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Since the invention of photography, art has been profoundly influenced by technology and the utopian rhetoric surrounding it: new machines will produce a new world, that sort of thing. In the “Electronic Immersions” exhibit at the Illinois Art Gallery, Chicago video pioneer Dan Sandin, who in the early 70s invented the Image Processor, an early analog device for manipulating video, writes: “The creation of these instruments and techniques is predicated on the belief that artists need access to the most advanced technology in the culture to transform themselves in ways that can transform the culture.”

This sounds promising–until one looks at the room-size shrine to Sandin in the exhibition. A forest of video monitors, circuit boards, floppy disks, the Image Processor, and other paraphernalia, it seems to fetishize equipment rather than results; Sandin’s video art is seldom on view. One expects a room-size installation to be arranged with some eye to aesthetic expression, but this room is just clutter. This is techno art at its worst: utopian ideals accompanied not by utopian results but by equipment worship. In an article posted as part of the shrine, Gene Youngblood writes that the art of Sandin and his colleagues should not be judged simply in aesthetic terms, and cites Sandin suggesting that viewer interactivity is key to his art. But if there were interactive Sandin pieces here, I couldn’t find them.

Most of the interactive works in this show did not make me sanguine about the upcoming “cultural transformation.” In Torn Touch Joan Truckenbrod places cloth over barbed wire in front of three video monitors in cages whose displays change from leaves to hands when one steps on some tree stumps in front of the cloth. But viewers seem to have little control beyond this, though they’re also asked to pin some “personal item” to the cloth; on it are business cards, scrap paper, and a section from a newspaper. Truckenbrod seems to take a curiously negative attitude toward the most interesting aspect of video, its nonphysicality: she emphasizes video’s nontactility by separating the monitors from us with cages and barbed wire and encouraging the viewer to add materiality by pinning on objects. She seems to use video largely to negate it.

Video Swirl–a collaborative work by Dana Plepys, Joe Reitzer, Anna Seeto, and Jonas Talandis–is even less interesting than Torn Touch. Three monitors above jukeboxlike lit panels display changing abstract patterns that reminded me of the term often used to derogate such work, “video wallpaper.” The interactive element is housed in a little box that produces loud, disco-style beats as one’s hand passes before it; the closer one moves, the louder the volume. This is at least a bit of fun: one can make one’s own rhythms, stopping and starting the music with rapid hand movements. But I can achieve a similar effect with the volume knob on my $10 clock radio.

Computer-generated images are also on view, some in irritating video “slide shows,” others as printouts. Their improbable and exotic combinations, often pretty but mostly mindless, are by now predictable from past computer graphics. One of the more imaginative ones is Marjorie David’s surrealistic Wolf, which shows the title beast behind large classical columns and in front of a warmly lit interior. Presumably a vision of civilization disrupted by the beast within, her computer-made collage also recalls great photo collagists of past decades like Joseph Cornell, who aimed for a kind of seamlessness in which the viewer might momentarily believe that a child in Victorian dress floats above the Grand Canyon, and yet remain aware of the edges of his cutouts.

Much art depends on a tension between the artist’s materials and the subject. A sculpture is hewn out of marble only with some labor; a painter achieves previously unimagined miracles of illusion out of mere paint. Cornell combines common images in uncommon ways, and the physicality of his cutouts produces a sense of the materials straining against one another to produce meaning. This is at the core of his and much other art, as unexpected collisions cause us to reenvision banal magazine imagery while never forgetting its source. But since increasingly powerful graphics programs have enabled artists to produce almost any image seamlessly, there’s never any sense of resistance or conflict. The viewer begins to register almost any combination as normal and unsurprising, and ever-more-glitzy effects are required to impress viewers. The idea of using minimal means to achieve transcendent ends seems totally forgotten; if there’s an Agnes Martin of computer imaging, I have yet to find her.

Compare Michael Markowski’s two CD-ROMs. The most recent, Imagination Park, is made with up-to-the-minute imaging software and 24-bit sound. The viewer chooses from a grid of landscape views; clicking on one seems to take you in a low-flying plane over imaginary terrain, using effects that are all-too-familiar even to non-digerati such as I. The only control the viewer has is to stop and select another sequence. Sometimes fun to watch and doubtless very “cool,” these journeys also seem utterly stupid: they express nothing other than inchoate sci-fi “moods.” But Markowski’s earlier The Museum of Anything Goes, made in collaboration with Max Robertson, gives us a virtual museum of imaginary paintings, each leading to a different experience with different interactive possibilities. The “painting” of an el platform leads to a ride on the Ravenswood, in which the viewer can stop and restart the train; another of a model train leads to a game in which clicking on different switches causes a train to travel different tracks. This playful inventory is crammed with little surprises: a man in a bathing suit flies by; an unnameable creature floats before our eyes. The images are more akin to eye candy than to surrealist statements, and none is particularly expressive as art, but I appreciated this work’s playful engagement far more than the fancier graphics of the sterile Imagination Park.

