Char Davies, Osmose, 1994-95, digital interactive software. Model wearing the head-mounted display and breathing/balance interfac vest for Osmose. Photo: Jacques Dufresne

THE FIRST CONTEMPORARY ART SHOWS that really blew me away when I was a little kid seemed crisply technological, like the set in 2001: Sol LeWitt's huge wall drawings and cube permutations in MOMA’s Projects Room, Kenneth Noland’s stripe paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (there was even a holography exhibit downstairs that day), Alexander Liberman’s afterimage-generating disks, and the work of Dan Flavin and Keith Sonnier. They all seemed part of that whole Pucci / Peter Max / Morris Louis / Yellow Submarine / Buckminster Fuller moment, when the new art seemed excitingly subversive but still part of Progress.

Since then a lot of interesting things have happened. The computer has colonized text and graphics to an exponentially greater degree than almost anyone could have foreseen, and the long-expected Infobahn did finally arrive. On-line culture is still often truly subversive, and intelligent people are even experimenting with psychedelics again. But in the art world things seem to continue along at their own rhythm. One might have expected to see more conceptual involvement with the issues of science and technology or, failing that, the continuing development of a Dionysian technology of eye-bursting psychedelia. And either path might have led easily enough into the digital world.

But it just hasn’t happened. Poking around New York’s current spate of digital-art shows is liable to produce a certain queasy feeling, like reading too many on-line mail-order catalogues: “This should be better, I should be liking it more . . . shouldn’t things be farther along by now? . . . or maybe they are, somewhere else, in Siliwood, in the techno- burbs, in the snazzier wedge-edges of commercial entertainment or design or research or something." The curators of both “Code,” at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, and the "Third Annual New York Digital Salon,” at the SVA Gallery, cast wide nets and shouldn’t be overly faulted for what turned up. “Salon,” unfortunately, is characterized by a huge display of prints and paintings all “aided,” to varying degrees, by image-generating or compositing-and-processing software. None of them really take advantage of the things a computer can do so much better than a person—massive permutations, for instance, or the fairyland complexity of topographical analyses. Instead, the hybrid works all approach the look of album covers, some with neat images, maybe, but of a type that's much more developed in the world of games and music videos. The Salon also includes a revue of computer animations—in the same genre of imagery and better viewed at home—and a few CD-ROM pieces (including Laurie Anderson's well-produced Puppet Motel, 1995), Net works, and other pieces with varying degrees of interactivity. Many ofthese, like Troy Innocent’s toylike miniature world Troy Innocent, 1992-94, and Pamela Jennings’ Solitaire: Dream Journals, 1995, have interesting passages but seem, even after a fair amount of time spent clicking through them, like hyperdimensional collages without a cause.

"Code,’’ at least, avoids putting things on a wall (except for Ben Rubin’s cute Sink, 1995) and delivers most of the works through a constructivistic constellation of monitors, each running a different disk, CD-ROM, or a semipermanent link to a Web site or database. Of course, the first thing anyone notices is the snafus: for example, one on-screen statement reads “THIS IMAGE IS BEING SENT OUT OVER THE INTERNET VIA THE WORLD WIDE WEB, FROM A CAMERA INSIDE," while a label encountered later on instructs “THIS IS NOT LIVE ON THE NET. IF YOU TRY TO ACCESS THE NET FROM HERE, THIS PIECE WILL CRASH. THANK YOU!”

Schadenfreude aside, when one actually gets pointing and clicking, some neat imagery does turn up. But I thrashed through it in vain looking for some sense of purpose, some mystery that draws you in, some reason that these vast arrays of scanned images should be in this medium as opposed to some other. We’re already used to browsing through a whole lot of images on screens, and unless they’re eye-blowingly attractive, impatience can set in fast. It gets tedious to stand in a gallery, roll mice, and try to get the allure of these sites; it’s the same problem as in all those installations where you have to stand up and read, read, read. And while selecting a bunch of Web sites is a legitimate activity, it’s not all that different from just printing a list of these sites, as magazines from Wired to Time now do as a matter of course. Putting them in an art gallery seems to be beside the point.

“Code” also includes one fully immersive work, Char Davies’ Osmose, 1995, which is probably the most expensive and commercial piece in the show. Davies helped develop SoftImage, Inc. to facilitate her work; the software was recently sold to Microsoft, and she now holds the title of director of visual research for the company. Osmose is a really lovely virtual space, with subtle, misty color, and a clever use of overlapping planes of scanned vegetation. Much of the area of the planes is coded for transparency, setting the piece against the too- hard-edged world of almost all VR, and the aqueous effect is accentuated by a navigation interface controlled by breathing and other movements based on scuba diving. While Osmose wouldn't seem out of place in a Zen spa, it does at least suggest what a different kind of VR installation might look like. And at the very least it’s better than the corresponding “wooshy eye food" strain in current painting, which isn’t pushing the edge of any envelope.

Eric Davis, Impersonal Sexual Encounter Between Two Men #1, 1995,
Iris Print, 6 x 27".
From the "Third Annual Visual Salon", New York.

Nearly all the work in both shows is by commercial designers moonlighting as gallery artists, with evidently next-to-zero knowledge of art history. Have the day-job artists been scared away from digital media, either by its technical requirements or, more likely, by its hype? For the most part artists are using computers only sparingly in the context of other projects, like Matthew Barney’s Silicon Graphics, Inc., graphics in the whirling logos of his Cremaster 4. Is it just cultural lag? Or have all the really talented people become commercial designers and programmers who are too busy to mess with the art world? Maybe it’s partly the fault of the last few decades of art history, which has by and large veered away from dead-on engagement with technology. What we generally think of when we think of the “art world,” or the corpus of stuff that is considered artistic, is not providing a useful foundational structure for this medium. Nor necessarily should it. There are plenty of forms out there to work in for commercial artists, from movies to home solitaire games, and they might be better off following the models of other “cultural producers" than those of the gallery world. A bad movie is still pretty good, and even a bad landscape still works on a wall as a landscape, but bad arty software gets erased.

One of the half-tongue-in-cheek lines among some of us (recently) young and permanently jaded art types used to be that our favorite artists of this century were M. C. Escher, Maxfield Parish, Victor Vasarély, and Katsuhiro Otomo, and that we enjoyed going through the Vorpal Gallery more than real galleries. It was a point of pride not to accept distinctions between high and low but only between boring and not. But the novelty of searching for camp spectacle has lately started to wear thin. As a last-ditch effort to glean some fresh bytes I dropped by something called the “Virtuosity Art Fair," at the Armory. It turned out to be a trade show of mainstream, mall-art dealers linked into a database/ interface fashioned after a museum. Clicking through the “virtual gallery"—entering various genres, sizes, and price ranges and playing private games like “What's the Least Hideous Thing Under $500?" or “Most Hideous Over $100,000?"—I really had a good time. At least I was playing with theoretical dollars.

Of course, the real fun would have been to play with someone else’s real money. And while the mall dealers have developed their on-line museum first, even serious dealers are rushing to link their stock photos to other sites. If digital art is currently on the low dip of the sine wave, digital-art dealing, on the other hand, may be about to catch a tsunami.

Brian D'Amato's novel Beauty is currently in development at Touchstone Pictures. His first virtual-reality installation debuted in 1992.

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Put online: June 2017. Last verified: June 22nd, 2017.