Danger in the Liminal Spaces

This interview was originally published in ART PAPERS November/December 1996, Vol. 20, issue 6.

The role of technology as a catalyst for social and cultural change has been fairly well documented ever since the invention of the camera obscura radically redefined the picture plane in renaissance art. In our own time there is perhaps no technology that can compare with the computer in overall social and cultural influence; yet the more direct role of the computer in the visual arts of the late twentieth century has yet to be determined. And although the mass media routinely remind us of the computer’s purportedly revolutionary significance, it often seems as if the only reason we need one is because everyone else has one.

Surely life would go on without them. And if it took more people a longer time to perform the same tasks, just think how this would mitigate problems like underemployment and the hectic pace of the late modern age. Of course, there is something truly awe-inspiring about a computer’s ability to mimic learned human behavior and problem-solving skills. On the other hand, computers have also accelerated our regrettable human tendency to clutter up the planet with vast quantities of trivia and kitsch. Such were my thoughts as I approached “The Bridge” exhibit of computer art at the Contemporary Art Center, the official art show of the Siggraph computer graphics gathering and trade expo under way at the convention center just down the street.

And while none of this altered my mixed feelings about the way computers have been used to date, it was at least a fun show with lots of thing to play with. Much was interactive, which meant that you could fool around with the computers—and the computers could fool around with you. (They have obsessive personalities, and can be very devious in the ways they draw you into their game.) But even though Siggraph was a state-of-the-art convention, there was not very much in the show of a truly visual nature that has not been seen in other media before.

Like electronic music, digitally transcribed art enables the cyberartist to dispense with certain of the physical boundaries that limit traditional media. Instead of pigments on canvas, the computer manipulates pixels in a monitor where the visible world is reduced to infinitely shifting variations on the screen. It does this by pulverizing sensory data into simple digits that can be recombined in complex arrangements. This stands in contrast with more naturalistic analog approaches that reduce appearances or sounds to essential formal paradigms (like the tonal gradations on photographic negatives or the barely visible wave forms in the grooves on vinyl records).

Computer art was once betrayed by little textural patterns that translated neatly into graphic application (like printers’ halftones). But now images likes Charles Csuri’s Bridge or Ritual Dance—studies of human forms rendered as hollow, Dali-like specters floating in space—look about seamless as a well made photomontage, a step toward the actual presence that characterizes a finished work of art.

But it’s only a step. We might also question our assumptions about what actually constitutes a work of art in the first place. Mnemonic Notations by Philip George and Ralph Wayment takes us deeper into the process itself, as a computer monitor reveals a montage of deeply hued images that change forms and colors and superimpose themselves on each other, all at the click of a mouse. Mazes, pyramids, geometric forms and seascapes glide kaleidoscopically around and through each other like lost phantoms in a sea fog. It is a mouse-guided magical mystery tour in tones ranging from prismatic glitter to psychedelic velvet. (So this is why Tim Leary was so fond of computers….)

What does it have to do with art? I have no idea. Yet there is a connection with aesthetics—the philosophy of beauty in particular and perception in general. It seems that the 1980s ascent of virtual reality (the computer-generated illusion of spatial perspective) coincided with intellectual fashions like Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum theory—which, in a nutshell, argued that the world is now just a vast reproduction of itself, a kind of electronic media hall of mirrors. Now, “simulacrum” and “virtual” both invoke appearances over reality, but Baudrillard further claimed that authenticity was no longer possible and that nothing could be done about it. And if his main points were well taken, his fatalistic spin was a bummer.

The sages of ancient India maintained that appearances were illusions to be deciphered through esoteric insight into the universe itself, but they also argued that authenticity is a byproduct of this insight into the hidden underlying dynamic of the phenomenal world. This notion is paralleled in contemporary theories of quantum mechanics, wherein matter is regarded as mere appearance, a relative modality of energy. Thus, contrary to the rather Sartrean fatalism of Baudrillard, it can be argued that reality is actually less limiting than was believed—a view also paralleled in voodoo, as we see in Anna Marie Chupa’s cybervoodoo Altar “created in honor of the loa” (the spirits).

A blend of local and Caribbean traditions, Chupa’s virtual voodoo features altered states on computer screens. Primal scenes of men and women, snakes and rainbows, brains and embryos, local cemeteries like vast sprawling cities of the dead, a Virgin Mary and a tidal surge all mingle with ritual objects on an altar. Chupa says voodoo invokes the liminal or threshold between the worlds: “There is danger in liminal spaces, but that is all the more reason to know why you are there.” And if Chupa’s remarks reflect her acute insight into voodoo, her words might just as well apply to computers. After all, virtual space is a liminal space, and digital technologies wreak havoc with the common ground of appearances that constitute ordinary reality. Indeed, there is danger in the liminal spaces, but that is all the more reason to know why you are there. A word to the wise in this computerized time.