ASCII History of Moving ImagesDecember 8, 2010
The flickering green blowjob is both radical and passé. The alphanumeric pixels depict an ambiguously famous sex scene. It is neither obscene nor safe for work. The video is part of ASCII History of Moving Images, a collection of Vuk Ćosić’s 1998 détourned film clips, on display on the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) NetArt online gallery. The scene in question is a clip from the classic 1972 porno Deep Throat, also both radical and passé. Ćosić converts the film data into ASCII, the standard computer code that dates back to 1968. The minimal green-on-black motif recalls a Geocities aesthetic, and watching the videos nurtures an uncomfortable nostalgia for the dark ages of the World Wide Web—the mid 1990s. By dint of the rapid transformation of the web, Ćosić’s videos seem more aged than a work of Nam June Paik or even the Lumière brothers.
Ćosić was member of a cadre that brought digital art out of this dark age. In fact, the museum’s NetArt itself derives its name from a Ćosić neologism: the term’s almost mythical genesis story relays that in December 1995, the artist received a distorted e-mail message in which the only discernable text was the phrase “net.art.”1 Soon after, Ćosić organized a gathering of European digital artists in Trieste, Italy, dubbed “net.art per se.”2 With this symposium on the nature and philosophy of net.art, Ćosić helped launch a quiet, if accidental, revolution.
In addition to Deep Throat, BAM/PFA’s online-only exhibition includes Ćosić’s 1998 ASCII renderings of clips from Battleship Potemkin (1925), Psycho (1960), Blowup (1966), and the Star Trek series. The renderings all have their moments of clarity and their moments of confusion—and this is what is beautiful about them. Psycho, for example, begins as a jumbled mess of some of ASCII’s 128 characters. But through the chaos emerges one of cinema’s most iconic stabbings. It is something seen simultaneously never before and a hundred times. Ćosić’s Blow Up [sic] possesses a surreal realism at times. There are moments when the detail and movement are so clear that one could almost forget that the images consist of fast-moving letters, numbers, and punctuation rather than fast-moving dots of red, green, and blue. The oscillation between these moments and the moments evocative of Jodi’s ostensibly nefarious wwwwwwwww.jodi.org reflects the web’s own fluctuations between utopia and dystopia during the time of the works.
The emergence of net.art continues to constitute a threat to traditional notions of art. The so-called aura of the artwork is facing a stronger challenge than it did with performance art, the readymade, and even photography because it represents a mass democratization of the creation and reception of art,
at least for those connected to the web.3 This poses a further challenge to the gallery and museum system. The work of net.art can be accessed virtually any time and any place; one can become an exhibiting artist with little more than the cost of bus fare to a public library. How can brick-and-mortar institutions account for this turn in the art world? To show Ćosić’s videos on a monitor affixed to a wall in a gallery in Berkeley would render the work something different than net.art. These works are beyond site-specific—to change the site is to change the medium.
There have been efforts to address this challenge. Adobe Systems has recently launched its Adobe Museum of Digital Media, an entirely online digital art exhibition space, curated by Tom Eccles, executive director of Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies. YouTube and the Guggenheim (with support from Intel and HP) recently hosted the first YouTube Play Biennial, which combined an online exhibition with an in-house celebration. Similarly, in 2008, BAM/PFA initiated its own virtual wing. Yet, while BAM/PFA’s NetArt gallery faces the challenges posed by net.art, it falls short in suggesting the museum’s relevance to the genre.
My excitement for an online exhibition of an admired artist quickly waned when I discovered that NetArt presents little more than links to the videos on Ćosić’s website. The exhibition’s only addition is a three-hundred-word essay by Digital Media Director and Adjunct Curator Richard Rinehart. For years, Ćosić’s website has offered these same five videos for viewing. Two additional, but unavailable, videos have always been listed there: King Kong and Lumiere (both 1998). Were ASCII History of Moving Images to make these works accessible, the show would, at least, provide something that hasn’t been readily available to the public for years.
There may be a revolutionary potential with the NetArt gallery to engage audiences that might not normally go to a museum, or to challenge the very meaning of art, shaking BAM/PFA’s very foundations. But this exhibition smells of usurpation—an attempt to co-opt a genre that just may not be appropriate for the venue and that doesn’t offer a vision for a positive institutionalization of net.art. Traditional art institutions should not blindly and voraciously grasp at any genre that has been classified as art; the exhibition paints BAM/PFA as démodé and Jurassic, struggling to make itself relevant to something it just may not be.
I understand and empathize with the difficulties of adapting to new cultural or technological modes. This process inevitably involves well-intentioned and unavoidable failures. I love failure. I adore watching things fall to the ground. But such a failure should result from experimentation and risk. BAM/PFA’s presentation of ASCII History of Moving Images lacks innovation and vision. NetArt is not a gallery; it is a blog. If BAM/PFA wishes to replicate the blog format, they need not call it a gallery—a Tumblr account can be attained free of charge.
ASCII History of Moving Images is on view on the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s NetArt Gallery through February 28, 2011.