By Timothy Murray, Cornell University
Contact Zones: The Art of CD-Rom
A wealth of opportunity for cultural exchange and conceptual reflection has been catalyzed by recent developments in digital art. Practices of artistic appropriation, collage, and montage have been heightened by digital possibilities of overlapping, juxtaposing, and morphing complex sequences from visual and aural history. What previously could be considered in only one frame or screening can now be analyzed on simultaneous platforms and from multiple perspectives, both locally and globally. Indeed, the new media has been embraced by a wide variety of activist artists, from feminists to cyberpirates, from African-American activists in the United States to Aboriginal artists in Australia and North America, for its capability to cross previously sequestered intellectual and material platforms and boundaries with welcome speed and agility.
Very much unlike many of the iniatives undertaken earlier by the historical avant-garde, moreover, these digital projects tend to be shaped for presentation out in the open, in the public and mass spheres of cinema, music video, dance clubs, and the web. And rather than position themselves as privileged prophets the future, the avant-garde, many artists working within the new media confront the reality that what once was thought to be the electronic future is the enigmatic NOW. One result is a refined relation to both the past as something not simply understood and regressive, to be cut off or cast aside for the sake of avant-garde progress, but rather as something wonderfully cryptic, if not also deeply troubling and traumatic, to be brought into critical dialogue with the present for the sake of shaping personal, political, and social paradigms that might help inform the rapid expansions of the technofuture. The new media thus provides artists with an opportunity to incorporate old and problematic tales and histories in the context of their contemporary conceptualization or revisualization.
The CD-Rom plays a particularly challenging role in these developments. In providing artists with a broader "bandwidths" and more extensive data bases than can yet be readily accessed on the internet, the format of the CD-Rom challenges artists to situate their thought and practice in an expansive array of visual, aural, and textual interplay. To a certain degree, it could be said that the materials and codes of the CD-Rom place even the most isolated of artists right at the epicenter of the reception and exchange of both old and new public information and entertainment systems. Yet, the CD-Rom maintains strong links to the more private, less public, nature of the book that sequesters readers in the solitary joys of their wonder and reflection on the measured space of the isolated computer screen. Some digital analysts worry about a decline in the public sphere brought about by the expansion of the home computer and its redefinition of the domestic space as sphere of separate viewing stations, an architectonics that could make home "television room" look like a dream space for social intercourse. But it is precisely a demystification of the solitariness of computer interaction that "Contact Zones" seek to provoke. Whether by bringing users in contact with each other during their experience of the exhibition or by bringing them into contact with other cultures, ideological perspectives, or subliminal fantasy states while cruising the programs, "Contact Zones" presents the art of CD-Rom as a catalyst for new collectivities, whether public in the political sense of group interaction and identity, or private in the sense of the collective unconscious and its identifications through shared memories.
My choice of the concept that shapes this exhibition, "Contact Zones," also aims to bring the challenging discourse of the new media into critical dialogue with the various theoretical communities for whom this term has particular consequence. Cultural theorists will be quick to recognize this term as having been emphasized by Mary Louise Pratt for exemplifying "the space of colonial encounter, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict" (Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation [London: Routledge, 1992], p. 6). Pratt adds that she borrows the term "contact" from linguistics where it refers to linguistic improvisation among speakers of different languages whose need to communicate, usually in the context of trade or colonialism, results in the development of pidgins or creoles. We also can understand "contact" to have particular valence not only in social and linguistic contexts but also in the kinds of material and electric ones that have resulted in the digital revolution. Contact zones, in this context, are the points of energy generation and flow in electronic and computer circuits that sustain the digital interface across languages and geographies. Finally, contact has been understood as the conductor of representation between the preconscious and conscious fields of the Freudian psyche, with their curious linkages of image and word, as well as the temporal hinge between past and future in philosophical discussions of time and space by philosophers of the virtual, from Deleuze to Lyotard. This expansive and yet precise notion, "Contact Zones," thus serves as the metaphor for this exhibition of artwork on CD-Rom whose pieces catalyze reflection on the simultaneous, speedy overlap of the many material and conceptual zones that resonate in charged contact with each other on the same digital platform.
Contributing to a watershed moment in the development of digital studies at Cornell University, and one that hopefully will create energetic ripples across the international network, the exhibition was launched as a means of introducing Cornell researchers and students to the exciting and innovative artistic and theoretical work now being created with the use of digital platforms. At the heart of this enterprise lies the artwork and its producers who bring to the community of digital producers and theoreticians a flexible and overlapping approach to "contact." The works exhibited in "Contact Zones" make clear that a collaborative critical project in artistic digitality cannot simply mean bringing theory to art, but rather, must entail the establishment of a critical zone in which digital art itself provokes the discourses of its theorizations. So it is that the artists of "Contact Zones" intermix visual and sound fields with textual presentations as a means of generating thought about the role of cultural and social interaction in the digital age. The artists here brought together also share a consistent attentiveness to the location of the digital future in relation to a consideration of the ongoing influence, NOW, of traditional representational platforms of the artistic past--text, painting, photography, cinema, architecture, performance, etc. Indeed, these artists create new zones in which contact between the artistic and academic disciplines can be thought anew. Might it not also be said, in this context, that it is to the artists of the new media to whom we turn for theorizations, not prophecies, of the impending millenium?
