San Francisco Chronicle
Hard to Tell Where Pixels End and Reality Begins"
A tree writhes and pulses on the wall, every bare limb and summoning branch tip sinuously alive. Nearby, rainbow-colored light pours in giant waves across another gallery, engulfing everything in the viscous, undulating glow of Jennifer Steinkamp's "The Wreck of the Dumaru."
Upstairs, more wonders await the visitor to the San Jose Museum of Art's "Edge Conditions" show of seductively alluring digital art. Takuji Kogo's "A Song for the Silicon Valley" weds a whimsical audio account of a woman's skittering sex life to dreamy aerial views of San Jose, a place the artist has never visited. It's a kind of jokey rapture on the endless possibilities (and perils) of connecting in a world of boundless digital accessibility.
An easy walk away, in the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art's exhibition "NextNew2006: Art and Technology," Stephanie Syjuco offers a sly but emphatic rejoinder to all things beguilingly digital in her piece, "Everything Must Go." Heaped like so much electronic refuse in the center of the room are cell phones, laptops, DVD players, computer monitors, remote controls, even an antiquated Discman or two. In the artist's trompe l'oeil twist, all the objects are digital fakes, made by cutting and folding downloaded images. Surrounded by various busily pulsing video art pieces in the "NextNew" show, "Everything Must Go" induces a woozy claustrophobia. One way or another, it seems, the digital universe has wrapped us all inside its sumptuous, disquieting, pixel-lined cocoon.
Artists have always embraced, and fretted about, new technologies. Any means of replicating and manipulating imagery -- printmaking, photography, video, computer and art from the Internet -- raises fresh possibilities and anxieties. Today's digital domination of what we see -- and not only in museums and galleries -- dramatically expands those concerns. Issues that might have been pondered in art school are now open questions for anyone who looks at a news photograph, video footage or a friend's e-mailed photo of a day at the beach. Seeing, as never before, is an invitation not to believe. Problems and puzzlements surface all the time.
One recent flap involved a veteran Reuters photographer, Adnan Hajj, who was caught and fired for Photoshop enhancements of published images from the Middle East. In one shot, Hajj had added smoke, presumably for dramatic visual emphasis, to a Beirut bombing scene. In another, he apparently dressed up an air-strike photograph from Qana, Lebanon, that featured a dead child with a pacifier. Then came the cosmetic folly of CBS's digital diet for the network's new "Evening News" anchor Katie Couric. In a doctored image that appeared in an in-house publication, an airline magazine and everywhere on the Web, Couric's waistline got a tuck that made her appear to be a good 10 pounds slimmer.
A new show of iconic Walker Evans photos in New York features not traditional gelatin silver prints produced from negatives but rather contemporary, detail-enriched versions made by digital scans. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman pronounced the results "uncomfortably beautiful." London film critics, meanwhile, are in a lather over the forthcoming "Death of a President." The movie, which premieres at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday before airing on British television, uses digital techniques to bond George W. Bush's face to an actor's body in depicting a speculative 2007 assassination.
There's ample context to lay in around such stories. First, when it comes to the reliability of news photographs and video imagery, doubts date back to photographer Matthew Brady's staging of dead and wounded bodies during the Civil War. Jane Fonda got stripped into a Vietnam War-era protest snap of John Kerry during the 2004 campaign, a stunt not far removed from the supermarket tabloid cover shots of aliens in New York. O.J. Simpson's mug shot was famously darkened and made more sinister on a Time magazine cover. Addressing these and other misdeeds in his new book "Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography," Johnson writes, "The credibility of photographs is in a state of erosion. With digital technology we can synthesize things rather than explore the world."
As for that concocted Bush assassination, it's worth remembering that special effects are as old as the medium itself. Whether it's the sinking of the Titanic, the shooting of a president or a tangle of "Snakes on a Plane," film has always been a collective daydream, an envelope of visual make-believe sealed off from the visual empiricism and literalness of everyday life.
But as the two shows in San Jose remind us, the line between visual documentation and imagination is anything but secure these days. As digital technology assumes an ever-widening role in the way we do business, play games, make friends, buy books, hunt for bedmates, troll for news, decipher meaning, craft identities and both literally and figuratively see the world, the boundary between it and everything else blurs. "We make our own media," exults J.D. Lasica in "Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation." "In many ways we are our own media."
It's no wonder we can't trust our eyes anymore. We're so deeply invested in the digital universe, and its infinitely malleable reality, that perception itself has become an endless hall of mirrors. If anything can be Photoshopped -- digitally added or subtracted, heightened or diminished, rebalanced or synthesized out of thin air -- then almost any electronically transmitted image is provisional and subject to skepticism. It may be a defining paradox of the digital age that at no time in human history have so many people had so much access to so much imagery -- and had so many reasons to doubt what they see.
can curdle into cynicism and reflexive distrust, it can also foster more
vigorous scrutiny. One clear outgrowth of the unreliable image glut is
a new vigilance about all things visual. Self-appointed photo police patrol
the media and Internet looking for evidence of "fauxtography"
and other forms of eye-deceiving fraud. That Reuters photographer was
first brought to ground by sharp-eyed bloggers, empowered by the digital
highway. Photographers and news organizations think more carefully about
what they produce and publish. "In this digital age," as Johnson
puts it, "just because we can do something doesn't mean we should."
Inevitably, in today's digital art shows, there's a piece or two that mimics the addictive look, logic and "user interface" of video games. Steering a pair of swimming horses through some intricate waterways at the San Jose Museum, I got lost in glowing video space. I knew it was happening, and then again I didn't. I was, as Peter Lunenfeld puts it in "Snap to Grid: A User's Guide to Digital Arts, Media and Cultures," "ambiguously enthralled."
Coming back to my senses and immediate surroundings when a young woman waiting behind me politely cleared her throat, I felt sheepish and self-conscious and moved on. Then I moved right on down the stairs and back outside.
It was, as it happened, a splendid, warm day in San Jose. And even though I knew the show's "SIMVeillance" piece might be recording my movements across the plaza and feeding the data to a screen upstairs, I walked off as if no one knew where I was or where I was going in the afternoon sunlight.