“Bitforms” at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Inez van Lamsweerde, Me Kissing Vinoodh (Passionately) (1999), chromogenic color print, 108″ x 192″; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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“This is a watershed moment in the entire field of contemporary art, one which will bring new, previously unimagined forms of artistic expression as well as new possibilities for more established forms.”

So writes Lawrence Rinder, the Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art apropos of BitStreams, an exhibition of “digital art practice” currently at that venue. Not only will digital technology, in Mr. Rinder’s estimation, usher in a brave new world, it has also “dramatically and irrevocably widened the dimensions of artistic expression.” That the advent of such technology has affected–and will continue to affect–our lives is indisputable. Yet has it really made a dramatic, let alone irrevocable, dent in the life of art?

It’s true that there are a lot of artists dazzled by the possibilities of technology, viewing it as a legitimate means of artistic inquiry. It’s also true, although less remarked upon, that many artists worry how such technology might hamper the manner in which we see and experience the world. These are sticky issues, and the Whitney doesn’t pretend it has all the answers. But by placing bets on this particular horse, the museum is acting on its hunch that “digital art practice” is the shape of things to come.

Of course, the Whitney’s betting record in recent years has been less than profitable. The museum has a habit, one as unfortunate as it is congenital, of treating every trend that rolls down the pike as a “watershed moment,” and BitStreams is no exception. The most remarkable thing about it, in fact, is how previously imagined the whole thing is.

Notwithstanding the technological wizardry that’s plugged into the museum’s electrical outlets, BitStreams isn’t about the future of art: It’s about the art of presentation. The dry and depressing lesson we’ve learned from the triumph of the Conceptualist aesthetic–an aesthetic that informs this exhibition more than any single technological advance–is that the more art removes itself from the sensuality of materials, the more significant becomes its means of display. Installation, in other words, provides the alibi for a deficit of body.

Those employing digital media, which are by their very nature bodiless, are forced to make their efforts actual enough to occupy exhibition space. This goes to explain the finical attention to scale and environment that exemplifies BitStreams. The artists at the Whitney, from all appearances, employ the following strategy: If you can’t make it real, make it big, and if you can’t make it big, call the interior decorator. If all of this sounds like a Luddite’s complaint, then ask yourself why these harbingers of the “unreal” rely on–to name just two items proffered–sod and grease to put their putative art across?

Whether digital technology will make a significant contribution to the visual arts is an open question. I remain skeptical. The more virtual our world becomes, the more, I think, human beings will seek solace and sustenance in the real. We as a species have too much of an investment–a primordial investment, if you will–in the material to forsake its complications, contradictions and pleasures. BitStreams is a breathless, empty venture. What it lacks, ultimately and profoundly, is the there without which we are nothing.

© 2001 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 27, 2001 edition of The New York Observer.


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