Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Howard Gardner recently asked a group of USC faculty and students, "What experiences have you had that have been transformative, that have altered the the way you learn, think, and perceive?"

I have numerous transformative moments I could mention, many of which are captured in this blog's five year history [I started this blog 5 years ago this February!]. But since I saw Howard Gardner with my Digital Studies Symposium folks and since I'm responding to this question for that symposium, I'll stick to the one transformative moment I can recall that incorporates both digital media and art.

In March 2008, I was at the MoMA in New York City, and I trotted up to the always special 6th floor to check out the special exhibits. Being as obsessed with chairs and typefaces as I am, I was most excited to see all the chairs they had on display, as well as the 50 Years of Helvetica exhibit. What I didn't expect to find was a piece called "New City." The hyperlinked NYTimes article describes the piece:
"'New City,' a projected three dimensional display of a virtual world by Peter Frankfurt, Greg Lynn and Alex McDowell, is a model of an idealized society where buildings, cities and entire geographic regions all flow seamlessly together. Itsuggests how the Internet could be used as a testing ground for an emerging utopia."
This article will give you the necessary background, but no part of the article articulates why this was such a transformative moment for me regarding my perception of art, community, and the digital age. In fact, in retrospect I didn't even realize what the piece was trying to accomplish. I didn't care about the message or even the media necessarily. What I wrote about the exhibit at the time was very brief: "I lay on the floor with a handful of strangers watching colors and pictures and words flash above us on broken up screens. We watched as a city was built. In silence."

This is a blueprint of the installation from the Imaginary Forces website,
where you can also see a video of the installation process and the viewing experience.
The piece was a series of differently shaped screens mounted on the wall forming an almost-cave. One could stand inside the cave and witness the beauty on the screens, the colors, the flashing words, one could try and absorb a partial narrative before walking away. But what happened instead was that an entire group of people lay down next to each other, in a city that is known for the harshness of its population, the unfriendliness of its people, and watched. I'd been to the MoMA alone at least a dozen times before this back when I lived in New York City and needed to be somewhere that wasn't ever-depressing Staten Island, where my school was located, and never did I see such proximity between visitors. 50 and 60 year old men and women lay next to college students who lay next to five and six year olds who were completely entranced. Everyone was silent. I don't think any of us knew what we were watching, and I don't think any of us even stopped to consider what kind of dirty muddy rain water shoe prints we were lying on top of. Nothing about the exhibit suggested to us that we should lie down. And in the NYTimes article, the one photograph of the piece shows someone viewing it from a standing position. But someone lay down. And then another person lay down. And then a cave full of strangers lay down to experience both art and community. And I realized in those 20 or so minutes underneath those screens that art is no longer a solitary act.

Perhaps creating still involves solitude, but this experience was so different from six people standing around Starry Night just downstairs, or even the hundreds of people that swarm the Mona Lisa in Paris every day. Those are instances of isolation in a group. "New City" sparked intentional community, inspired people to chose to share an intimate experience together without speaking, without analyzing. Since that visit to the MoMA, I've looked for that sense of community in art and I've discovered that it most often occurs in relation to digital media. I do not mean by this a broad, sweeping definition of digital media, but that specific definition which applies to [almost] interactive digital art like "New City." "New City" shifted the structure of the idea that forms in my brain when I think of the word "art," and since then I've been determined to explore the ways in which digital art can be used to create create community and alter the traditional Western experience of museum art.

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