Image Conscious

They've been in the vanguard of digital art for years, but two Houston artists fear technology may destroy what's real.

Not since the first decade of the last century have artists been as giddy about high technology as they suddenly have become in the first decade of our new millennium. Back then it was the Futurists, with their pledge to “sing … the slippery flight of airplanes” and “glorify war—the only true hygiene of the world”; today’s buzz is all about software algorithms, “immersive media,” and the superseding of the postmodern era by the “post-human” age. As recently confirmed by splashy new-media exhibitions on both coasts (“BitStreams” and “Data Dynamics” at New York’s Whitney Museum and “010101: Art in Technological Times” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), artists and curators are embracing binary culture almost as deliriously as venture capitalists fell for dot-coms during the glory days of the New Economy.

There are, however, a few refreshingly cautious voices among the chorus of gee whizzes. “We’re the slow people,” says Houston-based artist Suzanne Bloom, who makes digital art with her personal and professional partner, Ed Hill, under the nom d’artiste “ MANUAL.” “We’re always saying, ‘Slow down. Think about it.’” That’s an interesting admonition from a couple who have moved fast enough to remain in the vanguard of electronic art for more than a quarter century, a feat of creative endurance that will be chronicled next year in a major retrospective at New York’s International Center of Photography. In their long progression from the world of the pocket calculator to that of the Apple G4 (the current processing engine at MANUAL’s Heights studio), Hill, 66, and Bloom, 58, have been enormously influential as both artists and educators. Veterans of hundreds of solo and group shows throughout the world, they’ve shown an extraordinary gamut of work: still and digitally processed photographs, analog and digital videos, interactive CD’s, site-specific installations, and interactive Web animations. As longtime University of Houston professors, they created one of the nation’s first photography and digital-media degree programs there; in 1997 they established one of the pioneer Web sites for the display and archiving of digital, Internet, and interactive art, D.I.F. (Digital Imaging Forum, ).

But years before “virtual reality” entered the typical third-grader’s lexicon, Hill and Bloom were suggesting that digital technology threatened “the destruction of the real.” Passionately concerned not only for an endangered environment but also for our endangered identity as humans, MANUAL has produced technology with a warning label, an eloquent caveat of its social and even evolutionary consequences. “It’s a Faustian bargain,” Hill says of MANUAL’s strategy to fight technology with technology. “We’re not enthusiasts for technology. But we are seduced by it. We recognize its power.”

For a virtual artist on the cusp of the post-human age, MANUAL’s roots run surprisingly deep into the long-eclipsed modern era. Hill, a Massachusetts native, got his master of fine arts degree at Yale in 1960, under the tutelage of Modernist legend Josef Albers, the former Bauhaus pedagogue who pounded his rigorous color theory into a triumphant generation of American painters. But Hill was also influenced at Yale by the virtuoso figurative draftsman Rico Lebrun, and he spent the first decade of his career specializing in life drawing and printmaking. The epiphany that converted Hill to photography was Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 counterculture sensation, Blow-Up. “I saw the film the day it came out, on a Friday,” he recalls. “On Sunday I went back and saw it again. On Monday I went out and bought a Pentax.”

Meanwhile, Philadelphia-born Bloom was earning her MFA at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied with Piero Dorazio, who had been a disciple of the Futurists. “Dorazio talked a lot about how we could approach our work as artist-scientists,” she says. “Solving problems, making statements.” Bloom’s first camera was also a Pentax, bought for a European tour the summer before she began to teach painting at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts. At the time an increasingly disaffected practitioner of pared-to-the-bone color-field abstraction, Bloom found that the new medium offered a way out of the reductionist box she had painted herself into.

Hill was already teaching life drawing and photography at Smith when Bloom arrived in the fall of 1970. Things got serious three years later when, in short order, the couple began living together, bought ten acres of pristine woodland in rural Vermont (where Hill had been photographing landscapes and where they subsequently built a house and now live much of the year), and started talking about collaborating. Within a few months, Hill says, “We were creating another entity that needed its own name. The conversation went something like this: ‘We need a name that has multiple readings, something like, well, Manual.’ ‘Well, that sounds good. A manual for art. You do make art manually.’”

MANUAL’s first major project occupied Bloom and Hill, though not exclusively, for the rest of the decade. Art in Context: Homage to Walter Benjamin was inspired by the German writer whose 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” prophesied the media age and accurately predicted that it would level high art. (Observing the rising hegemony of both Hollywood and Hitler, Benjamin noted that in the age of radio and film “the star and the dictator emerge victorious.”) MANUAL translated Benjamin’s gloomy forecast into a series of witty staged photographs and video images in which familiar art historical icons pass through the electronic looking glass. Rereading Velazquez (1975-76) replicates the Spanish artist’s languorous The Toilette of Venus, but in MANUAL’s version the “mirror” in which the reclining goddess admires her face is actually a framed video monitor, her image provided by a video camera on the tripod next to her couch. A quarter century after it was made, Rereading Velazquez now seems as prophetic as Benjamin’s essay, a portrait of a narcissistic postmodern culture fixated on images of itself.

Bloom and Hill also got the jump on Houston’s art boom when they arrived there in 1976, intending only a brief visit to former student Robin Cronin’s newly

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