George Fifield founded the Boston Cyberarts Festival back in 1999, and he's still in charge for the 2009 edition, running April 24-May 10 around Eastern Mass. and online. Virtual reality and visual art, electronic music and the legacy of dance's Merce Cunningham are among many topics explored explored more than 60 exhibitions, performances and workshop. I interviewed Fifield (right) by email over the last week or so, on topics from the economy to Shepard Fairey and the computer virus as art.
HubArts: How has the Cyberarts Festival been affected by the economic downtown, as an event and an organization? And how is the economy reflected in the work you'll be presenting?
Fifield: The structure of the Cyberarts Festival is a large collaboration of arts and educational organizations all producing, within their own mission and budget, exhibitions or performances or events about artists working with new technologies. In fact it's the largest collaboration of arts organization in New England. So we have been very lucky that many organization have agreed again this year to do an exhibition or performance for the Festival and its as big as ever. Of course our own fundraising has been hit as have everyone else's.
But the economy has certainly provided grist for some of the art. One is Children of Arcadia (left), which is a virtual reality work that will be up at the Cambridge Arts Council Gallery. It a living 17th-century Baroque painting you can explore, which combines the physical world of downtown Manhattan with a virtual environment called Arcadia. It is continually reading real world data from the internet on the health of the U.S. through stock market and other indices and translates this data into either a utopia or apocalypse. In other words, when the country is doing well, the virtual skies are clear and the birds are singing, but when the country is doing poorly the skies are overcast or lightning and thundering and the buildings are falling into ruin. So if you want to know how the country's doing, head on over to the Cambridge Arts Council.
HubArts: Have you had organizations that have dropped out and said money was the reason? Have you had organizations or funders that said the opposite - that they're making a point to step up this year? How badly has your own fundraising been hit?
Fifield: Actually the subject of funding hasn't come up. Each Festival, some organization that participated in the past don't for some reason and organizations that have never participated join. Boston Cyberarts is doing OK. We got a number of grants this year, LEF Foundation and the MCC. Our corporate sponsors continue to be supportive like The Phoenix and IBM. And new ones come on board like the developers of 1330 Boylston who have donated a store front for our CyberArtCentral. It also helps to have an active and supportive board.
HubArts: So...I've read the definition on the festival web site: "artists working in new technologies in all media in North America, encompassing visual arts, dance, music, electronic literature, web art, and public art." But let's face it, the number of artists who don't work in new media to some degree shrinks daily. What amazed me at U2's Zoo TV tour 15 years ago is pretty much standard mixed media now. Scanning and remixing and tweeting performances and on and on. How do you draw that line around what are "new technologies" and what is simply the order of the day now? How has it changed in 10 years?
Fifield: Good point. What the Festival is exploring is the use of new technologies in creative and expressive ways that does something new with them. Sometimes that means using a very recent technology, like locative media. For the 2003 Festival, for instance we had a number of artists who were exploring new GPS technologies in making art about place. Sometimes the technology changes. This year, there is a number of virtual reality projects. When VR first came on the scene in the 1990s, it was very expensive using complex technologies that was difficult to find. It only existed in research labs. Recently a wealth of inexpensive VR technologies are available and this year we have VR installations at the Goethe Institut (Virtuelle Mauer / ReConstructing the Wall) in the Back Bay, the Cambridge Arts Council Gallery (Children of Arcadia) and the HipArt program (Unnatural Disasters) at Boston University. In addition we will have a presence in Second Life, showing some of the most interesting work being done by artists there.
The Festival has always been interested in historical new media. One of the problems with new media is that people sometimes don't realize it has a history. At our CyberArtCentral in the Fenway, we are presenting a series of the earliest computer animations which came out of Bell Labs in the sixties. Though they look dated today compared with Pixar films, at the time they were the most cutting edge work around.
But things have changed in the last ten years. In the first Festival, there was a great deal of Photoshop images. That was pretty exciting at the time. Now everyone uses it. But this Festival, the Photographic Resource Center has an group exhibit, Syntax (right), that actually addresses the concept of digital information and systems—their meaning and aesthetics—in the work. While some of the work uses Photoshop, the focus isn't on the tool, but on larger concepts of technology in our lives.
HubArts: The popular conception of new technology has changed over the years from being either Utopian or Orwellian to a spectrum that's more nuanced and ambiguous. (Or so I think, anyway.) Currently, though, those two threads seem to have risen again - there are those who find new media a wonderful tool for democracy (Obama campaign meetups, Chinese bloggers) and those who find its increasing corporate dominance dangerous and/or frightening (English suburbanites forming a human chain to keep the Google Earth camera car off their block, for example.) How have you seen those changing perceptions reflected over the history of the festival, and are there one or two works this year that you would point to as reflecting current attitudes?
