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Techno Narcissism 

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ISEA 97: The 8th International Symposium on Electronic Art

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, September 24

El Mexterminator

Guillermo Gomez-Pe–a

at Randolph Street Gallery,

September 26

By Carol Burbank

The International Symposium on Electronic Art made its first appearance in Chicago last week, sponsored by the School of the Art Institute and the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts, bringing international scholars, artists, and technologists together to discuss the problem of content in techno art. A major event, the symposium offered the city performances that should have reflected new ways for technology to supplement and enhance storytelling, dance, and theater.

But virtuoso techno storyteller Laurie Anderson talked only about her own work, virtual-barrio performer Guillermo Gomez-Pe–a produced a cluttered techno collage powerful only as performed theory, and the much-hyped events on the stage of the Museum of Contemporary Art demonstrated that international performers are just as steeped in self-indulgence as American technophiles. In general, the performers seemed to believe that video displays and other masks, both big and small, combined with electronically generated or distorted sounds were enough to entertain us.

If only that were true. If the world were made egalitarian by technology, then everyone could be a performance artist. It would require only computer skills--or a computer-literate colleague willing to generate the performance environment--and the willingness to show up. Like the undifferentiated barrage of television, performance could get by on style and electronics alone--and everyone would consume and produce it with the enthusiasm of children playing with building blocks. If only.

The truth is, you still need something to say to keep the audience in the theater. You still have to have enough craft--visually, physically, and/or verbally--to make something interesting out of your idea. And you have to respect your audience enough to work with them creatively. All that is difficult enough when performers are dealing with ordinary technology--lights, sound, makeup, costumes. But with the new techno art, artists are easily seduced by performance-obscuring crap, which makes their half-baked ideas seem like Ideas and their developing images seem like Art.

Only one of the performers in a show-and-tell evening at the MCA did more than demonstrate the relic of the hours spent in front of a computer screen and in the electronics shed. That was Kevin Atherton, a UK performer and scholar who presented a brilliantly parodic Gallery Guide. Wearing a headset and the bland uniform of a museum tour guide, Atherton led us through a computer-generated exhibit as inventive as it was satirical. The museum, a new building, was appropriately impossible in its scope, as Atherton playfully acknowledged the imaginative space of virtual worlds. The fantasy exhibitors had free rein in their show, "Four Rooms and a Toilet," even to the point of cutting windows in partitions, exposing the building's masonry, and breaking down the wall between the sex-segregated toilets. The guide justified each of the artists' disruptive requests in high-art terminology as we "moved" through the rooms. The guide celebrated the toilets' evenly spread grout as "a kind of minimalism" and described one impossible exhibition as "immersive nature" while his rigid cybershadow moved across the cyberprojection of a cyberslide.

The flattened, detailed images through which we "moved" during the tour combined perfectly with Atherton's inflated rhetoric, which celebrated the juxtaposition of the real and the artificial within an entirely artificial 3-D projection. The tone of the piece and Atherton's skill at creating something out of nothing were succinctly captured in his smug description of an empty room: "The work is far stronger for having nothing in it." Atherton skillfully combined technology with his deadpan docent's patter, using technology to critique techno art and the art worlds that make tech for tech's sake into a fetish.

Examples of that fetishism followed immediately. Rolling Stone, a collaboration between U.S. residents Robin Barger and Insook Choi, featured geometric images arranged along a Mšbius strip. A stone or stones would roll down and across these images, guided by Choi's fuzzy inferences and motions in a pair of "CyberBoots." The images were clear but monotonous against a backdrop of screen-saver stars; the accompanying sound was unremarkable. The most interesting aspect of this performance was not the virtually rolling stone or Choi's barely moving figure but the still, identically dressed young executives who manned three computers at the edge of the stage, their heads turning at the same angle and at the same time to stare fixedly at a mini monitor showing the same image we saw on the big screen. Their dark suits and quiet, laboring presence before computers displaying scrolls of data brought the backstage to the forefront and made it theatrically interesting by comparison with the disembodied tedium of the "art" itself.

The Grimm Show had even less to recommend it, although its combination of electrically generated and live music, masked storytelling, and video images promised, at last, a theatrical interaction between technology and storytelling. But American artists M.R. Petit and J.X. Halpern were swallowed up by their retro psychedelic and repetitive video imagery, basically pictures of masked figures or architectural silhouettes distorted into wiggly patterns against a multicolored swirling backdrop. Their story--one of my favorite fairy tales, about a boy who wanted to learn to feel fear--was told in such a diffuse manner that the people in my row who actually stayed for the whole hour of their performance couldn't remember even the most obvious details. And in the end, when the lyrics of their thumping, whining closing song announced "Why am I so happy when I sing this stupid song?" it was clear that the artists (who designed their production initially for the Internet) had no understanding of the way technology had become its own story in their work, obscuring the laxness of their self-named stupid song and their half-baked storytelling.

The techno narcissism of The Grimm Show was not only matched but exceeded by the disembodied, aimless dance in German artist Benoit Maubrey's Audio Ballerinas. This piece was the least inventive of all in creating an interface between the body and technology. The only point of the performance was the way various sound devices strapped to the dancers' arms or built into their costumes created a sound track--the costumes became the artists. It might have been more interesting if the dancers had responded to the mechanical sounds that ripped through the air like Geiger counters, the ungreased-machine shrieks of tortured animals, and the muttered moans of honking whistles, sounds without subtlety or clear referents. In any case, the apocalyptic noises of the strap-on devices would seem to merit end-of-the-world postmodern choreography, but instead the dancers simply moved around, their gestures determined not by any physical progression or idea but by the demands of producing the "score."

