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Web of Guise

Group Show Tackles The Possible Possibilities of The Virtual World

James Whipple's "The Waste Land"; Martijn Hendriks' "Untitled (Cubicle)" (below)

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 9/10/2008

In the summer of 1896, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky saw a demonstration of the Lumière brothers' new motion-picture device. Unlike the Parisians who supposedly ducked when they saw a train approaching on the screen, Gorky was fascinated by this "kingdom of shadows," a world washed in gray, populated by ghosts, and meant for the imagination.

Gorky's review, considered the first critical response to cinema, presaged the long debate in media circles between those who advocate electronic media's capacity to represent the world and those who prefer its ability to imagine new ones. Netmares/Netdreams, the new show at Current Gallery, is the culmination of a half-year of international artists thinking, Gorky-like, about what the internet is like when we get away from our drives for continuously refreshed information.

Mark Brown, who co-curated the show with Kari Altmann, starts off on a familiar note with his video work "Requiem for a Bogus Journey." The piece turns the time-travel free fall sequence from the pre-internet Bill and Ted movies--who needs a time machine to write a history report when you have Google?--into a seven-minute free fall into more and more images culled from the movies set against a field of white.

While several of the pieces ponder the digital void by reproducing it, others manage to resurface forgotten images from operating systems past. Kevin Bewersdorf's screen saver-like "Iceberg Marquee" and Altmann's iconic "Untitled (Spinning Beach Ball)" use mid-'90s graphics to create video works that display a whimsical nostalgia for the Intel 86 series of computer processors. Yannick Antoine's "Daydreaming" depicts an Icarus-like character lifting a three-dimensional mouse pointer toward the skies. These "netdreams" share a belief in endless possibility and mobility, with the technological limits that shape these virtual environments as invisible as air. Like Gorky, who marveled at cinema's ability to produce a dusty gray life out of moving images, these pieces revel in the life to be found in the most mundane computer images.

Although it would be hard to identify any of these pieces as a "netmare," several explore darker corners of the internet. James Whipple's "The Waste Land" places lines from the T.S. Eliot poem in images drawn from satellite photos of the planet, reducing Eliot's post-war psychic landscape to representations of actual landscapes. Petra Cortright's "Nik's Email" displays the reception of a heartfelt, if odd, e-mail--"you are a nice person and want to take care of small things"--in a loop, as if the message was being sent over and over, looking for a receiver. Altmann's "Soft 404" might be the most subtle and clever piece in the show, turning the numbers associated with internet connection error codes into a multicolored totem. The black numbers change color and slowly go out of focus until it is a sea of light before returning to the bad-news numbers familiar to browsers. While the split title of the show suggests that "netmares" are the dark side of "netdreams," Altmann's piece suggests that the two sides can be present at the same time, with the bad or good just a refresh away.

In its attempt to visualize internet dreams and nightmares, the show risks losing its grasp of the material experience of using computers, cell phones, and other digital devices. While most of the pieces are computer-made, and several successfully make aesthetic interventions amid the digital ether, there are no computers in the show, with video projectors and LCD screens the only technology seen. The materiality of internet experiences is only directly represented in one photograph, "Untitled (Cubicle)," by Martijn Hendriks, which shows the cubicle of a film industry worker, with movie scripts and a miniature Hollywood sign adorning the otherwise nondescript space. The dry life of producing art out of technology is not the focus of this show, but it underlines many of the pieces, which struggle to find the ecstasy of dreams or the terror of nightmares in representations that heavily depend, much more than the cinema does, on the imagination in order to succeed.

Gorky closed his review of the cinema by suggesting that the medium will not rest with its depictions of everyday life, but will lead to more salacious acts of sex and violence to satisfy its hunger for ghosting our visible world. Netmares/Netdreams comes almost two decades after the internet started working its information-shifting magic at government facilities and college campuses. The works in the show--rotating until it closes--are more interested in representations of the internet than the often subconscious emotions the web might produce, but this is in part a function of the difficulty of separating the multisensory internet from the rest of our lives. We have trouble seeing the kingdom of shadows because we're already residents.

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