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The Gilded Page

FAX creatively revisits the pre-digital technology of the business world

Peter Coffin's "Untitled" (above) and Matt Sheridan Smith's "Untitled (Contrast Test) (detail)" (below)

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 12/16/2009


Through Dec. 20 at the Contemporary Museum

Bulky, slow, and hard to use, the facsimile machine is the last of the office-technology dinosaurs. Although the underlying technology was first patented in the 1840s, it took almost a century and a half for the demand for the devices to make them practical for business use.

But in its heyday, the mid-1970s to the late '90s, the fax machine was the device for instant textual gratification. Despite the hassles of rolled paper, ink blotches, and adding extra telephone lines, there was no better way to send a contract, an urgent memo, or, before the widespread adoption of e-mail, a document.

FAX, curated by João Ribas and currently at the Contemporary Museum after showing earlier this year at the Drawing Center in New York, attempts to recover what was particularly provocative about fax machines by displaying work submitted by, as the show catalog puts it, "a multigenerational group of artists, as well as architects, designers, scientists, and filmmakers." In Baltimore, these pieces, both displayed on the wall and placed in booklets on tables for browsing, are accompanied by faxes by local artists and, in a nice touch, area secondary-school students.

Like its technological cousin the copy machine, the fax machine inspires considerable nostalgia despite, or perhaps because of, its many failings. A quantum leap from its predecessor, the telegram, the fax allowed for simultaneous transmission that was impossible before. (As noted in the worthwhile and informative British documentary, "The Secret Life of the Fax Machine," included in the show, the pantelegraph, a distant cousin to the fax machine in mid-19th-century France, failed in part because no one needed to get any document immediately.) But there's another, more intimate aspect of the fax machine, which emerges in some of the submitted pieces, that has made it an object of affection.

This intimacy is both an artifact of fax technology--the poor image quality almost assures that the images are not going to be easily reproduced, so receiving a fax is as personal as getting a letter--and the simple fact that faxing is like making a telephone call, an act that requires a frankness not found in more secure methods of message delivery, like the mail. You never have the choice to open or not open a fax, which may help explain the once requisite "cover sheet," examples of which are seen throughout the show.

In the show itself, we see signs of this now-lost intimacy. Contributions include descriptions of abandoned art projects, contracts for work never performed, inscrutable maps of unknown worlds, and a handful of pieces that take advantage of the properties of the fax machine itself. For example, Zoe Keramea's 1992 piece "Fax Virus," which used a Möbius strip-like paper placed in a fax machine to use up the paper supply of any machine it happened to dial, is not included in the show. Instead, a description and sample of the work is provided, so that you might make your own fax virus, provided there are still fax machines left to receive it.

Other artists address the fax machine as a device for visual reproduction. One of Edward Tufte's contributions is a single page that states "one fax is worth 2,000 Powerpoint Slides," using a variety of financial data and abstract patterns to prove his point. Han Ulrich Obrist submits a description of an old proposal by another artist to hold a Global Fax Biennale, and others, on the same path, submit work with instructions as to how the piece should be displayed.

Molly Springfield's work suits the exhibition, as her hand-reproduced pages are here made technological once again. With the work by students, one is reminded that the fax's surest capability is to reduce any form of creative output to a low-resolution, black-and-white image.

In the first gallery a fax machine sits silently, as if waiting at any moment for another work to arrive. The very messiness of paper is dealt with in this show by minimizing the number of works displayed on the wall and placing the excess in booklets. It would have been fitting if the fax machine were in fact running during the museum's operating hours, with new work constantly arriving, demanding to be displayed, sorted and filed. For the fax machine is not just remembered for its intimacy and its timeliness. It is also an object that produces excess, that never tires of answering the telephone, waiting for the handshake chirps to complete, and taking up the printing of yet another page.

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