By Lucy Kimbell, 10 January 1997

Review of the SoHo Guggenheim's recent survey show

Bringing together some of the most influential artists of the last few decades, Mediascape surveyed some of the directions taken by artists using digital technology, including video and computers. A walk round the Guggenheim SoHo was like ticking off names from a list - Nam June Paik, Jenny Holzer, the Vasulkas, Bill Viola, Bruce Nauman. During an earlier version of the show, covering the two floors of the museum, there were also works by Toshio Iwai (Piano, 1995) and Jeffrey Shaw (The Legible City, 1988-91), now established pieces in the body of fine art work using computer mediation. The version of Mediascape I saw was restricted to one floor but gave at least a glimpse of works involving direct user interaction by including Bill Seaman's installation Passage Sets/ONe pulls Pivots at the Tip of the Tongue (1994-5).

If any thread can be drawn from the title 'Mediascape' and from the works themselves, it must be a recognition that digital media allow a reconfiguration of space and place. Few of the artists in this show can be accused of being interested in technology purely for its own sake. Their work signals an acknowledgement of the way technology is used to construct meaning and of the many and varying locations in which it does so.

With all of the pieces being in some way screen-based, it would have been hard for the curators to exclude Nam June Paik, whose Megatron (1995) on the entrance floor near the book shop created an instant assault. Televisions stacked ten high and fifteen across offered the viewer an endless array of images with which to engage, including icons of mass culture and influences on Paik's own work. Upstairs, Bruce Nauman's Video Surveillance Piece (Public Room, Private Room) (1995 refabrication of a 1969-70 original) invited an investigation of the power structures inherent in having access to different spaces. On the walls of the 'public' room hung a video camera monitoring the space into which you moved; but the monitor showed a different room, empty and locked, to which you had no access. The two pieces provided quite different experiences by using similar technologies, the one a barrage of data, the other sparseness, with nothing to look at but providing just as many questions about the way video structures space.

Bill Seaman's installation continued his more direct engagement with digital media. A computer and mouse, which stood on a plinth in front of three projection screens, facilitated user interaction. The centre screen offered a poetic menu of sorts - clicking on words called up images on one of the other screens, generating the kind of vague and only vaguely interesting navigation that much computer mediated art work offers. Brought together in some different structure, the images, video clips and words might have resulted in a more rewarding engagement with their content for the user. Contextualised by the rest of the show, Seaman's piece did little in the way of suggesting the possibilities offered by interaction with a space mediated by a computer. On the contrary, it gave support to the argument that using a computer in fine art work does not bring anything different than when using any other digital technology. Jenny Holzer does a lot more with her streaming electronic signboard texts than Seaman's autonomous poem generator. And Steina Vasulka's two screens onto which rolling Icelandic waves were projected in Borealis (1993) or Bill Viola's projected sleeping figures in Threshold (1992) come from an aesthetic in which the user, or viewer, is more present than in Seaman's work, although unable to click some mouse. I look forward to the day when the Guggenheim has a show in which fine art work made using computers is shown alongside work that might or might not involve computers and cannot be distinguished from one another by virtue of a mouse.

Mediascape was at the SoHo Guggenheim, New York

Lucy Kimbell <lucy AT>