Tech art 2.0

Pub date June 11, 2008
WriterGlen Helfand
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

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REVIEW Does anyone still truly abide by the hope that technology is the benevolent force that can deliver a luminous future? Sure, we’ve got biotech, greentech, and Web 2.0 to tackle disease, our environmental sins, social alienation, and economic downturn. But at the same time, who isn’t aware of the corporate capitalist machinery and toxic waste that will accompany the next Apple marvel or Monsanto-engineered miracle crop? Can a Silicon Valley researcher really find a way to reverse global warming?

We all hope for, and perhaps believe in, that miracle cure. It’s a way to generate optimism, however slight. This is the cultural condition that serves as the thematic starting point of "Superlight," the San Jose Museum of Art exhibition component of the second biennial 01SJ Global Festival of Art on the Edge, a technology-focused series of live events, most held June 4-8. The show, curated by Steve Dietz, and the festival are rooted historically in what may be called electronic and digital art, but "Superlight" finds thematic inspiration in the more generally pervasive, free-floating anxieties of our greenhouse gas–warmed psychic atmosphere: environmental and economic meltdowns, food shortages, personal disappointments, and the like. Recognizing that most of these conditions are brought about by the same technological advancements that are looked to for ways of stabilizing if not rectifying those conditions, Dietz presents a couple dozen solo and collaborative artists not as saviors, but as people who can "aerate and illuminate" our contemporary concerns.

It’s no accident that the show presents a range of media, not all of it plugged in, and much of it formed with hybridized materials and approaches. If the digital art genre was not so long ago equated with computer screens and chirping electronic soundtracks — don’t worry, you’ll find some of that here, and in Second Life corollaries to some pieces — the atmosphere of the galleries suggests analog objects and psychological positions that aerate some of that virtual space.

It happens in a delightfully literal manner in Taiwanese artist Shih Chieh Huang’s perversely adorable robotic creatures made from plastic bags, water bottles, and electric fans. The sculptures gracefully appear to breathe as the bags fill and evacuate, and they have light components that glow in the heightened colors of late model car dashboards. The vibe is more troubling in psychologically tinted — and somewhat glitchy — interactive works such as Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Global Mind Radar/Reader (an Emotional Barometer), which takes a cultural pulse as a female figure, projected inside a glass dome "blogosphere," goes through a series of emotional gestures responding to live blog input concerning current events. That position is echoed in Bruce Charlesworth’s installation Love Disorder, which is tartly described in exhibition text: "A huge projected video character has ambivalent feelings about you." And he’s not shy about expressing them. These works use anthropomorphism to generate identification with the machinery, though the latter two tout complex, glitch-friendly technology that dare us to believe, or at least question, if they actually work.

Mixed emotions also infuse Daniel Faust’s elegantly composed and slightly wistful color photographs of now-historic Silicon Valley corporate architecture and outmoded data archives, depicting them as stately yet oddly humble. The images are visually skewed toward a modernist history via research facility. That kind of past idealism is perhaps behind the utopian-themed collaborative projects by Free Soil and Red 76, which tap into a pervasive yearning for utopian endeavors, both on earth and Second Life sediment. These works, however, find their most vital components outside the museum — in tours and social gatherings — and their diagrams and historical artifacts are more confusing than illuminating.

More insistent is the video documentation of projects by HeHe (Helen Evans and Hieko Hansen), a pair of Paris designers who harness carbon-filled industrial pollution, second-hand smoke, and various light sources to urge us to look at the world, and the amazing possibilities in available hardware and software, with an uneasy sense of wonder. From a literal standpoint, their pieces fit this exhibition’s premise best: their use of illumination resembles a technologically fortified nature that manages to inspire as it metaphorically sticks our noses in holes in the ozone. If that’s not superlight, what is?


Through Aug. 30

Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

San Jose Museum of Art

110 S. Market, San Jose

$5–$8, free to members and children under 6

(408) 271-6840,