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by Ben Davis
"People doing strange things with electricity" is the official slogan of Dorkbot -- but the five-year-old organization is really all about the excitement that technical innovation can bring to creative endeavors. Founded in 2000 by Columbia Computer Music Center director Douglas Irving Repetto to share research and ideas, Dorkbot has gone global, with groups in 30 locations around the world, including places as far-flung as Budapest, Rio and Mumbai. Thirteen new meetings are set to start up in the near future, from Providence, R.I., to St. Petersburg.

As it usually does, the Jan. 4, 2006, meeting drew a standing-room-only crowd to Soho’s Location One to see the night’s three presenters. Luke DuBois offered his experiments with effects of time-lapse sound files, playing parts of an abstract music composition made by compressing the information from the entire history of Billboard #1s into a single song. Alyce Santoro showed off her experiments in creating "sonic fabric" woven from magnetic recording tape -- the material is durable, washable, comes in different styles and, when put into contact with a special head, can play back information recorded on it, thus offering the potential to create musical clothes (Santoro even presented footage of the guitarist from the band Phish using a special glove to jam on a sonic dress she had made for him.) Finally, Mikey Sklar delivered an enthusiastic, though somewhat confused, talk about the creative sci-fi potentials of inserting a computer chip into your hand.

Beyond specific subject matter, however, the most noteworthy aspect of the event was the general atmosphere. If most art openings are about personality and style, the Dorkbot event was all about the excitement of materials and ideas; It radiated the interest of people collectively testing the limits of new concepts. In the hyper-individualized world of visual art, there’s little of the camaraderie of working through shared problems. And, when art does engage technological experimentation, rather than drawing on the enthusiasm it generates, there’s often a certain uneasiness about the way the two things fit together -- as if artists feared that if they got too close, their own appeal would be eclipsed by that of some gadget.

"Breaking and Entering" at PaceWildenstein
"Breaking and Entering: Art and the Video Game," housed at PaceWildenstein’s second Chelsea gallery on West 22nd Street, Dec. 10, 2005-Jan. 28, 2006, is a high-profile display of one of the most common art world ways of resolving the relation between art and technology. Rather than treating video game technology itself as art, the work in the show instead asks, "how does art react to the video game?" Call this the Cartesian approach, cast in terms borrowed from Rene Descartes’ famous mind-body split: technology is the body, the dumb material, while art is the mind, imposing illumination, irony or commentary.

The work in the show that most clearly dodges this paradigm serves to show up how enervating its presence is elsewhere. Gifs vs. Sprites, an installation by the trendy collective Paper Rad, is a large booth papered with psychedelic wallpaper in video game-inspired patterns. Stooping to enter through the low entryway, one finds two screens playing a looped film inside. What hint of a narrative there is comes at the beginning, as a young girl proclaims to the camera that she’s going to see what happens when she hits the "F25" key on the computer.

After she takes her technological leap of faith, the two screens launch into frenzied, kaleidoscopic video collages, one using images from primitive web graphics, the other images from early Nintendo Entertainment System games, accompanied by boppy electronic music. On one screen, a cartoon Pegasus and Bart Simpson swirl across a keyboard, while the other features a dancing pyramid composed of a tiny Ninja Turtle, a large Mario and a massive, pixilated Garfield, flanked by too wiggling amazons.

True, the work isn’t so much engaged in the excitement of doing something new with technology as it is invested in digital bricolage. Its title, Gifs vs. Sprites, refers to decades-old graphics terminology used in early web and game design; in contemporary game-designer parlance, opposing "gifs" and "sprites" is something like pitting "music" vs. "piano." But with its lusty affection for old-time digital effects, the work at least has an endearingly warm, geeky center beneath the hip, psychedelic surface.

Contrasted to this, much of the rest of "Breaking and Entering" betrays all the worst tendencies of the "commentary on" approach to technology. The normally dynamic Cory Arcangel offers a large, static projection of a video game fighter jet and clouds to complement a primitive "found video game" displayed on a small portable laptop. Titled Bomb Iraq, the game depicts a crudely drawn bomb that the user can bring nearer to an outline of Iraq by pressing the arrow keys. Its inclusion is fine as a document of America’s meat-headed relation to the Middle East, but does nothing interesting with it -- except to prove that video games can be used as found objects just like everything else.

Meanwhile, John Haddock’s series of prints featuring "greatest hits" from media history -- Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Osward, the Rodney King beating, and so on –- rendered using the impersonal 45 degree aerial perspective of The Sims, is neat, but basically a one-joke premise. The nadir in terms of obvious commentary is Eddo Stern’s Deathstar, a video projection overlaying images from online games in which the player can torture and kill Osama bin Laden with the music from Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. In this equation between "art and the video game," there’s very little of the authentic excitement of games to be found.

"Superlowrez" at vertexList
A second, quirkier approach to the art/technology divide is currently in evidence at Williamsburg’s small, experimental vertexList gallery, with "Superlowrez," Dec. 17-Mar. 12, 2006, curated by Marcin Ramocki. This strange show was conceived in collaboration with the Philadelphia-based group Bit Editions (also to be found online at, which "publishes fine art made from electronics." It marks Bit Editions’ first full-scale collaboration with a gallery.