Fifield: There have always been oscillating periods of technophobia and technophilia. The last great technophilic moment was the late nineties, when all you had to do was put together a business plan about the World Wide Web and VC's would throw money at you. And that wasn't just in the business world. Web art was the new darling of the art world and museums like the Whitney and the Walker organized great web art presences. In 1999 for the First Festival, it seemed very important for Cyberarts Festival to have a web art gallery, even though for the most part, the mission of the Festival was to present exhibitions and performances that demonstrated how digital technology was transforming traditional art forms.
The dot com crash changed all that. At one point it was declared (falsely) that web art was dead. But now we have web 2.0 and social networks, sharing data and new forms of communication are all the rage. Artists are right there. This Festival the "Featured Artist" on our Hyperartspace web gallery is a link to the Boston Cyberarts presence in Second Life, featuring a number of the best SL artists. We've asked a performance art group, Scarlet Electric, to tweet on our Twitter feed. And the wonderful exhibit, Parse, at Axiom Gallery is of artists who repurpose data, mostly, from the web.
HubArts: I've been spending a lot of time on Shepard Fairey this year. He embodies two issues - the appropriation of images (or music or whatever) and art's intrusion into the public space - both of which have landed him in court. Are these addressed by any of the artists in this year's festival? And since I'm also thinking about a couple of recent virus scares, what about online artists using the virus as an artwork, dressing up or defacing the public space, depending on how you look at it?
Fifield: The best review of the Shepard Fairey exhibit I've read was Peter Schjeldahl's in the New Yorker. In it he said, "As an art maven, I’m for granting artists blanket liberty to play with any existing image. I also realize that it is not going to happen, and I’m bored by the kerfuffle’s rote recurrence, with its all but scripted lines for plaintiff and defendant alike." To me the best appropriated work is that which diverges the most interestingly from its source. The exhibition I mentioned before, Syntax, at the Photographic Resource Center has a photographer, Luke Strosnider, who scanned famous Ansel Adams photos and then looked at their histograms in Photoshop. He made a number of those into a book. They're both beautiful and funny, referencing simultaneously the landscapes of Adams photos and the concepts, like the Zone System, behind them.
One solution to the "kerfuffle" is for all the parties to agree ahead of time. Boston Cyberarts has organized an exhibit with the MIT Museum, called Loops. The original Loops is a 2001 digital abstract software screen performance of a motion captured dance by Merce Cunningham, made by the OpenEnded Group. Last year, the Cunningham Foundation and OpenEnded Groups put the choreography, the motion capture data set and the software that made the moving abstraction, all online as open source under a Creative Commons License. For the Festival, Boston Cyberarts has asked three new media artists, Brian Knep, Golan Levin and Casey Reas, and one art group, Sosolimited, to take this data and repurpose it. Of course their projects will also be on the Cyberarts website and their software will be open source as well.
As regards the virus concept, one new media artist I'm very in awe of, who sadly has yet to have been in a Boston Cyberarts Festival, is Joseph Nechvatal. Nechvatal makes digital images, originally he scanned his paintings, and then writes his own virus' which attack his images. He then exhibits the results. His Computer Virus Project 2.0 (Portrait Attack Series) (2005) are four projected portraits, which in realtime are being continually eaten and reconstructed by his computer-based virus.
HubArts: I know you're involved in teaching in various ways and you are currently adjunct at RISD, correct? How have students in digital art changed over the last decade?
Fifield: Digital art students remain pretty much the same, smart, adventurous and a bit geeky. One difference in my class at RISD in the Digital+Media graduate department is that they have been coming in increasing numbers from overseas. I've had students from China, Korea, Lebanon, Mexico, all over.
Fifield: My guilty pleasure is that I'm looking forward to attending at least some of the Live/Dead Video Festival at Mass Art in in the Pozen Center, May 2 from 3pm to Midnight. It's organized by Zebbler, who was just voted Best Local Visual Artist in the Phoenix's Best of 2009. I've seen the list of short videos and live video performances and some great people and videos are going to be there. I started my career as a curator of video art and one always gets excited by one's first love.
HubArts: How long will we need a separate cyberarts festival? When will you know it has been subsumed into the mainstream of contemporary art? Or will it ever be?
Fifield: I see the mission of the Festival as presenting what artists are doing with new technologies. There will always be new technologies and artists leaping on them to explore. The breadth of work that has been in past Festivals indicates that as some media become mainstream, new mediums are always popping up.#
(Images: Fifield and festival logo, courtesy Boston Cyberarts Festival; from Children of Arcadia, Copyright 2008 Mark Skwarek artist: Mark Skwarek, Joseph Hocking, Arthur Peters and Damon Baker; from Syntax, image by Matthew Swarts, Untitled, 2006, Pigmented inkjet on aluminum panel, 42 x 30 inches; poster for Live/Dead.)