21st Century Soul, or 100101010101010111101000101001

Art and technology in the Digital Age

The World’s Colombian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893) was an entire magnificent city, filled with technological marvels, built in two years. These days, construction crews are a bit slower. It’s July of 2004, and Chicago’s Millennium Park has just opened. I’ve been watching construction for some time now, and seeing it complete, it’s not quite the catastrophe I was expecting. Considering the flying saucer Mayor Daley parked on top of the neo-Roman Soldier Field for more seating, I was not optimistic, especially as I watched giant sheets of curved steel climbing towards the sky.

Today, though, I saw something that meant a lot to me, and it’s something that’s been on my mind since I first heard a Momus demo called “Sempreverde”: the issue of the integration of the natural and the technological.

For those who aren’t in Chicago or just haven’t seen Millennium Park yet, a bit of explanation is in order. The first of its three main features is Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” better known to the public as “The Bean.” You see, Mr. Kapoor took his sweet time naming the sculpture, and while they were waiting for the announcement, the public decided that Cloud Gate looked a lot more like a giant silver kidney bean than any cloud or gate that they’d ever seen. Those who’ve broken mercury thermometers, played with a soldering iron, or seen Flight of the Navigator will not find The Bean revolutionary.

The second principal feature is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the oddly shaped band shell. It does feature a central cavity for performers, but out from there, well, it sort of looks like an umbrella that was inverted and then shredded by the wind. The Pavilion features fixed seats in an amphitheater and a lawn that can fit thousands more. Any acoustical deficiencies of the umbrella itself are remedied by an enormous steel trellis that comes equipped with floodlights and digital speakers. No child need fear the dark, and no parent need drive home without a pleasant ringing in their ears.

The final feature is also the most surreal and, in my eyes, the most crass. Crown Fountain features two rectangular pillars, 50 feet tall, which cascade water into a reflecting pool. The facades are glass block, designed to slightly simulate brick columns, but they have one noteworthy distinguishing feature: the opposing faces of each column are actually television screens. I looked down on Crown Fountain this afternoon to see children playing in the water betwixt the nervous, awkward faces of two identical 80-year-old women staring at each other, chewing their respective lower lips. Why do I get the feeling that when The Bean starts to rust, that woman will be replaced by a Coca-Cola logo?

These three foci sit amongst decidedly lovely and well-placed lawns and flower gardens. It’s very odd to see those aged blue eyes staring at me in digital over a row of perfectly raised and groomed tulips. The symbolism of the park is the same as the electrically lit “White City” of 1893: modern technological marvels amid the traditional elements of nature. I began wondering, then: how possible it is to create a working and effective mesh, a transfer, between the organic (and beyond that, the spiritual) with the digital and technological?

I mentioned earlier a song called “Sempreverde” by Momus. For those unfortunate enough not to know it, Nick Currie has constructed the perfect juxtaposition. He points his voice through a computer, singing about the artificiality of a Japanese garden preserved in a Perspex cube, and simultaneously a party that exists outside of it, featuring the immutable paradise (Sempreverde) as a drug in and of itself. While the computer sings about sacred trees and date rape, scoring dope and pandas, a Mongolian horsehead fiddle rises and wails a haunting lament about the artificiality of the garden and its degradation in the hands of those who don’t acknowledge the sacred.

Art in the last century, since the dawn of the Victrola and the kinetoscope, has dealt with these issues with varying intentions. Early films (those of the Marx Brothers, for example) essentially use the camera as a way to carry live theater to a wider audience: Animal Crackers is, essentially, a play on film. But as the medium progressed, as Orson Welles brought us right to Kane’s deathbed, he also brought us to the deathbed of the relationship between film and theater. New editing and camera techniques, special effects and an increased subtlety of expression allowed, by tearing down the proscenium wall, a whole new artform, all because of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

Andy Warhol’s prints and, later, Roy Lichtenstein’s adventures in comic strip style brought painting into the industrial world. They took mass production — the photograph, the corporate logo, Ben-Day dot drawings — and crafted them into an artistic statement. As “Cloud Gate” has proved, even sculpture often requires a team of general contractors these days.

In the 1980s, the words “digitally remastered” entered the English lexicon, beginning the war between the analog loyalists and those who take it as self-evident that lasers make music and video better. I personally vacillate on that particlar issue: my CD collection is as expansive as my bank account can make it, but for things like Woody Guthrie or Nat “King” Cole, I want to hear that relaxing hissing and popping. Admit it: Robert Johnson would’ve sucked with Pharrell in the booth, and I can say that without any disrespect for Pharrell.

But this mysterious nostalgia I have for an era that I never experienced is misleading: Why don’t I want to hear Nat sing live? Why does my little slice of the collective unconscious go as far back as 1940 but not 1840? A Hank Williams record is as much Hank Williams as my Picasso coffee mug came from Franco-era Spain.

I won’t go into all the examples, because they’re endless. Every form of art has been affected by the technological revolutions of the last 150 years. Digital photography, the MP3 wars, and even the distributive utility of putting publications such as this on the internet: if it takes a creative brain to make it, it can be translated into binary code and measured in pixels, bytes and program tags.

And now for the English teacher’s favorite question: what does it all mean? Well, that’s where I cop out and leave it in your hands. Beauty is truth, and truth is in the eye of the beholder. It always has been. For art to mean something, it has to resonate in some way with its audience. In a world full of iPods and cell phones, does a mechanistic aspect of art become necessary? Furthermore, beyond necessity, is it simply desirable? While it’s not my favorite aesthetic, seeing those digital eyes over a row of tulips is quite a striking effect, and it obviously had quite a bit of meaning to me (it spurred this article). The internet has made it easier and cheaper to make your voice heard. From Kraftwerk through Negativland and right up to the computerized dalliances of “folktronic” musician Momus, music that has been electronically created, tinkered and tortured can actually be more poignant in this era because of that. We’ve still got sorrow, rage, love, faith and arrogance, and if you apply yourself, is there a reason that machine-gun electronic drum beats and Ben-Day dots can’t get them across? Or are they fluid, the mind and soul that art dares to represent, and thus incapable of being encoded into ones and zeroes? How many two-dimensional squares of light does it take to make the center of a Tootsie Pop?

The world may never know.