When the ballerinas performed on the outdoor steps of the MCA before the show began, they moved aimlessly up and down in their clear plastic tutus, which earlier recorded the squeaks and squawks of the unnamed saxophonist who played into their skirts. I couldn't help but think of Chicago performance artist Delores Wilbur's Silverware Situations, performed at the same site two weeks earlier. In her work, three performers athletically occupied the steps, creating a physically demanding, task-related work of art using only their bodies and 14 buckets of silverware, moving to the quiet music and instructions of tape players strapped to their arms. Where Wilbur used technology to enhance her own clear notions of props, gestures, and performers' relationships, the "audio ballerinas" barely seemed to have had dance training, allowing the technology to move them around like dead things. Perhaps technology is soulless after all, at least in the hands of people who refuse to share their souls or develop their ideas as more than a showcase for computer skills.

I'd guess that installation artist and scholar Guillermo Gomez-Pe–a would disagree, based on having seen his work, postmodern technological collages. And if you merely read his work or visit his installations briefly, you might be convinced: he uses technology to frame ideas, then inhabits the space with an assertive theatrical presence. Although I find his performance style static and ultimately pretentious, at least he understands the limits of technology and intervenes physically to create confrontation, however artificial.

In El Mexterminator, a part of the ISEA showcase presented at Randolph Street Gallery, Gomez-Pe–a and his collaborator Roberto Sifuentes (though never mentioned in the ISEA descriptions, he's the more compelling performer) have created what they call "ethno-cyborgs," using input from provocative, anonymous Web questionnaires about Mexican-Americans. But if technology doesn't overwhelm content in El Mexterminator, the postmodern performance equivalents of technological overload--fragmentation and alienation--do. The collage they create is playfully pretty, intelligent in its narrative, and overwhelmingly tedious. Gomez-Pe–a and Sifuentes set up a fantasy confrontation that they expect us to treat as reality, a kind of pseudo psychodrama meant to force us to expose our stereotypes and prejudices but offering so few paths of genuine response that they make the whole exercise moot.

As the performers sit on red thrones, cluttered altars before them, a large video monitor plays a loop of excerpts from old movies and commercials representing yet another group of Latino stereotypes, a cassette player in a corner broadcasts parodic news stories and fragments of phrases, and two digital readouts describing the performers' characteristics ("hypersexual, violent, troubled youth") hang above them. Over Sifuentes's head is another video monitor playing a performance the pair did on TV. The context, as usual for Gomez-Pe–a, is a pseudo museum, even down to the blandly menacing docents, men in black suits and black ski masks who offer the audience a chance to feed or walk the living exhibits.

Though Gomez-Pe–a and Sifuentes faced each other across the gallery, there was no visual communication possible between them, given the young, artsy crowd who occasionally stopped their socializing to stare at them, feed them fruit, or watch a ritualized action--Gomez-Pe–a mouthing voicelessly into a megaphone, which he occasionally turned on to create squeaking sounds, or Sifuentes shooting up with the sort of needle-pointed gun exterminators use to kill roaches. Shocking images, but they're repeated with such deadpan martyrdom that eventually the fantasy feels like an occasion for masturbation rather than a confrontation.

On each altar was a bottle of tequila, candles, and a selection of plastic toys and props the performers moved in slow, self-excoriating gestures. While Gomez-Pe–a tended to pose at photo-op moments, drinking or pretending to drink from a plastic heart while staring at spectators with a challenging air, Sifuentes glared continually at the moving audience, peering over sunglasses and slowly, skillfully building tension as he performed his rituals. In one particularly dramatic moment, he breathed a red liquid into his cupped hands and spread his arms, creating a kind of faux stigmata he then licked off. A woman let the "blood" drip onto her hand. "It dries really fast," she said, showing it to her friend. A man next to me said, "Why don't they intervene?" A woman stepped forward and gently wiped Sifuentes's hand clean in the only healthy intervention I saw, interacting with the performer and his self-negating fantasy rather than the fantasy alone.

But in general this techno collage was so unreal that the performers "suffering" seemed a pointless mask; if it was for my benefit as an audience member, the narrow roles offered me in response made the whole thing a well-executed exercise in performance theory. We either treated Gomez-Pe–a and Sifuentes as freaks or museum exhibits by feeding or staring at them, or we ignored them altogether. Although technology didn't overwhelm these performers, and the content of the piece is potentially powerful, the audience was given little reason to enter into their self-important game.

The pair's display of simmering macho violence and sexuality juxtaposed with their performance of submission did create some tension, however, producing giggling and staring matches that pushed some performance envelope, I suppose. I wanted to get unstained clothing for Sifuentes, who wore a T-shirt full of bullet holes, wipe the mask of pseudo-Aztec symbols off his face, and stop the masquerade that prevented me from making any contact that didn't objectify him or me. I suppose a fan would say this was the point--that stereotypes objectify both oppressor and oppressed. But what happens when a performer wears his oppression with proud pleasure, in a stylish, self-conscious, theoretically inflected martyrdom? At that point performance becomes the object of its own affection, and elements like technology create a closed circle to please performers and the few initiated in their world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Audio Ballerinas photo/ uncredited.

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