Think of the categories ‘digital art’ or ‘new media art’ and lazy critics tends to think of art stuck somewhere in the surly, noncommercial, left-field ‘alternative’ margins of art-making, or of the geeky art-and-technology stuff that fascinates nobody except the nerdy oddballs who are into it. Either way, new media art gets a bad deal – either faddy techie novelty or exaggerated threat to the secure categories of mainstream art.

Think.21, a new Brussels gallery that opened last summer, doesn’t see new media as something outside the mainstream, but as the normal development of artistic production in an era when the experience of digital culture is ubiquitous, rather wondering why art should still be dominated by such ‘old media’ as painting and handmade sculpture. Their Chapter 2 showcase of four international artists elegantly makes the case for a normalised approach to the artistic uses of new media, focusing on how interactive technologies cast new light on traditional questions of imagemaking and spectatorship, and opening on contemporary preoccupations over participation, surveillance and community.

Take Mexican Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Glories of Accounting (2005), three flatscreens that remain dark until people approach, at which point images of raised hands blink into view, palms facing out, and rotate as they track the position of each nearby spectator. If their stilted movement and mute watchfulness have a touch of comedy, there’s also an engaging ambiguity – the upraised palm is that most contradictory of gestures, a sign that says ‘go no further’, yet also the universal sign of acknowledgement and recognition of another. Either way, it’s enough to provoke a reflection on how we respond to indicators of human presence, and how our technology might adopt our forms, the better to communicate with us. By contrast, German Björn Schülke’s Observer #2 (2003) is a sinister, unpredictable and cranky robotic tripod mounted with TV monitor, lights, cameras fitted to extendable arms and little propellers to spin it round. Observer erratically wakes up, sticks its camera-limbs out and whirls around while it displays the disorienting feedback. Schülke’s monster seems to suggest a technology oblivious and uninterested, making us subject to its obscure whims.

But if surveillance and empathy are appropriate poetics for these digital and algorithmic feedback mechanisms, so too are time and memory. American Lincoln Schatz’s extraordinary plasma screen Cluster (2006) collects video sequences of what happens in the gallery before its camera over a period of weeks, months and potentially even years, merging, crossfading and superimposing fragments of recorded time with live feed. Like Lozano-Hemmer’s Glories, there’s a simple call-and-response attraction to this, but the recursive dislocation of linear time, as visitors slip in and out of view, as moments from the opening night merge with the empty gallery at closing time, produces a powerful consideration of experience, recording and forgetting. Israeli Daniel Rozin’s Snow Mirror (2006) similarly plays out disappearance for all it’s worth, as fuzzy white pixels vaguely feed back the spectator’s image, projected onto a loose gauze screen, yet dissolving like windblown powder into blackness. High-tech and gadgety these works may be, yet the subject under the scrutiny of their cameras is all the more human for it.

By J.J. Charlesworth
ArtReview Magazine | March 2008
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