The Tech/Art Installations at the UCI Beall Center Reveal Ghosts In the Machine

A still from Sheldon Brown’s "Scalable City"

Fiends and Relations
Our borderline-Luddite reviewer’s spin through the tech/art installations at the UC Irvine Beall Center reveals ghosts—and a couple of bugs—in the machine

Confession time: I despise my cell phone. I stumble around Vista. I can’t tell the difference between plasma and LCD.

I really want to embrace the new technology, but there’s so much of it Twittering around me that I’m overwhelmed by my ever-increasing lack of knowledge.

The way that electronic overloadchanges us—or doesn’t—is the subtext of “Scalable Relations,” curator Christiane Paul’s exhibition at the UC Irvine Beall Center for Art + Technology. An exploration of “digital media’s capability of representing a growing amount of data in constantly evolving relations,” the six exhibits will probably appeal more to gearheads than the electronically challenged, but it’s definitely worth the short time it takes to investigate its algorithmic corners.

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Just inside the entrance to the black-box gallery is a projected waterfall on a loop, blanketed by a wall of sound. While you face Rebeca Mendez’s art installation At Any Given Moment, a square pile of volcanic rock assembled at your feet, you can easily get lost in its digital reality, your thoughts erased by the ever-increasing white noise of its rushing water.

Isolation is also an unstated theme in Greg Niemeyer’s CO2 Playground, its two 6-foot-high, blue-plastic playground slides with a tumbling mat sitting on either side of four shelves of potted plants. Installed sensors measure the greenery’s carbon-dioxide absorption and oxygen production, with the numbers rising and falling depending on the number of bodies present, revealing in a practical way our effect on plant life (and theirs on ours). I wasn’t about to climb the slides, so I did my part by exhaling a lot. The lasting impression for me was probably unintentional: the dusty shoe prints left by preceding visitors, the toys now unused, with only the plant life to take notice.

C.E.B. Reas’ Process 16 is best described as art for stoners. The triptych consists of a geek-speak text describing a computer program, the image the program is creating (a circular visual akin to the slow-motion photography of bean sprouts unfurling) and a simpler visual of the program (animated lines slip-sliding, bumping and spinning into others). Unfortunately, the inaccessibility of the text left me puzzled, with the resulting disconnection it created instantly familiar to anyone who has ever attempted a meaningful conversation with a lava lamp.

George Legrady and Angus Forbes’ Cell Tango is an interesting idea: The public downloads cell-phone pics and sends them to the project via e-mail, at which point software retrieves and groups the snapshots and tags into a series of animations. Words floating in darkness suddenly transform into a plethora of images: Japanese album covers, swastikas, sleeping dogs, birthday cakes. Problem is, the program has a long load time, and without the benefit of somewhere to sit, I had to come back several times to get the full effect. If the piece lost its downtime—and the artists were either less meditative or more malevolent—the piece could be quite like Alex’s torture in A Clockwork Orange.

Sheldon Brown’s Scalable City is also supposed to be interactive, but even after I tried maneuvering the glowing blue controller, the projected satellite map on the wall never changed. If it works anything like the video on Brown’s website, it’s pretty spectacular: Asphalt flattens verdant hills as one-dimensional cars and bits and pieces of homes whirl through the air and crash in a heap, assembling themselves into whacked-out suburban neighborhoods. Brown’s artist statements don’t take a political stand on the rapid development/destruction of the landscape in his video work, but the crazy-quilt architecture and streets speaks volumes.

The Most Disturbing Award goes to Warren Sack’s Conversation Map v.2.0, an outwardly innocuous diagram of Usenet e-mails that breaks down messages sent to soc.?culture.palestine into a semantic network listing topics and recurring synonyms or metaphors emerging from the discussion. Once you move the mouse on the roadway of circles and lines, you’re inundated by a host of racist terminology targeting Jews and Palestinians. It becomes readily apparent that even though our technology has advanced considerably, our discourse hasn’t. If you already have misanthropic leanings, Sack’s brilliant uncovering of the ghost in the machine will only confirm them.

“Scalable Relations: Works by University of California Digital Arts Research Network faculty members” at the Beall Center for Art + Technology, Claire Trevor School of the Arts, UC Irvine, Campus & W. Peltason drs., Irvine, (949) 824-4339; Open Tues.-Wed., noon-5 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., noon-8 p.m. Through March 14.

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