At 12:16 PM on September 12, five aircraft flying in close formation at 10,000 feet over San Jose gave us Pi in The Sky. Flying under the direction of artist-technologist Ben Davis (aka ISHKY studios), and using computerized synchronization, they emitted precise puffs of smoke that described the numerical sequence 3.1415926535, that being the mystic, decimalized approximation of the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference. The chain of numbers covered a 100-mile loop throughout the Bay Area. By 12:32, it was no longer visible in any form save that of several thousand Facebook postings of digital photographs of the piece. The 2012 Zero1 Biennial had begun, and a numeric stand-in for its thematic subtitle, Seeking Silicon Valley, was writ large.
A long way to go for an over-literal gag? Perhaps, but then again, we are talking about Silicon Valley, a place that always has to defend its reputation for thinking big, out-of-the-box thoughts. It is, after all the place where two guys working in a garage changed the world, and as a belated result, downtown San Jose was given a spiffy makeover about two decades ago. Museums were built and/or given fancy architectural facelifts, and art galleries and alternative spaces are now visible on both Market and First streets in the heart of the downtown area. Indeed, the arts in the South Bay seem to have benefited from the Silicon Valley money tree, much more so than those in San Francisco. And this might be part of the reason why Zero1 had taken on the subtitle of “Seeking Silicon Valley,” in effect saying that the valley may have found its own way to the arts, but that the arts had yet to grapple with what Silicon Valley can be taken to mean as a cultural meme for the 21st century.
Given the size and relatively short time span of Silicon Valley’s benefit to the South Bay arts community, and given the growing the magnitude of its wealth, something much grander than a downtown redevelopment program seemed to be required, so in 2001 the original Zero1 festival was launched. For all-too-obvious fundraising reasons mixed with all-too obscure artistic ones, it billed itself as being exclusively devoted to a forward-thinking synthesis of art and technology, and it quickly ran into trouble owing to the way that it misinterpreted both ends of that equation. In 2006, it re-christened itself as the Zero1 Biennial, and now, four iterations later, it seems to have finally weathered its own history of missteps and false starts, and is at last coming into its own as a truly sophisticated and esthetically formidable event. At long last, we can begin to see it in the same light of professionalism as Ars Electronica, that being the oldest media arts biennial in Linz, Austria (initiated in 1971), as well as the more auspicious Media City Biennial in Seoul, South Korea—currently enjoying its seventh go-round. Needless to say, Zero1 still has some distance to go before it achieves those levels of prominence, but the good news is that, operating under the guidance of its new executive director Joel Slayton, it is at last moving on the path that will get it there.
Of course, during the past two decades, all of the other major international biennial exhibitions of contemporary art have had robust inclusions of media arts in their programming, so at this stage there is nothing particularly new or noteworthy about the wedding of art and new technology—it is a de rigeur part of the world of contemporary art. It has been so ever since Jack Burnham organized his famously ill-fated Software exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum in early 1970. Soon after, in 1971, we had the ambitious program of Experiments in Art and Technology at the LA County Art Museum. Books such as Michael Rush’s New Media in Late 20th Century Art sealed the deal, and the fact that Artforum is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary with a special issue devoted to art and technology only adds pixilated icing on the virtual cake. Back in those earliest moments, and in many others that followed, technology was presented as a new fangled freak show that might allow artists access to vast pools of corporate resources that could support the most ambitious of projects. Unfortunately, clouds followed the freak show, as the artists who presented in the 1971 Art and Technology at LACMA were castigated as being the willing pawns of an aerospace industry that needed public relations cover for its Vietnam-era profit bloats.
Long story short, the art world momentarily backed away from its initial fascination with advanced technology, and artistic creativity was again able to uphold itself as being something ethically different from and morally superior to technological ingenuity, which always reverted to the nefarious purposes of corporate profiteering. Yet, as the story evolved, it became clear that the art world’s posturing around high-minded ethics was but a momentary fantasy that was underwritten by the government arts funding that disappeared in 1994, eventually turning that fantasy into a point of mere nostalgia rather than a purposefully upheld position (as many of the essays in the aforementioned issue of Artforum attest). Eventually, this set the stage for a changed relationship between art institutions and technology companies, with both sides steadily rebalancing their attitudes toward each other in more favorable directions. It took some time, but the new relationship at last seems to be working out, partly because whatever moral qualms that we might have about the ethical wedding of art to various forms of corporate commerce now have to be measured against those that we might feel about the fact that the art world itself seems to have been bitched-out by the megabanking entities that underwrite its many art fairs and other mega-exhibitions.