Although the architectonics of the exhibit itself will be permeable during its tour, the exhibition was structured initially for presentation at Cornell to foreground three exciting interfaces between digital arts, information technology, and cultural theory. The residue of these interfaces will linger, no doubt, throughout the exhibitions tour regardless of the material circumstances and contexts of its display.
I. The show investigates various zones of conceptual contact forged by artists working in the new media: between thoughts, memories, and cultures; between genders, sexes, and sexualities; between art and literary genres; between commodities and sites of exchange; between expanding global formations and lingering national identities, etc. Programs of CD-Roms are grouped in fourteen conceptual pods around the themes of "Archive Fever," "Artintact," "Baroque Interface," "Bodies without Organs," "Check Points," "Cinematic Specters," "Electric Delivery Systems," "Hypertextures," "Identity Mutations," "Memory Errors," ," "Ocular Work in the Digital Age," "Sound Machines," "Virtual Metropolis," and "Wonder Books" (these pods and their contents are to be understood as capable of being transformed and morphed as the life of the exhibit progresses). As these different programs are installed and rotated from site to site to guarantee their sound and visual contact with each other, they generate an artistic dialogue of electronic, cultural interface and intellectual, artistic intertextuality.
II. As installed in seven different sites across the Ithaca campus of Cornell University, and designed to be moved in part or whole to other exhibition sites in museums, galleries, and universities, the exhibition encourages consideration of how digital art can serve to create "contact zones" between different venues (from the computer lab to the art museum to the library) as well as between different academic and artistic disciplines (from art to literature to cinema to computer science to architecture to performance to sexual studies) that share common interests in the development of and critical reflection on digital visualization. As positioned in library and museum, as well as in a public access facility and the humanities conference center, from the Engineering Quad to the Agriculture and Life Sciences Quad, "Contact Zones" establishes new zones of both interpersonal and virtual contact for groups of users who might not ordinarily understand themselves to share common space and practice. Similarly, the exhibitions tour from region to region, country to country, and within different institutional settings, is meant to expand and complicate the zones of local, academic contact around which the show was initially envisioned.
III. Of equal importance to this aim is the exhibition's international flavor. Bringing together work by established and emergent artists from eighteen countries, "Contact Zones" reflects the globalism and cross-nationality characteristic of the new world composition of the digital community. While greater representation of some national platforms and digital production centers, particularly those from Australia, Germany, and the United States, begs for reflection on the continual unequal distribution of digital wealth and access, the cross-national authorship and collaboration that typifies the vast majority of the pieces in "Contact Zones" attests to the promising artistic fluidity and dialogic interconnectivity of the digital art community's non-commercial globalism.
The aim of "Contact Zones" is thus to foreground the artistic possibilities of CD-Rom and digital technologies for exploring the realities, fantasies, and representations of contact in its multiple forms, media, and spaces.
The Curator, Timothy Murray, is Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies in Film and Video at Cornell University. He developed this exhibition in conjunction with curatorial and academic ventures in France, Australia, Canada, Spain, and the US. In October, 1997, he co-curated a CD-Rom Gallery for the Flaherty Film Seminar on "Memory and Modernism" at Ithaca College that catalyzed plans for the exhibition, followed in December, 1997, by his three panel program on "Electronic Culture" for the Modern Language Association in Toronto whose featured presenters, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Louise Dompierre, Verena Conley, and Margaret Morse, contributed to the conceptual shape. He has authored catalogue essays on digital installations for the ZKM in Karlsruhe, the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto, and the Fundacio "la Caixa" in Barcelona. Among his books are Like a Film: Ideological Fantasy on Screen, Camera, and Canvas (Routledge 1993), Drama Trauma: Specters of Race and Sexuality in Performance, Video, and Art (Routledge 1997), and Baroque Interface: Utopic Visions, Electronic Art, and Cultural Memory (Minnesota, In Progress). He is the editor of Mimesis, Masochism, and Mime: The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary French Thought (Michigan 1997), and he is currently editing a special issue of Wide Angle on "Digitality and the Memory of Cinema" and a special issue of Sites: The Journal of 20th-century/Contemporary French Studies on "New French Cinema, Video, and New Media.