The most retro, lowest-tech pieces in the show–two sculptural works by Annette Barbier–were also my favorites. In Patio Lights tiny plastic houses are strung along with Christmas-tree lights on the wall; step close to a house, and a ten-second sound fragment is heard from within. There isn’t much choice involved for the viewer, but at least there’s an idea behind the piece: though the sound is heard only when one draws close, the opaque houses don’t allow the viewer to look within. Voyeurism is both encouraged and denied, a rebuff heightened when one realizes that the sound fragments come mostly from TV shows referring to home, such as The Brady Bunch and Roseanne. The simultaneous attraction and emptiness of mass culture are thus neatly joined in Barbier’s gentle work.

Another, more quotidian problem with machine-driven artworks is that, despite much maintenance, they’re often nonfunctional. On one of my visits to the Illinois Art Gallery two artists had to restart their frozen works; one piece was lifeless again soon after. On my last visit to the Chicago Cultural Center’s “Art F(x)” show, curator Lanny Silverman, on his way to feed some worms to the fish that are part of Kenneth Rinaldo’s Mediated Encounters, noticed me sitting in puzzlement before a cluttered display on the monitor in Stephanie Cunningham’s Character Revelations; fortunately he stopped to get her work started again for me.

The six works by six Chicago-based artists here are not especially profound, with one exception, but the exhibit is generally better than “Electronic Immersions.” Its simple format–one installation per artist–helps to orient the viewer to work that can be confusing, sometimes intentionally so, and every one of these pieces is of some interest at least.

Several of the artists make the point that identity in an age swamped by manipulated imagery is shifting and unstable. Cunningham takes composite images of her face morphed with the faces of celebrities and pairs them with written interpretations of those faces by other people, illustrating how the same face can be seen in very different ways. The 33 laser prints of Photoshop-altered faces in Michael Ensdorf’s Memory Grid become a kind of inventory of possibility: in color or monochrome, fuzzy or sharp, the face is now as susceptible to endless computer alterations as it has been to the manipulations of paint and photographic emulsion.

Many of the works in both shows assume that technology somehow enhances intelligence yet end up demonstrating the opposite. But in “Art F(x)” John Manning has made a piece based on very different assumptions. He writes in the wall label: “It is believed by many [artificial intelligence] researchers that emulating some of the nobler modes of human communicative behavior…will require forms of engineering not yet even imagined. My work proceeds from the nearly opposite observation, which is that much of what passes as intelligent speech in daily life is so highly standardized as to be suggestive of generic products.” Manning’s often hilarious “Problematize” This places three small computers on a dais with water glasses in front of them; the faces on the monitors are clear stand-ins for human beings, apparently engaged in a panel discussion laced with trendy artspeak. For the piece Manning wrote a program categorizing the sentence one computer “speaks” according to 26 predefined types, then generating a response by another computer of another sentence type into which selected words are randomly plugged. A witty comment on boilerplate art “theory,” the piece also critiques, perhaps unintentionally, the mindless “interactivity” of such works as Video Swirl. That Manning is a professor in the Art and Technology program at the School of the Art Institute is a sign of hope: at least there are teachers who understand the limitations as well as the possibilities of these new modes.

The one terrific piece in the show is Divided Circle: Music for 16 Stirrers by Shawn Decker, Art and Technology chair at SAIC. The opposite of the Sandin shrine, this installation is decidedly low-tech: hanging from the ceiling are two metal semicircles from which hang 16 metal paint stirrers that click together as each individually rotates. The “tech” in this piece is mainly the computer that drives the rotation, programmed, Decker writes, “to produce both fixed and indeterminate patterns within a specified cyclical time structure which repeats every 24 hours.” The actual sounds are irregular and gentle, somewhere between clicks and rustling leaves. The sound is frequently interrupted or drowned out, however, by passing voices or the whirring motors that drive Rinaldo’s rotating fish tanks, which are in the same room. But this interference also makes a point: straining to hear the work’s faint sounds brought home how needlessly loud and aggressive human voices so often are.

Listening to Decker’s piece also reminded me of my youthful attempts, inspired by John Cage, to hear music in everyday sounds. Soon, though, the rhythms of Divided Circle: Music for 16 Stirrers become apparent. Frustrating at first, they soon teach one to accept their peculiar mixture of intentionality and randomness. Stopping and starting unpredictably, they nonetheless seem to follow patterns more poetic than strictly metric, like sounds in nature. A host of traditional painters and sculptors similarly draw on the organic world, which perhaps only proves what real artists have always known: that materials are a means, never an end.

Electronic Immersions

at the Illinois Art Gallery, through October 24

Art F(x)

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through November 9

By Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Video Swirl” “Problematize’ This” by John Manning.