Image Conscious

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

July 2001By Comments

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 established photography gallery. "We fell in love with Houston," Hill remembers. "It was a very stimulating atmosphere." Hired to teach photography and drawing at the University of Houston, which was assembling the stellar art faculty that would transform the city's art scene over the next few years, Hill and Bloom quickly became local fixtures, showing Art in Context at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1980.

By the early eighties, with the personal computer still an expensive business machine, Bloom and Hill were improvising the kind of image-processing techniques that are now staples of desktop photo-editing software. Men & Women (1982-83), a group of Warhol-esque serial portraits of famous artists and philosophers, relied on a labor-intensive method of image enhancement: Video images of portraits were piped through an electronic colorizer and a special-effects generator, then displayed on the video monitor's screen, where the altered images were photographed with an SX-70 instant camera. A couple of years later, Bloom and Hill got their first computer, a pricey Sony capable of reproducing sixteen colors (today's typical home computer can handle upward of a million). But as the technology improved exponentially throughout the eighties, MANUAL progressed from electronic collages to the precocious multimedia extravaganza Hill and Bloom staged at the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum in 1991.

"We pushed it as close as we could to the limits of the technology of the time," Hill says of "Forest/Products," which combined wall-scale photographs, a "video sculpture," a 24-minute video, and two interactive computer programs. But more important than the new technology was the switch in focus from cultural commentary to environmental concerns. "'Forest/Products'" played off the idea of a forest-products industrial show," says Hill; the mock exhibits underscored the transformation of the forest—throughout much of human history a sacred domain—into a disposable commodity, ostensibly infinitely renewable via commercial tree farms. MANUAL's send-up was in part earnest, in part wryly ironic; one of the interactive programs posed ethical questions about land management, while the video, a pseudodocumentary on logging, was set to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. "Except for the final movement," says Bloom, "when, in the symphony, the storm passes. In our version the storm doesn't pass. The storm of technology is always with us."

MANUAL's essay on the troubled relationship between technology and nature continues in the ongoing series The Trouble With Arcadia, which began in 1998. The project was inspired by French artist Nicolas Poussin's The Arcadian Shepherds, a mid-seventeenth-century landscape painting that was based on a considerably older tradition of bucolic poetry. Arcadia, as Bloom and Hill point out, was a form of virtual reality when it was invented by the Roman poet Virgil in the first century B.C., a mythic escape from teeming urban Rome; the real Arcady, on which Virgil's lush pastoral paradise was loosely based, was a rocky, landlocked region of Greece, already overgrazed and deforested in Virgil's time. MANUAL's Arcadian Landscape; The Pastoral Tradition (1998), a four-and-a-half-foot-wide color print originally shot with an oversized panoramic camera, shows a swath of clear-cut Vermont countryside dominated by a solitary computer-generated artifact, a tomblike shape with an out-of-scale wood grain that makes it resemble a giant romper room block, albeit one that's seamlessly integrated into the real landscape. Derived from the tomb in the foreground of Poussin's elegiac painting, MANUAL's enigmatic monument has become a cenotaph for nature itself. "The seduction of Arcadia, a virtual and perfect nature," Bloom and Hill wrote, "persists in its power to quiet our fears over Nature's loss."

A later work in the Arcadia series, The Cutting (2000), suggests another sort of loss. Here the central feature is a large tree stump in a clearing; a woman's arm projecting from one side of the frame offers, as scant expiation, a tiny seedling. At the opposite edge of the frame sits an artificial interloper, a rapt-looking wooden dummy, his presence posing a provocative question: Will the replacement forest someday be enjoyed by similarly replicated virtual humans? With the human genome now reducible to binary code and electrical signals successfully exchanged between nerve cells and silicon circuits, perhaps the notion of "post-human" will be more than just trendy jargon before this century ends. In the hit movie The Matrix, superintelligent machines create a virtual metropolis to distract post-humans reduced to the status of living batteries; the real future may end up more like MANUAL's literate vision, with some form of Arcadia as the virtual world humanity creates to escape its own obsolescence.

In the meantime Bloom and Hill continue to stay a step ahead of technological obsolescence; the Arcadian series' deft marriage of analog and digital notwithstanding, much of MANUAL's recent work is fashioned entirely of bits and bytes. Neuf Fois Sur Dix (9 Times Out of 10) is an interactive Internet piece combining animated geometric abstractions with randomly programmed frames borrowed from the Lumière brothers' pioneering late-nineteenth-century filmstrips. More ominous is Truck Fire, a grid of sixteen postage-stamp-size digital video images, each of the same slow-motion scene: traffic gliding past a truck enveloped by flames on the side of a highway. But each mini-image is individually programmed to run a fraction of a second slower or faster than the others, creating a shimmering abstraction that obscures any sense of catastrophe—a devious little illustration of the media age maxim that there is nothing, if shown on enough screens, that can retain its power to shock.

"It's not a matter of us not being able to keep up," says Bloom of the challenge of perenially keeping pace with technological innovation—not to mention colleagues who are typically young enough to be the children of some of their former students. "So far the Internet doesn't have enough bandwidth for some of the animation we could do right now. So we're sort of waiting for it to catch up."

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