Geeks in the Gallery: An Interview with Artists Tom Moody and Michael Bell-Smith (Part Three of Three)

by Art Fag City on June 14, 2006 Events

Geeks in the Gallery is a three part discussion series on the work of Michael Bell-Smith and Tom Moody, which will run on Art Fag City from Monday June 12 — Wednesday, June 14, 2006. Comments this series are welcome, and will be hosted on Tom Moody’s blog.

If you are just tuning into the interview now, you can read part one of the interview series here, and part two here, (or just scroll down to the next post).

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Image via Cosmic Disciple

Geeks in the Gallery, Part Three

Mike, let’s get back to the issue of invention vs. appropriation. Don’t things still get broken down that way in the larger art world? The work of Florian Maier-Aichen, who was in this year’s Whitney Biennial, addresses issues of authenticity, and I think his photographs have something in common with your work, (at least in regards to the seamlessness of adopted imagery). His art has a slightly darker feel to it mind you (though it’s not like your work is devoid of this). Also, in his case you know something in the work has been manipulated, you’re just not always sure what. In yours, it’s almost impossible to know what is original and what isn’t…and most times I’m not convinced it matters. Do you have any interest in artists like Sherrie Levine, or do you see that work as being having nothing to do with your artistic practice?

TM: Sorry for butting in here again so soon, but since I raised the issue of the “ratio” of invented to appropriated I should say I don’t think it matters too much in our work. (I’m not sure why I brought it up–I guess because Roberta Smith said Mike’s work “operates in the gap between animated cartoons and painting” and I thought the focus should be the gap between remix culture and the gallery world–which still privileges originality despite generations of appropriators.) In Mike’s case I don’t have anxiety about the source of what I’m seeing the way I would with an artist who manipulates photographic reality. His work uses pixels and cartoon rendering styles, so I know it relates to games or GIFs, or he’s channeling or riffing on that look. It’s a graphic vocabulary that we know to be pliable, as opposed to a photographic window into some physical “real.”

My anxiety–and that may be too strong a word–stems from the “tech gap” of not knowing the programs he’s using, and how much they shape the aesthetic of what I’m seeing. Is he hacking the imaging programs the way Cory Arcangel is? Is he using them straight up, relying on our slow tech learning curve to wow us the way Hollywood does with a shiny new effect? Is there some obsessive hand labor going on behind the scenes that simulates some of those high tech tricks? Some unexpected use or combination of programs? What is the value system that comes along with the tech? Can it be subverted? Do we care?

These are rhetorical questions, I’m not asking them of Mike necessarily. I get asked stuff like that: people assume the hand drawn portraits I’ve done in MSPaintbrush are photos run through some pixelating algorithm. Many of the music programs I use are brand new and hardly anyone knows how they work. The artist drx (Dragan Espenschied) has said artists working with computers need to simplify their work almost to the folk art level so it’s comprehensible (unfortunately I can’t find his exact quote). But the consumer also needs to learn more about these issues. I’m not a geek by training. I’m learning by leaps and bounds and developing a value system as I go. Let’s face it, barring some global catastrophe, the digital world is with us no matter how much we might want to retreat from it.

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Tom Moody, Atom, animated GIF

PJ: Tom, I have conflicting opinions on the ideas of drx – on the one hand I agree that that artists working with computers need to make things simple for people to get it, on the other, I can not accept that the viewer should be limited in this way. I think the Internet has far greater flexibility than this, and we should be testing those limits.

TM: You’re right that the Net has great flexibility and we (art viewers) should be testing those limits.

The Internet is interactive; the viewer can learn any program, get educated on any subject, over time, sitting in a comfy chair. A visit to a gallery, though, places physical and temporal limits on what the viewer can take away.

The attempts of the Whitney and other institutions to present “Net art” have been awkward. It’s just no fun to sit in a museum clicking a mouse (and watching overtaxed hard drives freeze) when you could be walking around the space, seeing (and hearing) artworks and how other people are relating to them.

The artists I feel the most kinship with are facing the challenge of giving viewers the most bang (and info) for the amount of time they could be expected to be standing in a gallery space. I believe the statistic is still seven seconds per work of art.

MBS: I do think digital art often gets broken down on those terms Paddy was asking about earlier: the relationship of found to “original” content; tech issues relating to fabrication. For many people (techies and lay folk alike) issues of authenticity and technique are on the surface of all digital work. Digital is akin to magic: the magic of the desktop computer, the magic of cinema special fx, the magic of the internet, and with that magic – what Tom aptly calls the tech gap – is often skepticism and anxiety. One way I try to counter that “tech gap,” is to dumb things down: lo-res graphics, basic movement, slow pacing. (Up and Away, for instance, from a mechanical standpoint, is no more than a series of still images moving from the top of the screen to the bottom)

It’s an attempt at letting the seams show, a step towards the folk art approach that drx (by way of Tom) is advocating. My hope is that an audience might have a better understanding of “what’s going on” and can therefore engage the work from other angles.

A nice side effect of this, is that once you begin to suss out what’s going on, you might begin to think about other forms of digital mediation in your life, and wonder how those work, and wonder if you’ve ever seen their seams, and if not, why not? etc….I think this approach might be a point of similarity between myself and Florian Maier-Aichen: by looking at some cracks, you might begin to expose the system. (Though I agree with Tom – there are different things at stake when talking about photography).

