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Female artists manipulate the new media at Art-Tech

By Ann Elliott Sherman

Totem of Heavenly Wisdom: Tamiko Thiel's sculpture reawakens our primal awareness.

CONTRARY TO stereotype, women aren't necessarily technophobic. It's just that, for most of us, technology is less a toy that we can't resist and more a tool for getting the job done. For all its variety, the Chik Tek '97: Women Artists Defining Technology exhibit at Art-Tech in San Jose pretty much bears out this generalization. Most of the 14 artists experimenting with new media are not as concerned with the technology itself as with how effectively it allows them to convey a complex, multilayered world view.

The interactive multimedia works are the most obvious examples of this concern. Christine Tamblyn's Mistaken Identities CD-ROM allows the viewer to explore different aspects of the labyrinthine histories of 10 iconic women, from Marie Curie to Isadora Duncan.

Fact and cultural myth are deliberately mixed together, so that actual diary entries or documentary images rub up against Hollywood portrayals of the same person. Tamblyn's understanding of the medium's potential goes beyond design details like era-appropriate wallpaper, music and fonts to a true interactivity that lets the viewer make the connections, draw the conclusions.

Nanette Wylde's catalog definition of a good story--a fable that "illuminates flaws" in one's beliefs--reads like Bizarro William Bennett. Not surprisingly, her narrative in A Brief History :... has a rather lecturing tone, at odds with her expressed intention of creating an entertaining, provocative CD-ROM.

Several of the artists use multimedia effects to enhance installations that focus on some of the standard issues of identity-driven art: repressed desires, gender politics and taboos involving sex and the body.

In E.G. Crichton's Pure, Ivory soap's advertised image provides an ironic vehicle for taking on cultural norms for acceptable female behavior. Two carved doors, painted white to look like a prisoner's soap-bar journal, recount the childhood drama of getting one's mouth washed out for "impure" deeds and words. A video peephole revealing an exploding soap bar and sound effects like a ticking bomb add dimension, but it's the dripping beaker of suggestively viscous brown stuff that most effectively drives home the pathology of having basic physical acts turned into something dirty.

Camp, humor and shock cohabit in the work of Elisabeth Stephens. Lured by kitschy familiarity, the viewer turns voyeur, confronted with video of an unexpectedly private nature. Dinner Party for Two one-ups Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party. Weight-activated vibrators are attached to chairs on each side of an old table-top video game.

Each place is set with a screen playing extreme close-ups of female genitalia engaged in a stimulating exchange as factoids about famous women Chicago left off her guest list scroll over the images. Aside from the joke about how far Ms. Pacman's come, what could be called cheap potshots at Chicago for not being radical or inclusive enough by current standards are meant to debunk nostalgia.

AMONG THOSE ARTISTS more directly concerned with technology itself, the women affiliated with San Jose State University's CADRE (Computers in Art, Design, Research and Education) Institute, Geri Wittig and Lisa Jevbratt, both touch on aspects of the surveillance inherent in interactive technologies like the Web.

Though it's certainly not the artist's fault that the gallery modems were down, later attempts to locate Wittig's Web site (HomeNet: Home Entertainment and Surveillance Center--Better Living Through Networking) were fruitless. A link from the Chik Tek, Art-Tech or CADRE sites would have improved at least an hour of my life.

Jevbratt did include a link--to a textual explanation of her collaboration with Jan Ekenberg on The Stillman Project. In brief, site visitors choose one of three possible answers to the question of the likely impact of art on the Web. While the idea is not without a certain appeal, whether the kind of hits and misses a person makes reveals a broader truth than relative reading retention and endurance isn't clear. I guess I got lost in the "immense deterritorialized semiotic backdrop" looking for "the dynamic 'architectures and environments,' " but the payoff of seeing the Internet etch-a-sketch never came.

(Note to the CADRE cadre: all those lengthy quotes translated from the likes of Baudrillard and Foucault that get you an "A" in grad school earn you a "ZZZ" this side of the ivy-covered walls. Internalizing the influences enough to make the point clear in your own words, if not the work itself, would be more impressive.)

Someone who has integrated her schooling in engineering, design and fine arts into a mesmerizing video-Rorschach dance is Tamiko Thiel. Five vertically mounted screens make up The Totem of Heavenly Wisdom, the camera revealing silhouetted, mirror-doubled movements of the body both sensuous and abstract. In the flowing forms, the viewer "sees" birth, blossoming, all manner of fleeting suggestions of the body's participation in the cycle of life and death--technology employed to reawaken our primal awareness, not subvert it.

Chik Tek '97: Women Artists Defining Technology runs through Jan. 9 at Art-Tech, 89 S. First St., San Jose. (408/971-9100). Louise McKissick debuts an installation using the Web on Saturday (Dec. 13), 2-6pm, at the gallery. Admission is free.

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From the Dec. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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