BY ANY MEASURE, HOUSTON’S FOTOFEST HAS grown into a cultural behemoth. This year’s edition of the sprawling, month-long biennial, which was on view in March, ranged as far afield as Galveston and Beaumont and comprised some 160 separate exhibits at about 140 sites, from NoHo warehouses and suburban shopping malls to Montrose restaurants and almost all of the area’s museums and commercial art galleries. Founded in 1983 by husband-and-wife documentary photographers Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss (who still run the show), FotoFest is now the oldest citywide photography festival in this country and one of the largest globally, with a well-deserved reputation for seeking out forgotten masters and emerging talent from all over the world—and for a discriminating sense of photography’s traditions. So it mattered that “FotoFest 2002: The Classical Eye and Beyond,” while not ignoring the classic silver-gelatin print, emphasized the “beyond,” giving the FotoFest imprimatur to the “new media,” the digital-age art that only last year broke into the art-world equivalent of prime time with splashy museum debuts at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The first major exhibition of new media on Texas soil, FotoFest was also the first major new-media exhibition of 2002, and it did look like more than just a rehash of last year’s Next Big Thing. The mix of media threatened to get messy—videos playing from the backs of rental trucks or projected onto the sides of buildings; a live performance collaboration between a deejay and a veejay (video jockey); a collection of Internet sites organized by the Whitney Museum’s curator for new media, Christiane Paul; and French photographer Georges Rousse’s intricately calculated sculptural constructions that, when photographed with an old-fashioned large-format camera, yield an ironic paradox: unretouched “straight” photographs that look just like computer-generated graphics. Yet despite some organizational snafus in meeting opening deadlines, once everything was up and running, the overall impression was one of clarity and command, with production values that were often as slick as the best commercial advertising and messages that transcended the mere shock of the new. All of a sudden, technological art—once the proverbial dog walking on its hind legs, notable because it was done at all—was being done well. It was impossible to stroll the streets of Houston in March and not feel the seismic cultural moment, a sense that this Next Big Thing might really be the next big thing.

At its simplest, the new technology allows photographers to scan their images into their computers and rework them with the same kind of pixel-manipulating image-editing software that allows amateurs to remove the red-eye from their snapshots. Seattle artist Anna Ullrich, who works for Adobe Systems—the maker of the Photoshop software that dominates high-end digital-image editing—showed off seemingly every tool in her employer’s bag of tricks with a series of poster-scale prints composited from scanned images of fabrics, household objects, old photographs, and newsprint. From this quotidian stuff, Ullrich creates ornate, bejeweled-looking virtual collages, icons of an almost tantric feminist mythology, where preposterously garbed female goddesses reign over exotic landscapes occupied by miniature male minions and make-believe machinery that might have been imagined by Jules Verne or H. G. Wells. The visual references are multifarious—Frida Kahlo, Max Ernst, Indian mythology, Victorian valentines, Hieronymus Bosch—but the combination is no mere indigestible pastiche, the stale postmodern “image appropriation” of the past two decades. The digital toolbox enables Ullrich to seamlessly cut, paste, layer, and artificially light wildly disparate images, fusing them into a picture as intellectually fantastic yet visually plausible as the paintings of Salvador Dalí.

But at FotoFest 2002 the still picture, however imaginatively conjured, seemed like a twentieth-century anachronism. Wisconsin-born, New York-based Oliver Wasow used the convergence of two technologies that have recently become plentiful and cheap, the DVD player and the flat-panel LCD monitor, to create electronic “prints” that appeared to hang on the gallery partitions (actually, the small-footprint monitors and DVD players could be concealed inside the walls) and at first glance might have been taken for still images of fantasy interiors and otherworldly landscapes; a swimming pool, for example, somehow contained a rocky, wave-swept beach. On closer inspection the picture was even more surprising; the waves actually rippled, to the sound of crashing surf. In their Protracted Image: Big White Pine, Houston digital media pioneers MANUAL (Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom) offered a more ironic, conceptual take on this new kind of moving picture. Programming a computer to animate more than 1,600 digital still images of a pine tree that were shot in a Vermont forest at a progressively later hour each day over a nine-week period from late August to early November, Hill and Bloom created a perversely extended form of time-lapse photography. Projected on a gallery wall at FotoFest’s Vine Street Warehouse headquarters over a seven-hour period each day, the big pine slowly registered the changing seasons and the days’ deepening shadows, but during any given visit a viewer found the endlessly permutating, computer-generated picture as apparently immutable as a nineteenth-century landscape painting.

The plasma screen television, still far too expensive for widespread use, offers a flat, wall-mounted display much larger than an LCD screen and much more self-contained than a wall projection. New Yorker Martha Burgess, another digital pioneer, showed the plasma screen’s potential in Nocturne, opus no. 23, “moonlighting,” a five-minute video moodily set to Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. While a narrator recites a noirish tale about the murder of two boys, abstract black and white images of streetlights and car lights jitter across the screen, an echo in an entirely original form of the mordant sensibility of Robert Frank’s fifties road-trip photo essay, The Americans, which for decades set the tenor of American documentary photography.

But the two-dimensional, with-sound moving picture may itself be a dated concept. To make Dusted, shown at the Museum of Fine Arts’ Glassell School, New Mexico-based filmmaker Peter Sarkisian originally placed a nude couple inside a Plexiglas cube and shot them with five video cameras, one positioned at the top of the cube and one on each side. The actual installation consisted of five video projectors, set in the same position as the cameras, surrounding a roughly three-foot white plywood cube. Projected onto this three-dimensional screen, accompanied by the sound of a woman’s darkly erotic, cryptic whispering, the five separate yet perfectly synchronized images eerily merge into the startling illusion that the couple is trapped inside a transparent cube. Struggling to orient themselves, reaching plaintively out of what appears to be a small circular opening at the top, the figures seem to float in a sort of amniotic fluid, like fetuses that reached sexual maturity without ever having been born.