Enter the logic and culture of Silicon Valley hubris, so brace yourself, because this is going to sting. Essentially, Silicon Valley hubris is a logic that goes something like this: we reshaped the world in our own image, therefore everything that is is so because of that reshaping, and all that isn’t is no longer relevant. Translation: Anything that we don’t understand is not worth understanding because we don’t understand it. According to the lights of Silicon Valley hubris, this is especially true of and for art, which no longer serves as a meaningful model for the organization of experience by virtue of technology’s vast and far-reaching transformations of work and leisure. Upheld by this logic is the idea that the content-delivery system is now more important and more interesting than the content, which may in fact be true. Or it may only seem to be true because of some very confused presumptions about the nature of aesthetic experience and its complicated relationship to an art history that Silicon Valley has not had the wherewithal to understand.
Naturally, from an arts point of view, alarm bells should go off when we are told that Silicon Valley is a place that has no patience for talk (or listening), and would rather back a failed enterprise than avoid risk and the crack high that comes along with it. In other words, it may be the place where two guys in a garage changed the world, but it also the place that launched hundreds of bogus IPOs that bilked a lot of unsuspecting investors. Its products may have changed the way that we live, but they have also placed us in an ever-more maddening relationship with perpetually repeating cycles of short-lived re-adaptation. Bubbles inflated, burst and re-inflated as if nothing happened. Lessons in humility were soon to follow, but Silicon Valley’s culture of anarcho-commercialism remains unbowed, as it struggles to understand why the art world considers its exclusionary sophistication to be of such great value.
Returning to the early beginnings of Zero1, we can say that its most dysfunctional aspects could be tied to its relationship to Silicon Valley hubris. One of these was found in how its approach to presentational etiquette was routed in the direction of trade show display, oftentimes taking place in giant tents rented from commercial event-production companies.
Following from this etiquette, much of the art that was presented consisted of rather obvious demonstrations of some quasi-Duchampean technical trick that failed to reflect back onto the larger psychological and social consequences of the technologization of everyday life in any kind of sophisticated way save that of an imagined technophiliac boosterism. The results were for the most part uninteresting precisely because they worked so hard at upholding the fantasy that they were so of-the-moment that they were immune from criticism.
Of course, there is an obvious problem with this kind of thinking, in that it buys into a rather outmoded thesis that the value of art and other things is based how successfully they erases history in favor of the embrace of a brave new present where everything is redefined for the next five minutes. If only it were ever that simple. History may be conveniently forgotten, but it never disappears; everything that is is so because it necessarily evolves out of what was. In fact, when it is momentarily forgotten, it has a way of reappearing with a vengeance, because its themes-and-variations are so much more complex than any simple minded and short-lived idea of “the now” could ever be. For this reason, it is much better to recognize that serious art never actually engages in a willful erasure of history so much as it restages and transfigures the ways that history and contemporary experience mediate and re-invent one another. In other words, art is always a graceful albeit elusive synthesis of time present and time past, even though time present is almost completely defined by what Jean Baudrilliard called “the ecstasy of communication” as a sublime contrast to the idealized aesthesis of art.
Indulge me just a little bit longer while I put on my classicist hat. The common word “ecstasy” derives from the antique Greek term “ex-stasis,” literally meaning “out of stillness,” or more figuratively, “out of corporeal body.” A psychoanalyst might use the words disassociation or displacement to signify the same idea, but the point that I am trying to make is one that contrasts the idea of an aesthetic object as being a quintessentialized condensation of experience (aes-thesis literally meaning “quintessence of proposition”) rather than a mere expansion or re-arrangement of it. Therein lies both the promise and the peril of new media art. If commits too much in the direction of ex-stasis, it dissolves into whatever ether of virtuality that extrudes substance from all other things, placing it on a par with Tupac’s hologram.
In other words, it becomes indistinguishable from the already over-virtualized culture that surrounds us, just as urban graffiti gradually becomes indistinguishable from advertising. On the other hand, when new media art steps too far in the direction of condensation, it losses its ability to represent the psychosocial complexity of vast networks and high-speed information exchanges because it becomes too discreet an object that is too insulated from the world of circuits, systems and virtual ghosts to provide any insight into how that world is reshaping other worlds. Thus, we come to a useful criterion for identifying the best new media art—art that re-envisions the sublime vastness of technological networks in the form of condensed aesthetic objects. Obviously, there is some cognitive dissonances built into the formulation, but in the best cases, new media art transfigures them into paradoxes rather than mere contradictions.
This lengthy preamble seems necessary to get a real fix on the current Zero1 Biennial. Clearly, its “Seeking Silicon Valley” subtitle is not a quest for the geographical location bounded by the southern shores of San Francisco Bay, the Santa Cruz mountains and Alum Rock Park, but is instead focused on a complex cultural identity that lives at the heart of what Arthur Kroker called “The Military-Entertainment complex,” mindful as he was about the role that cybernetic devices play in advanced weapons systems and blockbuster entertainment spectacles. But Silicon Valley is more than that: it is also the site of major revolutions in consumer design and intellectual property law, and some might even argue high finance as well by pointing to the venture capital companies that operate on Page Mill Road.
