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[whitespace] 'Guccinam'
Looking Forward: Jeremy Blake's 'Guccinam,' a digital animation, is one of many technology-embracing works at the '010101' exhibit.

Roll Over Beethoven

Art finally enters the 21st century at '010101'

By Gina Arnold

THERE WAS ONLY one place in the Bay Area more crowded than the nightclubs hosting Noise Pop last Friday night, and that was the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's preview of its new exhibit, "010101: Art In Technological Times." Despite the pouring rain, Third Street between Mission and Howard looked as if 'N Sync were hiding round the corner--only instead of screaming teenagers in spangly suburb-wear, the hordes were dressed to kill.

The men sported boldly colored hair, and the women were wearing subtle black tunics and awesome shoes by Manolo Blahnik. Within minutes of 8pm, the lobby of the building filled up with more hipsters holding plastic glasses of chardonnay than you probably knew existed outside of Paris.

Another thing the lobby was full of was sound waves, the loud and dangerous kind that can be felt in the chest rather than the ears, as the museum had kindly hired an industrial band that was turning the atmosphere into one big painful vibration. It was damned abrasive, but I liked it. I always think those purposefully obnoxious bands, like Insane Clown Posse and Slipknot, with their "shocking" lyrics and tired beats, don't even come close to achieving the kind of bodily pain that music can inflict if it wants to.

"Is this what a rave is like?" my sister asked.

"No, " I replied, "this is what a Mark Pauline show is like, minus the flame throwers."

I spent last year in New York and visited all of the museums in the five boroughs. As great as that experience was, after steeping myself in 20th-century art for an entire year, the only reasonable conclusion I could draw was that Art, as a concept, is just another form of nostalgia and an excuse for American merch.

There's nothing wrong with that, but as the movie Pollock indicates, Cubism, Impressionism, Modernism and all that jazz are now just a rather corny room in the anthropology wing of the ol' mausoleum. It's biography. It's history. It's dead.

"010101: Art in Technological Times" (which runs through March 3) tells a different story altogether, because it looks forward, rather than back. But more surprisingly, many of its installations, sculptures, paintings and films are brilliant. I say "surprisingly," because until very recently, most technologically inspired, digitally enhanced art--like that of Jenny Holzer, Nam June Paik and Matthew Barney--has been pretty feeble, the conceptual equivalent of cave paintings compared to, say, the complexity inherent in a painting by Ingres.

Of course, the entire 20th century was one long attempt at moving the public concept of art away from merely being about Beautiful Objects toward being about items that evoked a series of ideas. Duchamp, Dadaism and the Dia Earth Room are all attempts at this kind of thing, but 010101 goes one dimension better.

An art degree isn't necessary to understand what it is trying to say about the world. No one was selling sheets or mugs or T-shirts that depicted what it was talking about. And I never once thought that awful art thought: "Hey, I could have done that myself!"

Take Andreas Gursky's high-definition, digitally altered photographed "landscapes," for instance. My favorite, titled 99c, depicts the aisles of a K-Mart with their profusion of candy-colored products. The artist calls the picture "the pornography of the available," a phrase that ought to immediately ring a bell with anyone who's ever been to Costco, Target or Price Club.

I also loved Heike Baranowski's four-channel video production Autoscope, and the installation of Yuan Goang-Ming in which he had placed a bucket of phosphorus powder in a darkened room. Every few minutes the image of a man's face, screaming, was flashed upon it. The phosphorus would hold the image for a few seconds, until the sound waves of the scream would break up the powder, so that one saw the man disintegrate. It was super-X-Files-like, and I mean that as a compliment.

One thing about this new art is it's not snotty, or contemplative. I'm not sure if those two words go together, but I do know that the crowds at the exhibit laugh and chat and comment about these works of art, even when they're in darkened rooms, in a way that simply wasn't thought of in the days when a museum meant a large building with white walls and hushed rooms full of a lot of artificial northern light.

"01010" has a few clunkers--like the "psychological architecture" of Decosterd and Rahm--and it is inevitably marred (as are all art exhibits these days) by the incredibly tortured blurb jargon. ("The building environment as an interface for accessing and processing information experientially, bla bla bla.")

One of the biggest disappointments was the installation by Brian Eno, which was sooo 20th century. His "generative sound sculpture" split a piece of music into nine tracks and had them play separately, but not in synch, for an ever-recombinant--and ever-boring--soundscape. (This is an idea the Flaming Lips did more entertainingly on their album Zaireeka.)

But disappointments like that one were few and far between. Most of "010101" provides a pretty stimulating blueprint for a new way to think about the world ... and pretty much just in time. Art is dead--long live art!

Tell Tchaikovsky the News

THE NEXT MORNING, a friend of mine called me to warn me that her phone would be out of service all weekend. "My husband's going to be Napster-bating until the lights go out," she explained. But I think her fears were premature. Her household download list looks a lot like mine--that is, it's full of titles by Big Bill Broonzy, Bob Wills and live Run Westy Run concerts. Napster's filter is taking out the Top 100 LPs and singles on the Billboard charts, thus proving the inherent danger of treating music like a bloody contest all the time.

I've always thought there was something sinister about the obsessive statistical analysis that drives all record company decisions, and now it's clear why: If you provide the world with a detailed popularity, sooner or later it will be used in some way that the popular people are going to resent. Like when the Khmer Rouge decided to kill all the intellectuals, or the Cuban government stripped everyone of their property.

I mean, who wins in this situation? Are those artists whose music is being filtered out of Napster this weekend earning more money as their fans rush to Tower to purchase their goods instead? No. No money is changing hands in this case--just like before the filter was put in place.

But then, maybe that's the point. It seems to me that the problem with the lawsuit against Napster is that it is predicated on a negative, rather than a positive, concept: on something not happening, rather than happening. That is to say, if users don't choose to purchase, say, the new Dave Matthews Band this weekend because they downloaded it, that's a sin of omission, not a sin of commission. And how can you regulate or enforce activities that are being omitted, rather than committed? It would be like arresting people--in advance--because they decided against buying a handgun.

Put another way, the injunction against Napster isn't causing users to pay artists; it's merely preventing them from hearing music. I don't know, if I were in a band, I'd be mad as hell if my music got blocked from Napster, but maybe that's because I don't have the same sense of entitlement that most artists have about their intellectual property.

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From the March 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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