I’ll Be Your Mirror


The lineup for New York’s newest blockbuster art exhibition begins this week as lucky ticket holders for "Matisse Picasso" make their way to the Museum of Modern Art’s temporary digs in Long Island City. The retrospective exhibition promises to reward long waits in chilly winds with works that shaped modern art and a thrilling tale of one of the most creative rivalries in art history. Elsewhere in Queens, a different kind of thrill awaits viewers in an exhibition that offers a glimpse of art’s future.

Visitors to the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria are greeted by their own reflection, rendered digitally – in garbage. Daniel Rozin’s "Trash Mirror" – a grid of 500 pieces of foot-flattened rubbish – is a prelude to the 15 works on view in Digitalmedia, an exhibition of art created in the medium of computer-driven technology.

Rather than "oil on canvas," labels for artifacts in Digitalmedia list software programs such as "C++, Open GL" or "height field fluid dynamic algorithm." "Trash Mirror" is made of media more familiar to the electronically uninitiated: "video camera, computer, motors, electronics" and, of course, "trash," which here means sugar packets, ticket stubs, beer cans, coffee cups, even a personal check made out to the artist. The camera detects passersby, sends its input to the computer; computer-controlled motors connected to each of the trash-topped "pixels" sending them shimmying into a rough image of the person standing before the "mirror."

Exhibits in Digitalmedia incorporate narrative, sound and music, and video-game software that respond to input by the viewer. That interactivity makes digital art exciting, said AMMI’s curator digital media, Carl Goodman. But it also distances people who are computer shy and still uncomfortable sharing in the creative action or unsure about art designed to change constantly. "That’s not what art’s supposed to do," Goodman said, imitating a digital art novice.

Clearly, that assumption is changing. The proliferation of computers in homes and businesses means that people are acclimating to digital interactions. Even chess champion Gary Kasparov has cozied up to computer competitors.

Visual artists have been making "computer art" since the 1950s – even Robert Rauschenberg dabbled in art-technology experiments in the late 1960s. Slicker software and powerful hard drives have provided more artists with more precise tools for expression. Today, digital art is creeping into art schools and into museum galleries, most notably at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but those plugged into the field say it is light years behind Europe in terms of acceptance into the mainstream art world. New York has one gallery devoted to the art form, the 15-month-old Bitforms gallery in Chelsea.

But like Rozin’s mirror, many digital works are moving from computer screens into inviting sculptural forms. Such is the case with "Listening Post," an installation at the Whitney by Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen. A hanging grid of hundreds of customized display monitors, the installation offers a real-time translation in text and sound of information streaming into Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards.

"It’s an immersive visceral experience, with different components used in unison to create a shifting linguistic portrait of the Internet, says Whitney curator Debra Singer, who describes the installation as "a tech show for non-tech people."

At AMMI, Staten Island-native Golan Levin is represented by "Floccus," a simple screen-based display that takes its name form the Latin word for "hairball." Audience members use a stylus to create lines that flow toward the "drain," represented by the cursor. Each movement of a stylus releases a "sonic manifestation" that creates the overall effect of a hypnotic, fairyland Etch-a-Sketch. Among Levin’s other work is "Dialtones," a symphony composed in real time on the concert audience’s cellular phones.

"Art always served metaphor how we view life, identity, and how we fit into universe," AMMI’s Goodman said. "In the age of the image," he added, "people thought of the world as a picture, and their way of representing the world was a picture. Today it’s a simulation. It’s dynamic. A frozen moment is not the world. The world is a program."

Some people in the field see digital media as holding particular appeal for artists who come from the Jewish tradition of Talmudic discourse, questioning and analysis, and comfort with a multicultural existence.

Levin’s Alphabet Synthesis Machine, which allows online users to create new writing systems was inspired by his first exposure as a boy to Hebrew writing – during a synagogue service. His Israeli-born father told him the Hebrew print represented God’s language for communicating with humans.

While they have embraced what is often called "new media," Rozin, Levin and other digital artists believe their work fits naturally into the sweep of art history. Most critics and curators, they say, lack the expertise to properly assess the digital craft. "Art has been taking advantage of technology since there was technology, even before technology was known as technology," Rozin told The Jewish Week. "Da Vinci had one foot in science and one in art."

Rozin is the director of research and an adjunct professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, of which the 41-year-old Israeli is an alumnus. Each year the program, which started officially in 1979, accepts about 100 students from a diverse professional backgrounds and schools them in the technical skills for programming computers, making computer chips and constructing an interface-be it a keyboard, a light sensor or motorized refuge.

At the program’s loft-like center in an NYU building near Astor Place, more of Rozin’s work is on view, along with other ITP students’ work. "Wooden Mirror" of 1999, a more elegant progenitor of the "Trash Mirror," which, because of its 830 wooden pixels, provides a much sharper mirror image. Rozin created the software behind another creation, "Mirror #2." Here, an on-screen image changes constantly as the computerized colored pixels swirl or slide horizontally, creating an impressionistic effect.

Rozin chafes at the term "digital art" because he says, "If someone creates something that manages to touch someone, to move someone, that makes someone think, it’s art," Rozin said. The label itself will soon be meaningless: "In 20 years it will be called ëart,’ " he said.

Digitalmedia is on view through May 27 at AMMI, 35th Avenue at 36th Street, Astoria. (718) 784-4520. Tues.-Fri., 12-5 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. $8.50-$4.50. "Listening Post" can be experienced through March 9 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave., (800) WHITNEY. Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Fri., 1-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. $12, $9.50, pay what you wish Fridays after 6 p.m. The work of Andrew Neumann is on view at Bitforms, 529 W. 20th St., Manhattan (212) 366-6939. Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. "Matisse Picasso" runs through May 19 at MoMA-QNS, 45-20 33rd St., Long Island City, (212) 708-9400. Mon.-Thurs., Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.- 9 p.m. $20, $15.50 by advance ticket sale only (866 879-MOMA). "Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman" is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., (212) 535-7710. Sun., Tues.-Thurs., 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. $12, $7 (suggested admission).