advent of computers, providing yet another historical context for new media. "Critical Artware" in Film, Video, Animation and New Media Studies looks to the video art of the 1980s as a source for interrogating the relation between distribution networks, artists, and communities.
After years of working with software and formal systems—albeit with aims other than formality—I have been working with glitch art, noise, error and improvisation. I've been studying jazz, a music I have played for most of my life, with a new seriousness, thinking about how improvisation finds there a cultural context. I expect that at some point my intermedia work with music will show the effects of this study, as I approach it from an improviser's point of view, as a material to explore and experience intuitively rather than as a self-referential symbolic system.
The international glitch art community influences me, also. I suspect the influence is mutual, as I write software that sees some use in that community. I am fascinated by its systems of distribution, and by those of Open Source/Free Software, in which I also participate.
I also return repeatedly to the work of the poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé and the Symbolist movement of the late 19th/early 20th century. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado, who like the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa developed multiple poetic personalities, has long been an influence. These poets have as much sway over me as does contemporary theory.
Disclaimer: All work represents the views of the INDIVIDUAL ARTISTS & AUTHORS who created them, and are not those of the school or museum of the Art Institute.