I hope that issues of authenticity and appropriation work similarly in “Focused, Forward.” You might sense there is something slippery going on and that may get you thinking about authenticity other technology you encounter in your life etc. At the same time, there’s a part of me that thinks the statement the work makes about appropriation is to disregard appropriation-as-a-statement. Appropriation as no big deal, just how we make things these days. That’s the internet-part of me talking. Maybe that’s anti-Sherrie Levine? Post-Sherrie Levine?

PJ: As far as the Internet goes your term “post Sherrie Levine” is my coinage of choice. I think Kenya Evans articulated the matter very well in his talk at the Whitney this year when he said he found that he didn’t feel the need to be creating “original” imagery – there were more than enough images that already exist. It seems to me that the role of many artists now is to figure out what to do with what is already there.

Mike, when you say issues of authenticity and technique are on the surface of all digital work, are you applying any sort of pejorative meaning to “surface”? I’m just wondering how you are using the word.

MBS: I didn't mean surface in a pejorative sense. What I meant was that it's an issue some people respond to first. Before further engaging in a work, they have to check themselves: “How'd they do that? What part did they do? What part did the computer do? What part did someone else do?” That kind of baggage doesn’t come with conventional media.

I think it is clear that both you and Tom are trying to counter the tech gap, but I have difficulty following the idea that there is an element of dumbed downness to “Focused, Forward” that bridges this gap. Everything about that show is so carefully constructed – yes, you use lo-res graphics, basic movement, and slow pacing, but the craft is so flawlessly executed, and so purposeful that I don’t see these particular elements as being something that I noted for their tech bridging qualities. In fact, I associate slow pacing with a lot of ’70s film (a golden age of cinema which embraced intellectual thought), so in that regard, I find the effect to be quite the opposite. I think the work is accessible, but I don’t see these attributes dumbing it down in any way, which I think is for the better.

MBS: I was being a bit flip using the term “dumbed down.” The work in the show is very meticulously constructed, and I certainly didn't mean to imply that I'm compromising or pandering with what I'm doing. What I meant by that statement is that I'm consciously avoiding a certain kind of digital aesthetic, one that may be more current or may seem more hi-tech or might be predicated on more of a technical prowess or have more of a wow factor, but might ultimately obscure content or enlarge that tech gap. For me, borrowing aesthetics from older video games, or primitive web vernacular (GIFs, pixel art, etc.), isn’t about nostalgia so much as simplicity. With digital imagery, where newer generally means more complex or photorealistic, it's easy to conflate the two.

PJ: I think it is important to make a distinction here between the aesthetic of the imagery, which as you say references video games of the ’80s and ’90s, and the aesthetic of the exhibition design, which clearly has a very current feel to it. Flat screen monitors look very high tech, and with this comes a packaged feel. These presentation choices make sense to me, because the work seems so contained.

For example, there is something very viral to Birds over the White House, but also feels very safe because it operates within such distinct boundaries. Also, like much of the work in the show, this piece seems to suggest that there is an element of fate that plays into these results – there are no control panels to Birds Over the White House – the game evolves with or without you. Other pieces seem to work with this idea as well – Continue: 2000 floats along a quilt, one that represents a lineage that is without beginning or end, and the sparklers, objects that have a life with a beginning and inevitable end (a fate to be sure), are changed by technology which imposes a “steady state.” My sense though is that the medium isn't inspiring this particular set of ideas. Would this be correct?

MBS: There was quite a bit of thought that went into the exhibition design for “Focused, Forward.” The work in the show was created with a gallery in mind and I wanted it to feel that way. Rather than playing off the tensions of bringing new media into the gallery – as I feel Tom has with his show — I wanted it to feel like a natural fit, again, like maybe this is just how we make art these days.

I don't think flat screens in a gallery feel especially high tech. For me they're less loaded than traditional TVs/monitors (which feel consciously lo-tech), high end CRT NTSC monitors (which tie into a history of video art in the gallery) or large projections (which feel cinematic or as Tom pointed out, aggressive).

For me, the containment of wall-mounted flat screen monitors is about putting the work on a physical and spatial par with painting, drawing or photography. I think creating that kind of familiar physical relationship between the viewer and the work may serve to combat the tech gap: at the very least the viewer knows how to deal with the piece on a physical level.

So in the show three of the four single channel video works and Sparkler Set (a five channel piece) are on flat screens. Continue: 2000 is projected, but on a modest scale. Proposal, the one print in the show, is placed in between two videos, allowing for sense of continuity.

Birds Over the Whitehouse is slightly different. In thinking about the aesthetics of surveillance it made sense to present it in a table, pulling in both the “control room” architecture of surveillance and war, and the parallel between this type of video imagery and video gaming.

Addressing the last part of your question, there are a variety of ideas in “Focused, Forward” that aren’t inspired by the medium, concerns that might be considered more traditional: issues around perspective, spectacle, politics, alienation, language, etc.

While these ideas may seem outside the scope of the tech heavy conversation we’ve been having (to address that side of things would be a whole other conversation), I think it’s important to note that these issues don’t exist outside of technology, but instead are always mediated through technology. So in Some Houses Have Pools, we’re able to aestheticize disaster via simulated flight (or mapquest), in Self Portrait, NYC we can convey alienation through the special effects of a time-lapse crowd, and as you’ve noted, we can use a digital loop to address fate in Continue: 2000.

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