Messaging Is the Medium

New-media artists are cloning BlackBerries, generating 33 instant messages a minute, and downloading works to iPods, PlayStation Portables, and cell phones.

A screen shot from Xu Bing’s chat program,   Book from the Ground, 2003–, in which sentences typed by the viewer are translated into icons. 

A screen shot from Xu Bing’s chat program, Book from the Ground, 2003–, in which sentences typed by the viewer are translated into icons.


In the popular video game The Sims (and its sequel, The Sims 2), players create characters called avatars, and guide them through life in a virtual world, determining everything about their looks, actions, and personalities. Usually the Sims face conventional problems, such as building a career, buying a house, and finding a mate. The game is rated T (for teens): it can contain violence and suggestive themes, with only minimal blood and no explicit sex. But for “The Sims: In the Hands of Artists,” a recent exhibition at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York, students at Parsons The New School for Design changed the rules, creating “modded,” or reprogrammed, versions of the game. In The Sims 2: The Ten Plagues Expansion Pack(2007), for example, four artists unleash the wrath of God, subjecting the Sims to Old Testament plagues including swarming locusts, lice, and raining fire.

“In the Hands of Artists” was the first in a series of three shows this summer sponsored by Electronic Arts, publisher of The Sims. The other two, at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco (through July 19) and Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles (July 14 through August 11), feature student artworks based on the game, including machinima (animated filmmaking using game characters) and short films that mix live actors into the game’s plot. The series is part of a string of recent exhibitions in which artists, using commercially available hardware and software, are turning technology against itself to dissect, criticize, and subvert digital culture.

Even as the rapid pace of technological innovation puts an ever-expanding range of tools into artists’ hands, it renders them obsolete just as quickly. “The technologies artists employ evolve so fast nowadays that an art form may disappear while an artist’s work is in the making,” says Barbara London, associate curator in the department of media at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who organized “Automatic Update,” a group show of recently acquired new-media works, on view through September 10.

One of the artists in MoMA’s show, Cory Arcangel, plays on that reality, deliberately using out-of-date electronics in Two Keystone Projectors (one upside down) , 2007. He uses a VCR connected to a pair of projectors to display two overlapping images of the familiar blue screen that appears when a VCR is empty. Arcangel’s work imagines “what media art would look like if the engine of consumer innovation had stalled at the VCR,” says London. Other artists in the MoMA show employ more advanced technologies, but they are driven by the same impulse to break or take apart their toys and adapt them for their own purposes.

Mexican-born media artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s installation 33 questions per minute (2001–2) will look familiar to anyone who has used a BlackBerry. Arrayed on a wall are 21 minuscule liquid-crystal displays, on which questions appear at the interval indicated by the title. The devices beep each time a new message comes up. But the text is nonsense: a computer picks a verb at random and then adds nouns and adverbs to form a question in English, Spanish, or German. “A question generator seemed like an interesting way to deal with the idea of computer intelligence,” says Lozano-Hemmer. “Questions are starting points.”

Chinese-born artist Xu Bing also uses electronic text in his Book from the Ground (2003–). In the MoMA installation, two computers facing each other are connected so that users can send instant messages back and forth. But because the computers are separated by a piece of text-covered Plexiglas, users can’t touch or easily see each other, even though they are within arms’ length. This arrangement reflects the way people communicate today, Xu says. “At my studio,” he explains through an interpreter, “I’ll send an e-mail to an assistant who’s sitting right next to me. So it still passes through the Internet, this huge space, but only travels a few feet.”

Xu has long been fascinated by written communication. He created a meaningless system of Chinese calligraphy for the 1987–91 installation Book from the Sky (Book of Heaven). And purported Chinese characters in scroll paintings turn out to be carefully disguised English words in his 1998–99 installation Introduction to New English Calligraphy at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. For Book from the Ground, Xu developed his own software system instead of relying on popular applications like AOL Instant Messenger or ICQ. His application translates a sentence typed by the viewer into icons that another user can easily understand. For example, the system will render the sentence “I want to eat a hamburger” as a series of pictographs showing a stick figure with a hamburger in a thought balloon above its head. To complete the work, Xu collected thousands of icons from airports, global marketing literature, and the Internet. “Young people who communicate online create their own symbols,” Xu says.

Just as technology is making written communication arguably faster and easier, it is also changing the way artists use and create imagery. Better, cheaper technology makes it easier to create artworks outside of the studio setting and makes those works more accessible to viewers beyond the gallery. For the past two years, the MP4Fest, part of the Silver Lake Film Festival in Los Angeles, has featured a slate of narrative and experimental short films made using the MP4 video format, which allows viewers to download video art to their iPods, Sony PlayStation Portables, and cell phones. One new device that has particularly captivated artists for the ease it lends to making interactive art is the Nintendo Wii, says Sven Travis, a Parsons faculty member who organized “In the Hands of Artists.” The Wii, a video-game system with a wireless controller that resembles a wand, enables users to control objects in the game by moving and twisting a handheld sensor in three-dimensional space. Players can re-create the movements of anything from a fishing rod to a tennis racket to a samurai sword. “It’s a fascinating tool because it combines two growing areas of new media art—wireless technology and motion capture,” says Travis.

Even as artists become more comfortable incorporating electronic devices and computer programs in their work, their relationship with technology itself remains complicated. Abundant sources of imagery and easy-to-use hardware and software can “lead the thought process in ways it wouldn’t normally go,” says Travis. In Mill of the Mind (2007), an interactive installation in the Parsons show, for example, Becky Heritage, Mike Edwards, and Inti Einhorn take the Sims to disturbing but logical extremes. Viewers are instructed to give characters increasingly powerful electric shocks—a virtual take on the famous Milgram experiments of the 1960s, in which volunteers were ordered to administer painful shocks to test subjects, unaware that they themselves were the subjects of the test. “Artists who are tech-savvy tend to think of the possibilities,” says Travis. “And that isn’t always flattering to the people who invented th
e technology.”

David Ng is a writer based in New York.

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