Spencer Brownstone had a pretty good party last Friday. Lots of PBR (drunk with incredible speed), lots of hotties, trance music, plus some cool projections on the walls that set the mood or whatever.
There was also some art. It was BYOB (Bring Your Own Beamer), a one-night-only exhibition/performance curated by Rafael Rozendaal of 25 net artists coating the gallery in projections. The concept is one I’ve been excited about for a while, but in execution it’s unclear whether anybody involved was really prepared for such a show, and I don’t just mean the periodic blackouts when a fuse blew. I should probably explain my disappointment in terms of what I was looking forward to. As I saw it, there were four Cool Things about the show on paper:
- People from the internet are showing things in a Soho gallery. That’s pretty anomalous. Are people showing? Sure. In Bushwick; shows for new media artists in Soho and Chelsea are still fairly rare. Transplanting these artists to the very center of the art-world establishment is a big step, and it ought to give them something to talk about. This is work that is normally viewed in the context of a browser window and somebody’s desk; now it’s in the incredibly loaded context of a mainstream white cube. Is it a tired discussion? Sure. But it’s still nice to have somebody bring it up; one or two works addressing it would have been plenty.
- Stuff’s getting projected. I think that’s kinda awesome. You get the chance to make all sorts of clever references to this huge discourse that’s been around forever about all the ramifications of putting a 2D plane in the middle of a 3D projection. I mean, there’s a whole lot of people making their entire careers out of all the stuff you can say about projecting – and little of that abundance of possibilities was in evidence at BYOB. As Tom Moody rightly pointed out in our comments, ‘little’ is certainly not ‘none’ – this fishtank in particular (photo from Art Observed, I didn’t note down the artist) was very interested in projection – but again, what seemed like a pretty obvious cue was, broadly speaking, ignored.
- Artists are performing in the same space without prior agreement about exactly how they’re going to do it. That’s nuts. At no point in the two months Marina Abramovic sat with visitors to MoMA for The Artist is Present did she have to worry about rogue performance artist Ann Liv Young coming over and shitting on her (Ms. Young has clearly missed an opportunity), but at BYOB that sort of thing was entirely possible. Somebody could have projected equine love all over everything, and it would have raised some great questions about what’s acceptable expression and what’s a party foul in the little society of net artists. Plus, projection is a medium – one of the very, very few – in which you can layer your work over someone else’s without physically destroying it, so you would have been able to approach interesting issues like collaborative consent without feeling like a dick. The collisions between performances wouldn’t need to be anything destructive, either – just stuff along the normal spectrum of how people doing the same thing in the same place will start to work together, to collaborate, to reflect and revise and build upon each other. And it would be cool. That has a ton of potential. At BYOB, though, I counted exactly one work that had any obvious awareness that it was going to be in a room full of other works: Ryder Ripps‘s Frame Shop, in which he sold a selection of projected frames to his fellow exhibitors for a mere $0.25. I liked the piece very much, but at the same time… well, I knew net art was hard to sell, but jeez. 25 cents?
- There are good reasons why things are all rectangular on the internet, and that restriction is lifted in real life. Every projection I saw was a 4:3, 3:2, or 16:9 rectangle. That’s fine; that’s what projectors are made to do, and even among the piles of hacked Wiimotes, hacked N64 controllers, hacked everything, I don’t think it’s reasonable to say my night was ruined because I didn’t see a hacked projector. But did so very many of the images need to be rectangular? It sounds like a minor point, I know, but as I write this, I’m staring at a rectangular text box. As you read this, you’re staring at a rectangular screen with a rectangular browser. Everything on the internet, indeed everything in computers generally, is laid out on what is effectively a series of overlapping grids. Fair enough. If part of the appeal of this show was supposed to be seeing net art outside the ‘net, though, I don’t see the point in looking at the same rectangular images in rectangular boxes from slightly further away. Again, there were exceptions, but far too few.
The concept of BYOB was absolutely chock-full of cues and possibilities for the artists involved. It was something special – in location, in duration, in its embrace of entropy – and it deserved special art. Instead, we got essentially the same sort of work that’s on view at any number of new media-ish galleries throughout the city, with a smattering of performance that mostly felt tacked-on. It’s not that the folks involved aren’t clever, or that they aren’t good artists – it’s precisely the fact that so many of them are so interesting that made the show feel like such a punt. Can we have a do-over?