Art Alive and Kicking

By Adrienne LaFrance
February 22nd, 2006

Chances are, when you think of interactive art the first thing that comes to mind is the lineup of cranks to turn, buttons to press, and microscopes to peer into at a children’s science museum. But the exhibition COLLISIONnine BOTbits (at Wellesley College though March 8, 2006) proves that interactive art can be for adults as well, with technologically complex pieces that intrigue the imagination.

The exhibit’s title refers to the contemporary collision of art and technology, creativity and science. The conflicts among these forces are played out via a multi-dimensional approach that makes innovative use of sounds, motion, distortion, creation and perspective. More importantly, the clash between art and technology also alters and expands the relationship between artist and viewer — they are made to work together.

In this collection of interactive, technologically-driven pieces by artists from MIT and the Boston area, some of this art actually is alive, and must be viewed with the help of a microscope. But most of the pieces, outfitted with the appropriate levers and buttons, need the help of viewers to get started.

For example, Chris Fitch’s “Tantalus Mackrel” (2005) is a revealing example of the harmony between art and engineering. A clean, polished gear system connected to a crank (for viewers to turn) sets a fish into motion as well as the squiggly lines that represent water above its head. The fish jumps from the water to pursue an insect that is also moving about.

The piece is affecting partly because of its innocent simplicity. The subject conjures up image of the kid who let his dad do the science fair project for him. Yet its implications are sophisticated and analytic, given how Fitch’s piece impressively explores the fusion of artistic expression and practical creation.

The Greek myth of Tantalus is about a man who was punished by the gods. The latter were inventive when it came to torture: Tantalus stood chained chin-deep in a lake with branches from a fruit-laden tree dangling just out of his reach. Fitch acknowledges he had that tale in mind as a metaphor for the “self-inflicted hunger from unrealistic expectations” that burdens American culture. But he leaves further speculation up to viewers. “Let me just say that this piece is about a frustrated fish trying to catch a bug,” Fitch says in the exhibit’s catalog.

Fitch isn’t the only one who wants to deliver a strong message via his art. Dan Roe’s “Dragonfly with Leash” resembles an insect with solar panels covering its body. The artist cleverly expresses the idea that, without an “on” or “off” switch, the energy-efficient critter needs a leash. On a deeper level, Roe challenges the notion that solar energy does not provide enough power to do anything interesting. Coming to antic life in direct sunlight, this dragonfly chases the sun; it also reacts to nudging and prodding. The artist joked in an e-mail responding to questions about the piece, “If it wasn’t on a leash it would get into as much trouble as a 2-year-old. I have a 2-year-old, so I’d know.”

Unless you hold on to it, Dan Roe’s “Dragonfly with Leash” takes off in direct sunlight.
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Another mechanical piece that is both interactive and abstract is Erica vonSchilgen’s “Pulling Pears From The Pond,” which features absurd images (a cat wearing a shirt and drinking coffee, birds picking berries from a cereal bowl, a baby with an animal’s head wearing shoes on its hands) made from found objects. What connects the images is a set-up of underlying gears that set them into motion after a button is pressed.

Jonathan Bachrach (a.k.a. jackbackrack) explores the animation of artificial life in “Social Fabric,” which is a living skin made from the radio connectivity of robots. The ideas behind the piece are complex, but visually the work is a map animated by a moving web of connected strands on two lcd panels. Bachrach embraces a new kind of artistic expression, making social commentary with technology as his subject.

One of the more innovative pieces in the exhibition is “Growing Architecture: Initial Experiments” (2005), which features crystallized carbon nanotube structures. Its geometric symmetry explores the idea of architecture as a product of collaboration, nature, and technology.

There’s no question that the interactive quality will stimulate kids, but COLLISIONnine BOTbits offers plenty of thoughtful adult experience as well. Reaction is an essential part of how we experience art, no matter how traditional it is. In this case, reaction triggers interaction, which spawns further reaction. Even more intriguing, some of the pieces allow the viewer to alter the art while giving the art a chance to respond to the changes.

This is the case in Rob Gonsalves’ “Pixel Pusher,” which is made out of a video camera, a computer with custom software, and a video projection. Viewers facing the piece see their pixilated likenesses staring back at them — they can use two slides on a command stand to alter the size of the pixels and the speed at which they move. Thus, viewers can rearrange this piece from a more personal perspective, changing the image into how they want to see themselves.

Joe Dahmen’s “Pigeons” is an example of performance art that feels stale at first glance, especially for anyone who recently saw the photos in Zang Huan’s performance piece, “Seeds of Hamburg,” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Still, those viewers patient enough to deal with Dahmen’s message will have something new to consider. Dahmen’s aim was to reverse pigeons’ status as public nuisances and acknowledge the birds as urban residents that reflect and react to the city environment. It may sound far-fetched, but at least it’ll make your next walk through Boston Common, where the performance took place, a little more interesting.

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