Trial by Fire

How do you get in people's faces from a flat screen? The directors of Franklin Furnace, the 21-year-old performance space in Tribeca created to "make the world safe for avant-garde art," have never had to worry about breaking the fourth wall--it's the 2-D part that's hard. They've hosted the notoriously political Karen Finley, who, in the late '80s, presented a monologue while she rubbed yams on her butt, and Eric Bogosian, who debuted his manic stage ranting there.

Last year, the group sold its landmark loft to help raise money, and since then, Franklin Furnace has been a "virtual institution," says founder Martha Wilson. This month, Furnace crosses another threshold with virtual performances--10 pieces scheduled through June, performed live and broadcast on channelp.com, part of Pseudo Online.

Unfortunately for Furnace, the artists have had to shuck a fundamental element of their work: a captive audience in the group's traditional 75 folding chairs. They've been forced to translate their performances into the matchbox-size frame of the RealPlayer 5.0 plug-in and to cede control to technical snafus. But the failures of the medium are what intrigue the artists most. Finally, there is a Net art series that doesn't pretend the limitations don't exist or ignore the biggest assets--live chat and animation.

In the first Furnace show, Pseudo Studio Walk (archived at the site), Halona Hilbertz marches the perimeter of a white room for over 50 minutes. Yes, the screen freezes up and fragments even on a T1 connection--but that's Hilbertz's point. Space and movement are broken into a Muybridge-like flipbook of creamy pixels. Time is just a question of how many frames per second you're operating at.

To subvert time even further, Hilbertz dropped in "live" (inside a small box on the screen) during her own (taped) walkabout, joining a live chat of 100-some people who were "wondering just what the hell she was doing," says Channelp producer and spoken-word performer Galinsky. "She kinda answered their questions."

In another work, scheduled for May, musician Nora York teams with visual artist Nancy Spero to move into animation--terra incognita for both of them. In a prerecorded sequence of images, York will "pop" through the labia of a stone totem--one of the "prehistoric vaginas" that Spero favors in her work--all scored to her own music.

Of course, the problem with online performance art is that when it's not unwatchable artistically, it can be unwatchable technically. Last fall, at the usually impressive Thundergulch video wall presentation series at 55 Broad Street, a lunchtime crowd eagerly assembled, only to witness Lucent researchers, a live actor, and a theater troupe in St. Petersburg (through a CUSeeMe connection) fiddle with wires for an hour before admitting the sound wasn't going to work.

Even Kathy Brew, director of Thundergulch (thundergulch.org), struggles to name one intriguing online performance series and admits, "The tools and language [for online performance art] just aren't there yet." Meanwhile, the biggest success of "online" performance reverse-engineered the entire process: Webbedfeats (webbedfeats.org), a communion of dance, poetry, and theater unveiled last September in Bryant Park, let Web surfers develop the choreography that live performers then enacted.

For now, the Net is the cheapest real estate going for experimentation, and Franklin Furnace doesn't have the time to wait. As the technologies get pricier and more proprietary, taking risks will only become costlier. Soon, says Channelp's Galinsky, "the ticket for the ball is going to cost you $80--but for now it only costs you a buck."


Coming Attractions

If Kozmo.com's goal to become the first online video rental and delivery business sounds unlikely, consider this: the success of amazon.com, NetGrocer, and 1800flowers.com suggests people are shunning the live shopping experience more day by day.

Kozmo.com, launching this Friday, lets Manhattan customers order online from a stock of 22,000 flicks for $4 a movie ($3 for each additional) and delivers them within 30 to 60 minutes through a network of in-house bike messengers. Servicing Manhattan from 50th Street down, the business has established drop spots for customers to return the videos at 15 to 20 local cafes and delis--"anything food related," explains Joseph Park, one of the seven partners in Kozmo.com. "The advantage for the retailer is that the people dropping off their movie end up buying a cup of coffee." Better yet, Park is adamant that "there are no tips required."

Neighborhoods without video stores, like Battery Park City, may be Kozmo's key market. But to challenge the 50-some video stores between midtown and Wall Street, Kozmo has overstocked its supply to three or four times that of some local Blockbusters (Park does, however, defer to Kim's for volume). But the real attraction for customers, says Park, is that users can peruse reviews, trailers, and staff picks (with staff bios) before making a selection. At a traditional store, he notes, "customers are making their selection based on the box."

Kozmo's philosophy is that every display box in a traditional video store takes up a valuable fraction of expensive New York real estate. By storing its flicks in a warehouse on 12th Street (and therefore eliminating the need for separate shelf space), the company knocks hundreds of thousands of dollars off the cost of an actual store. "It costs Blockbuster on average $500,000 to open a store," Park says. "Our warehouse is $20,000." Oddly, Kozmo is also opening an actual storefront at 111 East 12th Street.

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