For the show, vertexList brought aboard eight artists, among them the stalwarts of the Brooklyn art scene: Joe Amrhein, Brian Conley, Matt Freedman, Kristin Lucas, Jillian Mcdonald, Joe McKay, Akiko Sakaizumi and Jude Tallichet. All of them agreed to work with the same gadget for the project, a custom-built box of 12 x 14 electronic light-up "pixels." Since this dimension is calculated to be just under the pixel-content of the normal computer cursor, the format is extremely constraining (additionally, each box has a chip that can hold just 1,984 "frames" of information.)

Predictably enough, the results are eccentric. As he has done in the past with artworks in other media, Joe Amrhein reflects back the language of art criticism, creating a display that mindlessly scrolls sentence fragments with buzzwords like "idiosyncratic," "seductive" and "over-caffeinated." Joe McCay’s box shows a blocky hand playing a continuously iterating game of "paper-scissors-rock," creating a not-very-intelligent artificial intelligence to set your mind against. Brian Conley has programmed into the box the morphology of a continuing stream of animal brains, the crude grid of the screen turning it into an amorphous, undulating wave. And Akiko Sakaizumi creates a queasy, video game-inspired narrative, highlighted by a flying chicken body being shot at and impregnated by a phallic cannon, and giving birth to its own head.

The best work is Jude Tallichet’s EMPR. Tallichet has taken Andy Warhol’s 1964 film, Empire -- a single static shot of the Empire State Building as the light and atmosphere change around it -- and recreated it in the Bit Editions box. Compressed into the limited time-frame of the device, the passage of time in Warhol’s famous endurance piece is signified by jerky shifts in the lit pixels, as the building starts out a shining box against a dark background, then reverses as day becomes night. The idea of the piece -- to use the filter of the primitive graphics to render the immense, symbolic building toy-like and small -- takes the enforced technological limitation and sublates it, to good effect.

If the approach of "Breaking and Entering" is Cartesian, vertexList’s is more like a modest demonstration of Hegel’s dialectical logic, in which opposites collide into each other to form a higher synthesis. Technology and art are still antagonistic -- the whole significance of picking the antique device is as a challenge to the various creators. But the idea is not for artistic ideas to suck the medium dry, but to use the energy of the clash to pull out some sort of exciting new creation. The resulting show is something of a novelty -- but all the more interesting for being so.

"Dewanatron" at Pierogi
The spirit of Dorkbot, however, does not assume that art is opposed in substance to technology; it assumes that art and science are two possible effects of experimenting with the same stuff. This would be something like the materialist position, where intellectual labor and manual labor are equalized. The show that most closely approximates this (along with the playful and energized feel of the Dorkbot meeting) is the suite of works by Brian Dewan and Leon Dewan, on view at Pierogi in Williamsburg, Dec. 31, 2005-Jan. 31, 2006.

The Dewans make custom-made, wall-mounted musical "gins," that is, electronic music boxes. Affixed to the walls, the boxes are loaded with mysterious knobs, buttons and dials. Each is designed to produce musical noises -- bleeps, squeals or strange, vibrating sounds -- at unforeseeable, random intervals. It is only by being drawn into experimenting with the boxes that the visitor can decipher their effects and try to bring the sound under control. Even then, however, a certain amount of unpredictability reigns, creating a tingly, free-wheeling atmosphere of sound in the gallery.

The custom-made instruments are sleek and self-contained, but also deliberately funky looking, cultivating a kind of mad professor, H.G. Wells vibe. They have the wood shells of grandfather clocks or the bodies of old, coin-operated machines, with unpredictable attachments like lamps, zither strings and rotary telephone dials. One features a window opening to the mess of wires inside, meant, jokingly, to resemble a medieval reliquary.

What’s interesting about the project, however, isn’t its whimsy, but its devoted esthetic exploration of the history of electronic music machines. Rather than simply using this history as a reference to comment upon, the Dewans have actually taken their enthusiasm for early electronic music makers, with their clunky and unpredictable equipment, and mined this heritage as inspiration for new musical instruments. These works, clustered in the middle of the gallery at Pierogi, include the Swarmatron, which is like something tossed up from an alternate history of gadgets, a musical console with two touch-sensitive strips that puts out a musical chord that separates or contracts as you move your finger along it.

Like the musical wall-gins, their instruments often plumb the artistic uses of technological randomness. Their Dual Primate Console is a two-person musical instrument with sounds that can be manipulated but never quite brought under control, creating a writhing, chaotic musical effect. On the 28th, the Dewans’ show at Pierogi climaxes with a performance for which they hook up all their "gins" to a central control, placing their irregular sounds on a common grid to create a sort of unstable electronic symphony.

Such concerts are the best metaphor for this attitude towards art and technology in general -- not imposing "artistic" order on technology, but working with its logic to create something artistic.

BEN DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.