|Ippolito, Jon. Flash Art, "Out of the darkness and into the loop", April 1995, p. 69.|
The Earth's geography is rapidly changing, and not because of border disputes or continental drift. Perspective, the dominant artistic and literary paradigm for representing knowledge since 1435, is giving way to the paradigm of the network, with profound repercussions on the way knowledge and power are expressed in our culture.
From philosophical tracts like Descartes's Meditations to common expressions like "enlightenment" or "clarification," light has been Europe's dominant metaphor for knowledge since the Renaissance. In our increasingly electronic world, information still takes the form of energy; however, this energy is no longer exerior, direct, and local, but interior, cicuitous, and global. Instead of a physical key to a locked room, we need and encryption key to a locked file. Lacking informaiton, we are no longer " in the dark," but "out of the loop."
This shift form enlightenment to connectedness has altered our perception of ourselves, as reflected in the way the body is represented in the art of our time. Leonardo illegally obtained cadavers to dissect, so he could bring to light the dark secrets of human anatomy. Contemporary artist Patrice Caire prefers Magnetic Resonance Imaging for her "illumination" of meat and marrow. Supposedly less invasive than surgery, MRI indirectly measures resonances in the nuclei of atoms in the patient's body; as in a computer network, access to information happens at a distance through electronic signals. Caire first saw MRI images of herself after a motorcycle racing accident. Since then, she has recreated these MRI data in works of video and virtual reality which allows viewers "insider her head." As the viewer moves through Caire's virtual eye, to her virtual optic nerve and into the minute whorls of her virtual inner ear, the scale jumps and the point of view shifts as different subroutines, or "loops," of the virtual reality program engage. Thus, the representation of crossing a boundary — even a bodily one — is no longer one of piercing a membrane between light and dark, but of leaving one loop for another.
This feeling that space is splice together from disjunct segments also awaits viewers of Jenny Holzer's virtual reality World Two as they fly over clusters of dwellings set in a stark landscape. Should they choose to enter one of the dwellings, a new program loop engages, and suddenly they find themselves in an empty room, litening to the voice of a perpetrator, victim, or witness to a rape. Once they have entered the room, they are privy to sexual and politcal atrocities that they cannot ignore. Physical evidence can be buried — "out of sight, out of mind" — but electronic information, once let loose in a world monitored by TV, radio, and the Internet, can spread across the globe too fast for it to be "covered up." Holzer's reprots from a virtual war zone seem real not because they look like TV images of Bosnia, but because they feel like them: in a flash we are overwhelmed by simultaneous sensations of responsibility and powerlessness.
Along with the splicing of space and the instantaneity of transmission comes a new concept of virtual distance. Virtual distance itself is not new: all the points on the Piero dell Francesca's Flagellation of Christ are actually equidistant from the viewer, although the merchants appear nearer to us in virtual space than Christ due to their position in the perspective field. However spatial distance is only a useful concept if it is correlated with time. Asked how far Rome is from Florence, Piero might have equally responded "200 miles" or "one day," for there was a maximum rate of how fast news and people could travel over a given space. In a network, by contrast, a friend in Tokyo with a modem might be closer than a next-door neighbor without one. A scene from Jurassic Park allegorizes this conflict between the new distance and the old: a teenage girl grantically hacks her way into the island's security system in order to engage the electronic lock on her door, while outside her room a Raptor stalks closer and closer. Virtual distance in anetwork is based not on how much terrain someone must traverse before arriving at your door, but on how many gateways information must pass through before arriving at your terminal.
Spawned in the laboratories of computer scientists the electronic network has spread into the studios of artists and onto the big screen. Unfortunately, the fruits of revolution are rarely shared equally — just differently. Now more than ever, knowledge is power. But access to that knowledge is no longer ensured by mastering sightlines, as in Bentham's Panopticon. For the "haves" of a society based on the network, power stems less from monitoring who's at home than from monitoring who's logged on; less from barbed wire than from hack-proof code; less from Search and Seizure than from Seach and Replace.
According to this new paradigm, to be a "have not" is to be trapped in alimited network of exchange, without access to other networks that education, income, and class ensure. Even in our "information society," the mere ability to receive information does not guarantee empowerment; cable TV is ample proof of that. Empowerment isn't just a matter of catching a glimpse of an otherwise unattainable commodity, but of taking home, passing it on, freely entering a loop of economic or cultural exchange. For Greenberg, seeing a painting was all you had to do to consume it; in the past private art collections had excluded all but the most pwerful from this optical luxury. While the advent of public collections have made this form of exclusion obsolete, only viewers who believe that access to art is a purely retinal matter won't feel put off by the guards and stanchions that separate them from the sacrosanct object.
A new generation of artists seems to have sensed — perhaps unconsciously — this paradigm shift in the access to power. Their wrk is evidence that even those who have no use for network technology itself can nevertheless be influenced by its underlying metaphors. Adopting Duchamp's disdain for the retinal and Beuys's aspirations to empowerment, these artists have made it their goal to get the general audiences "back in the loop." Thus there is Felix Gonzalez-Torres's givaway stacks of paper and candy spills, John Ahearn's practice of giving one cast of each body sculpture to its model, and Rikrit Tirivanija's cooking for gallerygoers. In For Me, For You, For Painting, Ben Kinmont gives away paintings he has made in return for the viewers' signing their names to a document which itself becomes a work of art. To be sure, there is nothing high-tech about Kinmont's canvases or Travanija's curry. It is not the material they manipulate that resembles a network, but the boundaries they draw around that material. A traditional art market transaction draws a single, unidirectional vector from artists to patron. When a hundred visitors each bring home a sheet from a Gonzalez-Torres stack, this single vector splinters into a hundred spokes, each emanating from the exhibition site and branching to a different visitor's home. When Kinmont pounds the pavement to solicit ideas, he bouces hi original conception off waitresses and Wall Street brokers; returning home with their suggestions, the artist consolidates them, sells the work of art that results , and distributes the profits back to the participants. By encouraging an elastic ebb and flow in the exchange of material and ideas, these artists are redrawing the lines between who's in and who's out. And perhaps that is where the most important drawing is now taking place: not in th visual field, but in the network.
Jon Ippolito is a curator, critic, and the exhibition coordinator at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. "Virtual Reality: An Emerging Medium," the first major presentation of virtual reality at a museum, was hosted by the Guggenheim in the Fall of 1994 and was curated by Jon Ippolito.