The ambiguous status of Sarkisian’s claustrophobic nudes touches on the identity issues that ran rampant throughout FotoFest. Just ten years ago many artists were stridently categorizing themselves by gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity and demanding to be taken at face value: Here’s who I am; deal with it. Today that kind of self-assertion seems almost as passé as an anti-war rally, replaced by a pervasive anxiety: Am I real or am I virtual? Not surprisingly, the question is most explicitly examined at Internet sites like Heath Bunting and Russian artist Olia Lialina’s Identity Swap Database, which invites visitors to match their photos and physical descriptions with similarly endowed, potential identity-barter partners—a playful slap at the interchangeable, commodity status of personal information on the Web. The insidious nature of Internet information gathering—and the efforts of corporate marketeers to pigeonhole us with it—are lampooned in Jenny Marketou’s SmellBytes. Greek artist Marketou unleashes a “knowbot,” an intelligent software program capable of autonomously roaming the Web, to swipe personal Webcam images from CUseeMe chat rooms (the Internet equivalent of the videophone) and analyze each subject’s facial structure, pseudoscientifically arriving at a digital algorithm that corresponds to the hapless identity-theft victim’s “personal smell.”

The corollary to the digital identity crisis is that in a world of bits and bytes, you can be anyone you want—or don’t want—to be. The kind of identity-sampling Cindy Sherman pioneered 25 years ago, photographing herself in roles ranging from hooker to harried housewife, no longer requires sets, costumes, and props. Swedish-born Sara Rytekke, who received her master of fine arts degree from the University of Houston and now teaches in Miami (a paradigmatic résumé in today’s art world), uses basic desktop-publishing technology to design dozens of fictitious women’s-magazine covers and digitally insert herself as the cover girl on each. The titles (Dazzle, Best Ever Housekeeping, Pucker Up, Smash) and featured articles (“Hollywood’s Secrets to a Great Party,” “Sex 911,” “Mr. Right Radar,” “Why Younger Women Have Children”) are just close enough to reality to be really frightening, skewering the vapid “ideal” images insistently marketed to young women.

Like our personal histories, our collective past can just as easily be shoveled into the digital information processor and come out as something else. Self-taught Los Angeles artist Scott Griesbach revisits cultural history in a series of large black and white digital images, inventing fictitious scenes like Marcel Duchamp purchasing his revolutionary 1917 Dadaist work, the urinal he signed and exhibited as Fountain, in a well-stocked period hardware store. Another artist based in L.A., Ken Gonzalez-Day, showed a series of digital prints documenting a digitally created facsimile of an artifact that never actually existed, the ostensible only known copy of a florid nineteenth-century frontier novel titled The Bone-Grass Boy: The Secret Banks of the Conejos River. Set during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War, filled with galloping prose and surrealistic border mayhem, Gonzalez-Day’s digital mock-up limns its nineteenth-century models in all but an essential particular: The hero and heroine are, for a change, Mexicans. The paradox is that it takes Gonzalez-Day’s fake to illuminate Western history’s Anglo-skewed emphasis, but an ominous subtext in both Griesbach’s and Gonzalez-Day’s work is the potential of this technology in the hands of people—Holocaust deniers come to mind—who simply want to get history wrong.

The digital age’s infinitely mutable past flows into a decidedly ambiguous future. Looking over the horizon, a noticeable number of artists registered their concern with the clash between nature and technology. MANUAL’s Protracted Image cautions that simply because we can’t see changes in the natural environment from moment to moment doesn’t mean that potentially disastrous transformations aren’t inexorably under way. Both Anna Ullrich and Oliver Wasow hybridize nature and technology to create exotic landscapes that appear neither utopian nor dystopian—or are sometimes both at once. In a fascinating series of digital stills that accompanied his DVD pieces, Wasow envisions vast cities that scarcely intrude on their surreally magnificent natural settings, while another metropolis, surrounded by an ocean of sludge, is enveloped in a fiery climatological apocalypse that makes nuclear war seem tepid.

The uncertainty extends even to the technology itself. A year ago the buzz was about “immersive media,” the sense that the ultimate work of art might be a virtual-reality suit wrapping the spectator in a totally enveloping, interactive sensory experience. Yet FotoFest 2002 made a strong argument that increasingly less obtrusive new media that superficially resemble old media can behave in surprising ways. As the thin-screen revolution continues and digital paper becomes a reality, we may see living room walls turn into virtual museums and art magazines that play videos. There’s even hope that digital art and digital entertainment might find some common ground, a meaningful alternative to the juvenile inanities of computer games and action-movie special effects.

At the outset of the twenty-first century, we don’t know what to call it yet: Is it the Digital Age, the Information Age, the Post-human Era, or more philosophically, the Age of Uncertainty? Whatever we end up calling it, the message from FotoFest 2002 is that this new age is capable of spawning a digital culture that transcends the fantasies of twelve-year-old boys, that this century’s new media may even be as transforming as the Modernists’ new media—collage, assemblage, “found” objects, industrial materials and the machine aesthetic, the very notion of mixing media—which were so instrumental in changing the look and the outlook of the twentieth century. It’s uncertain where we’re going, but the ground is unmistakably moving beneath our feet.