4.5 / Review

Zero1 Biennial: Seeking Silicon Valley

By Renny Pritikin December 2, 2012

Next year will see the fifty-fifth Venice Biennale, the leading example of a phenomenon that can be traced back to the world’s fairs of the industrial age, which at the turn of the twentieth century became focused on the arts. It is interesting to observe how Zero1, a biennial dedicated to the technological art forms of the twenty-first century, continues to search for a dynamic way to fit this new wine into such a venerable bottle. The 2012 iteration, Seeking Silicon Valley, reimagines the form by making it regional (it claims more than forty Bay Area partners, including Silicon Valley corporations); taking it outdoors, with a street festival and public art installations; and employing a curatorial committee of four international curators and artists for its central show, a large group exhibition at its primary space, the Zero1 Garage. Each committee member anonymously nominated several artists so as to present a united front and downplay the auteurism of most biennials. This is all to the good, but the problem that has haunted Zero1 throughout its brief history still partially lingers: a certain low-energy anti-buzz that comes from inconsistent curating and an inclusive everybody-gets-to-play ethos that spreads the brand too thin. That said, I found several noteworthy works by artists I did not know, making a visit to the Garage more than worthwhile.

I will forever be grateful to the Zero1 Biennial for my discovery of the work of Pe Lang, a thirty-eight-year-old Swiss artist. I have added him to my short list of top artists in this field—Ned Kahn, Jim Campbell, Camille Utterback, Scott Snibbe, and one or two others—whose work is always worth tracking. His modest representation at the biennial consists of just two sculptures, both examples of the jaw-dropping potential of combining new technology with aesthetic grace. The larger of the two, moving objects No. 692–803 (2012), is a kinetic wall sculpture. About one hundred thin silicon wires, placed about two inches apart, run horizontally along the wall and end in polished metallic motors. Three thousand small black rings are positioned along these wires; the rings dance left and right quite rapidly. This deceptively simple setup results in a delightful and hypnotic perceptual experience as the circles and their shadows move by and appear to pass through each other. Actually, they bump and retreat faster than the eye can follow—think of cars on a distant freeway or a very fast-paced shooting gallery.

A second Lang piece is visually quieter but no less delicious. Lang constructed a machine titled Falling objects/ positioning Systems (2009–12), with a nozzle that deposits tiny, perfectly spherical droplets of water—the scale of insect eggs—in a grid of twenty-one by twenty-one drops. The miracle is that the black material onto which they are deposited has the special property (he calls it “omniphobic”) of holding the drops in place; they sit, like well-behaved schoolchildren in line, for five hours before they finally start to misbehave and disperse, and the process begins again.

Pe Lang. moving objects No. 692-803, 2012; installation view, Zero1 Garage, San Jose. Courtesy of the Artist and Zero1 Biennial, San Jose.
Frederik De Wilde. Hostage prototype 1.0, 2010; installation view, Zero1 Garage, San Jose. Courtesy of the Artist and Zero1 Biennial, San Jose.

Speaking of black material, Frederik De Wilde shows a tiny black painting-like work, Hostage prototype 1.0 (2010), which measures only a square inch or two. It is made of carbon nanotubes grown from atom-size particles and essentially absorbs all the light that falls on it. It is a technological trump card played in the game of monochrome painting, and viewing it feels much like looking down a well or into the eternal depths of space.

Thomas Thwaites’s The Toaster Project (2010) is a bit of an outlier in this context. The artist gave himself the task of creating a functioning toaster with the requirement that he manufacture every part, including the mining and processing of raw materials, from crude oil (for the plastic case) to metals like mica and copper that he found in abandoned mines. It is a parody of individual capability in the industrial age, as compared to the digital world. The result is a Frankenstein monster of an appliance that we are told did work, once. On view, like a Silicon Valley version of a Rirkrit Tiravanija food installation, are all the various pots and pans that Thwaites used during his home research and development phase. The childlike, clunky sculpture-cum-electronic-parts-and-tools is intentionally risible.

A decade ago, Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen dipped into the tidal wave of international online chat to make a legendary masterpiece, the text-based installation Listening Post (2001–02). At Zero1, Christopher Baker does the same thing with tweets in Murmur Study (2009). Perhaps it is unfair, but viewers might find themselves comparing this work with its overwhelmingly theatrical and emotionally powerful antecedent. Baker’s piece is well done but does not take the concept of sampling further than Rubin and Hansen’s. I also found myself respectfully disengaged from Stephanie Syjuco’s FREE TEXT: Open Source Reading Room (2012), though I am usually happy to follow her lead. The artist’s installation invites viewers’ active participation—one of the artist’s signatures—in building a public library of downloaded, printed texts on the issue of information ownership, cleverly extrapolating the digital practice of open-sourcing to the old-fashioned form of the book. There is a lively conversation to be had in the near future about what kind of experience we want in an art gallery as artists are drawn by their  research toward activist, pedagogical, or less inherently visual work.

A lovely video projection of a white, digitally elaborated lily, blooming and decaying, is one of the few memorable images in the exhibition, floating ghostlike on the gallery wall. But Time and Again (2011), as Persijn Broersen and Margit Lukacs’s work is known, is a modest offering asked to carry a lot of rhetorical baggage. Most of the exhibition is too often a dispiriting accumulation of predictable ideas, poor execution, and opaque intentions. The problem is not with the field—Lang’s work alone is proof of its viability—but with the curatorial leadership that is apparently unable or unwilling to impose rigorous standards on Zero1’s flagship event.


Zero1 Biennial: Seeking Silicon Valley is on view at the Zero1 Garage, in San Jose, and various venues in the Bay Area through December 8, 2012.

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