In short, Silicon Valley is nothing if not complex, and its contradictions are at the core of the way that we live in the 21st century. Thus, it is only natural that the 2012 iteration of Zero1 be both a manifestation and a self-conscious reflection of those complex contradictions. And yes, there are plenty of moments of sublime paradox to be found among the almost 200 art presentations that it contains, all made possible with the collaborative help of 45 corporate and government sponsors, media partners and collaborating institutions.
In addition to Pi in the Sky, there were other public events and/or installations (coordinated by Justine Topher) that reshaped the physical space of nearby neighborhoods. Christopher Hass and the design studio REBAR contributed a canopy of rhythmically flashing electro-luminescent mesh over a street (titled Sky-Fi), drawing a metaphorical parallel between a real highway and the flowing of the information superhighway. Alexander and Annina Rust deployed their solar powered Discotrope, a disco ball outfitted with small video monitors and projectors displaying real-time video-feedback of people dancing. Futurecities Lab (by Nataly Gattegno and Jason Kelly Johnson) contributed Datagrove to the courtyard of the California Theater, responding to the presence of visitors with data transmissions automatically culled from a variety of sources.
Zero1 extends to multiple venues, from San Jose to San Francisco to Marin, which you can learn about at the Zero1 website. For the most part, this aspect the exhibition is performance based, and many of its events are still slated to happen within the next few weeks. One that I thought to be particularly amusing was by Manafest.AR, a smart phone app that allows anyone to add their own virtual skywriting to any photograph of the sky. Presumably, pilotless drones could be reprogrammed to execute the designs created by the app, but that may still be down the road a bit, but only just a bit. These aspects of the Zero1 Biennial clarify one of the defining themes of media art, namely, the way that it reflects the encroaching virtualization of everyday space. We see it in a number of ways, perhaps most clearly in the close conceptual relationship between Pi in the Sky and Manifest.AR, but the message can be a bit chilling in that it puts all forms of cultural materialism on the defensive. This is so by virtue of the mischief that it enacts upon the old Enlightenment idea of evidence, which has been on the defensive ever since the time that social anthropology demonstrated that culture was already a virtual construct before it started taking on additional layers of technologically assisted confusion of the type provided by cinema, television and the interweb. Each of these layers is an evolutionary pointer to what Okwui Enwezor (in Mega-Exhibitions and the Antinomies of a Transnational Global Form) has called the “logic of horizontality,” which “embodies a new vision of global totality and a concept of modernity that dissolves the old paradigm of the nation-state and the ideology of the ‘center,’ each giving way to a dispersed regime of rules based on networks, circuits, flows, interconnection.
Those rhizomatic movements are said to operate on the logic of horizontality, whose disciplinary, spatial, and temporal orders enable the mobility of knowledge, information, culture, capital, and exchange, and are no longer based on domination and control…globalism was part of the maturation of a certain kind of liberal ideal, which in its combination of democratic regimes of governance and free market capitalism was prematurely announced as the end of history.”
Obviously, this is a dense paragraph that might provoke some head scratching, but its implications are felt everywhere. For that reason, it is natural to assume that they would cycle back into art, just as they have in popular culture—think of films such as Johnny Mnemonic, Tron: Legacy or Inception, not to mention the Matrix franchise’s many narratives about the technologically-assisted confusion of reality and fantasy. But if these implications are to be seriously examined (rather than merely interacted with), then we might have to admit that the best place to put them are not in public space or in the cloud, but in other more isolated spaces where their problematization of the former and the naturalization of the later can be seen and contemplated without distraction.
And so, despite Zero1’s many evocations of Baudrilliard’s “ecstasy of communication,” in the horizontal realms of public and virtual space, the real heart of the Biennial is best found in an exhibition of the work of 24 artists (or collaborative groups) hailing from several different continents, all brought together by Zero1 artistic director Jamie Austin working in close collaboration with international curators Dooeun Choi, Gisela Domschke, Michelle Kasprzak and Regina Moeller. The exhibition is located in a new and permanent home called The Garage, a 5000-square-foot exhibition space on First Street, ensconced in a ground floor building that seems like it once was a real garage of the automobile storage variety, rather than the mythical one that Messrs. Jobs and Wozniack sanctified back in the mists of time. In a particularly classy move, the catalog for the garage show credits exhibition designer Christopher Hass as one of the two-dozen contributors to the exhibition, and I can see the point, because the installation was elegant and thoughtfully sensitive in a way that gently deflected what could have been a cacophonous and over-crowded affair. It was also one of the key factors that announced a change in Zero1’s orientation toward seeing itself in a more professional light, which is to say that the days of cheesy trade show presentation esthetics are a thing of the past. Just as we now live in a world where DJs are understood to be musicians for doing mixes of other people’s music, so too might we envision an art-worldly elevation of highly skilled exhibition designers when celebrity curators become passé.
