November 9, 2003, Sunday
ARTS AND LEISURE DESK
Digital Art's Year-Round Summer Camp
By ELIZABETH BARD (NYT) 1213 words
WALK into the Eyebeam gallery any given day and you might think nothing much is going on. The raw brick space, a former parking garage on West 21st Street, is cavernous without the Chelsea chic, more workplace than showplace. The folding table by the door is manned by a few well-dressed graduate students with laptops and cellphones. The atmosphere is low-key almost to the vanishing point.
Low-key is certainly not how Eyebeam began. In the fall of 2000, this small nonprofit organization for media arts introduced an ambitious architectural competition to create a Museum of Art and Technology. The winning design, a taffylike fold by the New York architects Diller & Scofidio, was going to put digital art on the map and create a landmark in the heart of Chelsea. But a fixed and enduring landmark is exactly what Eyebeam didn't want to be.
''One of the things I'm anxious to create is an organization that can move at the speed of culture,'' said John S. Johnson, the founder and executive director of Eyebeam. To do this, he and his team have turned old-school museum models upside down. The result is a hybrid somewhere between lab, think tank and summer camp.
For Eyebeam, part of moving forward has been slowing down. They recently sent Diller & Scofidio back to the drawing board. ''It became clear to me after the competition,'' Mr. Johnson said, ''that we were buying into becoming the 'museum of the 21st century,' which was exactly the opposite of what artists needed -- and what culture needed.'' Rather than rush to create an empty symbol, the goal is to build, literally, around the organization's mission to make a home for artists, for the artistic process. A new design, less flashy but equally tech-friendly, is to be introduced next year, and construction should begin in 2007.
Right now daily activity at Eyebeam revolves around the artist-in-residence program. Next year, eight artists will be given small stipends and keys to the building for five months. Inside is a Candyland for computer geeks -- all the latest technology and the production assistants to help them use it. The premise is simple: give emerging talent unlimited access to otherwise prohibitively expensive technology -- and let the games begin.
Mr. Johnson knows this model works; he has used it before. In 1996, Mr. Johnson, an independent filmmaker and heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, founded the Filmmaker's Collaborative, which provides postproduction and other services to independent filmmakers. Putting artists together with new technologies runs in the family: in 1974, Mr. Johnson's father, the sculptor J. Seward Johnson Jr., founded the Johnson Atelier, a fine-art foundry in Mercerville, N.J., where sculptors continue to have access to materials and technical assistance. ''I grew up running around my dad's atelier,'' Mr. Johnson said. ''I had a real affinity for the electric atmosphere that comes out of passion and a causal environment. So many people respond to that atmosphere of informed freedom.''
This is not just utopian fun and games. Eyebeam has quietly become a clearinghouse for major exhibitions and prizes worldwide. Golan Levin and Cory Arcangel, two recent residents who have worked with sound-activated graphics and retro video games, have been selected for the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Carlos J. G—mez de Llarena and Yury Gitman's wireless road race ''Node Runner'' recently picked up a Golden Nica, the highest honor at the annual Prix Ars Electronica in Austria.
Contemporary-art museums like to think of themselves as cultural fortune tellers, predicting the next ''big thing.'' Meanwhile Eyebeam is busy getting its hands dirty supporting the trial-and-error process involved in cultural shifts. Eyebeam's staff admits that most of its projects do not yet have the same artistic maturity as work done in older mediums. ''Some people use this fact to disparage new-media art,'' said Jonah Peretti, Eyebeam's director of research and development, ''but I think this is exactly what makes it exciting. You need to be daring to be a new-media artist. You need to experiment with tools you don't fully understand. And even though most of the experiments fail, the field as a whole is advancing and changing faster than any other kind of art production.''
Like the institution itself, the art coming out of Eyebeam is hybrid, sometimes raw and more about process than product. Through Dec. 13, Eyebeam is presenting ''Beta Launch '03,'' an exhibition showcasing work by this year's residents. But what's in the gallery is hardly the whole story. Projects often leave the space -- or even the state -- to make their point. Mr. Gitman's ''Magicbike'' is a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot attached to a mountain bike. The unit gives free Internet access wherever it is parked, allowing impromptu connections for cultural events, emergency access or underserved communities.
In ''1.1 Acre Flat Screen,'' Franziska Lamprecht and Hajoe Moderegger (who call themselves eteam) bought a 1.1-acre plot of land in Utah in an eBay real estate auction. They spent a year creating virtual schemes for commerce and leisure on the land, which can be seen at www.meineigenheim.org/lot/improve/, and even started a real artist-in-residence program of their own. On Thursday at 8 p.m., they will auction the land again, this time live at Eyebeam, to see if the plot has gained value -- as land or as art.
The experience at Eyebeam is not always about looking at radically new forms of art. When you first walk into ''Beta Launch'' you are immediately drawn to a triptych of screens showing clips of war films: ''Platoon,'' ''The Deer Hunter,'' ''The Longest Day.'' The artist, Reynold Reynolds, juxtaposes similar images from various films: the beaches of Normandy, the damaged Vietnam vet, the shooting, the stalking, the waiting. The format is hardly new -- the triptych is a staple of art history from altarpieces to video art. What is new is the speed and fluidity with which the images are gathered, edited and integrated -- an impossible task without digital tools.
''What does this tell us about the state of our culture?'' asked Eyebeam's curatorial chair, Benjamin Weil, who also serves as a media curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. ''You have learned to read three screens at once -- five years ago this was certainly not a given. The most significant development here is not the art, but the fact that we have learned to look at it.''
Despite star architects, hot artists and old money, Mr. Johnson seems determined to keep Eyebeam slightly out of bounds. ''If we are doing our job right we will always be viewed with skepticism by the contemporary art world,'' he said. ''We want to challenge the idea of who an artist is and what an artist does.''
And what happens when digital art is fully accepted? Mr. Johnson smiled. ''We will probably move on to something else.''
CAPTIONS: Photos: A moment from Reynold Reynolds's film triptych ''Based on an Actual Event'' at the Eyebeam gallery. John S. Johnson, below, Eyebeam's founder, wants an organization that can ''move at the speed of culture.'' (Photo by Peter Ross)