Sep 12, 2006

It’s hard to tell where pixels end and reality begins

edge.jpgSource: San Francisco Chronicle
Written by Steven Winn

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.”

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