In the garage, pride of place is given to Michael Najjar’s photograph of an Andean mountain peak, which at first glance appears to be a straightforward aerial view of the snow-covered sublime. But something is odd and oddly familiar about the extreme peaks and valleys: they defy geological probability while also seeming like the stuff of a recurring collective nightmare. Then it hits: the landscape is digitally manipulated to mimic the undulations of the NASDAQ during the tumultuous years of 1980 to 2009, a perfect infographical analog to the shifting fortunes of Silicon Valley.
Najjar’s piece also represents one of several sub-categories of work to be found in the Zero1 garage, that employ artistic data mining. Another example is Stephanie Syjuco’s Open Source Reading Room, a kind of bookstore of the future (and an amusing homage to the ways that museums station bookstores adjacent to blockbuster exhibitions). Reading Room consists of a computer workstation with heavy duty printer that, with the artist’s on-site assistance, will locate, print and bind internet texts for free—pointing to how the availability of free information on the Internet is making publishing – at least as we know it — an economic dinosaur, following the path of the music industry a decade ago.
One thing remains certain, and that is that water purity and water politics will always be a topic of concern, as is demonstrated by Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Present Tense, an elegant set-up of transparent half-full water vessels that recall one of Giorgio Morandi’s still-lives. The twist? Small projectors under the bottles throw ghostly images of disturbing graphical information about water into the bottles from below, flickering reminders that we cannot take something so simple as potable water for granted any more.
In addition to various data mining projects, the Garage exhibition also gives us some examples of imaginative DIY productions that use elements of digital technology along with other modalities of manufacture for the sake of creating frankensteinian hybrids. The Brazillian group Gambiologica is a good example. Gambiarra is the Brazilian-Portuguese term for “makeshift arrangement,” very similar in meaning to the French term bricollage. Simply defined, it is about taking what you can find to make what you need, and in that spirit, Gambiologica has made a series of wardrobe additions called Gambiological Armor that take our seemingly inevitable evolution toward becoming cyborg entities seriously, by making over-the-top gadget organizers for everyday street usage.
Another charming DIY contribution came to us from the group called Meat Media, a kind of helmet with a dangling light bulb titled Brain Station, a device that that somehow registers the pulsations of its wearer’s brainwaves. But the prize for DIY science fair achievement goes to Hojun Song, who made a small communications satellite out of easily acquired components, and then funded freight passage on a Russian rocket by selling T-Shirts. The functional aspect of the satellite is of an open-source nature that facilitates usage of Song’s own social media software. If you see someone walking around with a T-shirt that says OSSI, you will know that you are in the presence of an arts patron.
The virtualization of the everyday is also felt in the Garage exhibition, perhaps most poetically, in a projection titled Time and Again by Persijn Broersen and Margit Lukács. The piece features a slow animation of a funeral lily rendered as a polygonal mesh that seems to slowly breath, repeating a subtle cycle of bloom and decay to create a virtual vanitas. The idea of vanitas also informs Jae Rhim Lee’s piece titled Decomp Me, which invites viewer-participants to contemplate themselves – via a facial scan — turning into mushroom compost. This a overlay of biological and cybernetic systems draws a parallel between physical decomposition and psychological virtualization.
And just in case you might wonder what it would like to draw after having been virtualized, I would point you to ADA by Karina Smigla-Bobinski. ADA is a translucent sphere about seven feet in diameter, filled with helium and sporting lumps of charcoal on its exterior. At first glance, it appears to be a vintage maritime mine, but it’s really a balloon that responds to audience contact by making drawings that are indexed on nearby walls and floors.
Seeking Silicon Valley was also a guiding concept for many of the Zero1-affiliated exhibitions taking place at other South Bay locations, but in some cases, there was a very different interpretation of what it means to seek a place. For example at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, Rene Yung organized a presentation titled City Beneath a City, which was a collection of 19th century archeological artifacts dug up from a building project. It told the story of a community of Chinese families that had tried to settle in San Jose at some point after the completion of the trans-continental railroad, only to face persecution and forcible expulsion. Certainly, this shows us a very different Silicon Valley that was dug from the forgotten depths, a very different perspective than the one that changed the world in the direction of vastly unimaginable horizontality.
–Mark Van Proyen
Zero1 Biennial: “Seeking Silicon Valley” @ the Zero1 Garage through December 8, 2012. The Biennial program also includes a series of exhibitions, public art, performances, and events.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). He is the coordinator of the annual Art Criticism Conference at the San Francisco Art Institute.