Art lovers must settle for so little. We’re expected to tolerate levels of tameness and moralizing in museum exhibitions we would never tolerate in life, movies, music, magazines, or books, on TV, or even from subway entertainers. The watered down is passed off as full strength; tautology stands in for genuine thought. Too often institutions tell us things we already know, then expect us to be grateful we heard them in museums.
Take “BitStreams,” the Whitney’s anemic exhibition devoted to “digital technologies.” Like President Bush, “BitStreams” is building a bridge to the 20th century. Many of the pieces on view at the Whitney are dexterous and clever. A few are genuinely intriguing. But most of the work is empty of art and oddly old-fashioned. Instead of the tingle of modernity, or synergy between technique, subject, thought, and material, we just get technique—much of which is dubious. You who love to see, who revel in or disdain the look of life today, who are excited about digital technology or put off by it, use computers, shun them, or are simply curious about what artists are doing with new tools—you must settle for tepidness. At the Whitney, you will see LED signs, screens with morphing faces, dreary sculptures fashioned by super-high-tech computers, a shoddy Gursky-esque rip-off of a building facade, sensationalistic Photoshop erasers of data, surveillance cameras that don’t do much of anything, lifeless paintings and drawings that involve the use of a mouse, and an installation of five antiquated Macintosh computers in a room full of dead sod.
Whitney director Maxwell Anderson claims this exhibition lends digital art “street cred,” but “BitStreams” trades on cred won by generations of proto-digital artists from Nam June Paik on out. Curators Lawrence Rinder, Debra Singer, and Christiane Paul evangelize about connectivity, interactivity, data this, and digital that. They riff on software, 3-D scanners, virtual reality, and the Internet; rave about a “paradigmatic shift,” a “tremendous revolution.” But their show is conservative, unimaginative, and unoriginal. “BitStreams” never addresses how or if digital technologies might be fundamentally transforming life or art, how information theory might alter thought itself, how the medium of least dimension might open up alternate interior spaces, or the possibility that the fastness of digital media could stimulate what Milan Kundera calls “the pleasure of slowness.” “BitStreams” isn’t magical, tawdry, sexy, or skeptical; it’s territorial. Nothing is judged, only counted.
The real problem with this show isn’t that digital art doesn’t belong in museums (it’s been there for years), or that there aren’t good examples of it (there are); it’s that the curators have crummy taste in it, and an exhibition like this needs more than Americans. The aesthetic equivalent of a show about automobile tail fins, “BitStreams” is more about the look than the nature of digital art. I left the Whitney in a dull funk—the same mood I’m in whenever I see Bush in the news.
Nonetheless, there are standout pieces here, including LOT/EK’s groovy listening corridor housing the sound components of the show, Jeremy Blake’s trancey animation, Jason Salavon’s color-coded arrangement of all 336,247 frames of the film Titanic, Paul Pfeiffer’s basketball-cum-Lava lamp video, the vertiginous anamorphic skulls of Robert Lazzarini, maybe the giant altered photo by Inez van Lamsweerde, and possibly John Klima’s ecosystm, which is supposedly about “markets” and “weather,” but is watchable mainly because it projects shapes that look like flying origami pterodactyls.
Additionally—and a far cry from people’s reactions to our new leader—nearly everyone I spoke to agrees “BitStreams” isn’t as bad as it could have been. Except for “Data Dynamics,” the annoying section off the lobby devoted to “art on the Internet,” “BitStreams” isn’t filled with keyboards and workstations and mousepads or clumps of people trying unsuccessfully to navigate overdesigned, understimulating Web sites. The most revealing thing about “BitStreams,” however, is what it tells us about today’s museum audiences.
Every time I went to “BitStreams,” I also visited the temporary installation of the permanent collection on the second floor. There, in all but empty galleries, no crowds gathered around the Reinhardt, the Rothko, the de Kooning, or the Newman. Which is fine. Maybe today’s viewers don’t want to look at static things. Maybe they’re better equipped to look at moving images; maybe we’re all suckers for pictures made of light. Whatever the reason, “BitStreams” is always buzzing with crowds. In addition to the people gathered around the Pfeiffer and the Lazzarinis, there’s always a throng in front of Jeremy Blake’s Station to Station (2000-01), a five-part animated digital “painting” on plasma screens.
Blake’s work exhibits the conditions of abstract painting without the baggage. Sidestepping the grandeur of abstraction and avoiding the purity, rigor, and heaviness of it, Blake retains the mysticism—albeit in the form of entertainment. Hazy pastel geometric shapes meld into decorative patterns and architectural motifs; a soundtrack hums and buzzes through it all. An animated Mondrian, Rothko, or Burgoyne Diller, Station to Station is pretty, trippy, and populist. It brings to mind Newman’s definition of his own paintings as “carriers of awesome feelings.” Only Blake’s art is far from “awesome.” It’s closer to soothing. His work is a little too pleasant, and his tendency toward narrative is troublesome. Nevertheless, he’s got a consummate sense of slowness, color, and beauty. If “BitStreams” had more of what’s in Blake’s work, it wouldn’t be such a stagnant show. As it is, “BitStreams” is forgettable, except as one more step toward something that may yet be wonderful.