Visual Arts

Techno Prisoners

In a decade that has seen the mass market of the cellular phone and the emergence of the Internet, it's hardly surprising that more artists than ever are turning to technology for expression. This new breed of artists comprises computer geeks, electrical engineers and quantum physicists.

Two of these science boys, Jim Campbell and Alan Rath, pioneers of electronic art, are currently showing in the Valley.

Neither is a product of a classical art education. In fact, both hold degrees in electrical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Who says computer nerds can't be artistic?

Campbell's exhibit, "Transforming Time: Electronic Works 1990-1999," is on display at the Arizona State University Art Museum at Nelson Fine Arts Center through Sunday, January 2.

The museum is dedicated to the presentation of new media and has a history of exhibiting cutting-edge contemporary art. It is not surprising to see the museum supporting efforts such as Campbell's. In 1996, the museum exhibited internationally known video installationist Bill Viola's "Buried Secrets," the United States' entry to the Venice Biennale that year.

Campbell has just completed a two-year residency at the ASU Institute for Studies in the Arts, a research center designed to explore the use of technologies in the arts. While at ASU Campbell helped construct a lab for the institute. Several of the works in "Transforming Time" were created during Campbell's time at ASU.

Campbell's mathematics credentials are evident in his works In Shadow (for Heisenberg) and Untitled (for Heisenberg), which pay homage to and are loosely based on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, a theory of quantum physics. The theory postulates that the observation of an object in the simplest form is impossible because the process of observation has an impact on the object. The application of the principle is evident on In Shadow (for Heisenberg), which consists of a small glass box containing a small statue of Buddha, an icon that after several seconds of observation becomes engulfed in fog.

Of course, with technology-based art comes technologic glitches. On a recent morning, Campbell's installation Untitled (for Heisenberg) was on the fritz. So it remains to be seen how that installation, which contains a large illuminated bed in a dark room, relates to the Heisenberg theory.

"Transforming Time" consists of 23 installations and sculptures focusing on the human experiences of reflection, memory and the passage of time. The most engaging of the installations employ black-and-white video cameras to incorporate the observer into the pieces. By bringing the spectator into his work, Campbell creates an interactive experience and allows observers to draw conclusions about the viewing experience while actually becoming part of the art.

In his works dealing with the imitation of memory, Campbell employs home movies, photographs and audio recordings. His manipulations of these media illustrate memory's fragility. Mimicking the experience of fading memory, Photo of My Mother and Portrait of My Father contain photographs that, at first glance, are vivid. But a gradual charging of the glass causes the photographs to become cloudy and eventually fade out completely.

"Alan Rath: Robotics" is on view at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art through Sunday, December 5. Rath uses robotics to illustrate elements of the cooperative relationships between humans and machines. His robots are sleek by design and are intended to mimic human behavior. Do not be misled by the term "robot," however; these sculptures prove that machines can be beautiful.

Rath experimented with electronics on a creative level during his last years at MIT.

He creates all of his own electronic technology from scratch. In One Track Mind, two large metal-frame robots on wheels glide toward each other, attempting to make contact. Large appendages try to connect but fail -- a reminder, perhaps, that automatons may mimic humans but cannot enjoy the mystery of human touch.

As the year 2001 looms, earthlings can be reminded of their fear that robots and computers will become our masters. Science fiction has merged into popular culture to promote the notion of a technological Armageddon -- and perhaps cause a bit of apprehension about technological arts.

The irony is that artists such as Campbell and Rath address technological limitations. Technology may be burgeoning and ubiquitous, but we can always pull the plug.

"Transforming Time: Electronic Works 1990-1999" continues through Sunday, January 2, at the Arizona State University Art Museum at Nelson Fine Arts Center. "Alan Rath: Robotics" continues through Sunday, December 5, at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

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Carla Wade