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Tech Art History, Part 2

In our first installment of the history of technology in modern art, we examined the works that helped breed an art-making culture in which machines and electronics were either figured or utilized in the creative process. From just before Marcel Duchamp to Nam June Paik, modern art quite literally transformed from the centuries-old traditions of painting to complex and sometimes inscrutable modes of expression.

But fluorescent tubes, TV screens and neon lights represent only a fraction of technology's role in art for the last and current century. With the emergence of the idea of multimedia, isolated mediums like sculpture and painting began to transform into syntheses of new modes of expression. Projections and interactive art utilize technology to create works that were not previously possible, setting the stage for a technological movement in art that will only grow stronger.

The Art of Projection

View from the 'Protect Protect' exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2009 by Jenny Holzer
Art made from lighting didn't stop with James Turrell or Dan Flavin. Jenny Holzer, a conceptual artist concerned with power and oppression, began working with posters and billboards in the 1970s before moving on to her well-known projections and LED scrolling signage. She writes her own texts or appropriates others that use the technological language of advertising to communicate her message. From her early "aphorisms" displayed on LED billboards in Times Square, to her 2009 solo show at the Whitney, dubbed "Protect Protect," featuring scrolling LED fixtures that illuminated declassified military documents, Holzer has fluctuated between projection and light installation.

View of 'The Influence Machine' (2000) by Tony Oursler
New York-based artist Tony Oursler is also well-known for his works that combine video projection and sculpture. In a departure from most video art, which is presented on a traditional flat screen, Oursler uses sculptural objects as a medium to project images of faces, eyes and mouths. Along with audio recordings, Oursler's sculpture removes the video experience from the 2-D realm of the screen, making the work immediately present to the viewer. In some of his later works, Oursler began to experiment with public projections on unconventional surfaces. In 2000, Oursler exhibited 'The Influence Machine' at Madison Square Park in New York, an installation that projected huge, disturbing faces on trees, smoke and buildings as a sort of updated séance. These projected "ghosts" were coupled with audio recordings of "voices from the history of early technology," creating a work that explored various modes of communication, such as radio and Morse code, through tech.

View of 'The Tijuana Projection' (2000) by Krzysztof Wodiczko
Like Holzer, the work of Polish-born artist Krzysztof Wodiczko is concerned with sociopolitical issues, such as racism, homelessness and crime. Wodiczko utilizes large-scale projections, typically against a building or existing sculpture, often relaying stories or interviews with subjects germane to the space. In one of his more recent works called 'Veteran's Flame' (2009), for example, Wodiczko used the image of a flickering candle projected against the walls of Fort Jay on Governor's Island in New York, combined with audio recordings of soldiers sharing accounts of war and its aftermath in Iraq and Afghanistan. In one of his earlier works, 'The Tijuana Projection' (2000), Wodiczko attached cameras and microphones to Mexican factory workers. These women of the maquiladoras gave testimonies about their lives, sexual abuse, poverty and domestic violence as their faces were projected on a giant domed screen.

Multimedia and Intermedia

We talk about multimedia this-and-that quite frequently in the tech world, and the word is becoming just as prevalent in artists' statements and museum catalogues. The term "multimedia" dates back to the late 1960s, coined by musician and entrepreneur Bob Goldstein while promoting his event LightWorks at L'Oursin, a club in Southampton, New York. L'Oursin was described by one New York Magazine writer in 1968 as "an experience that wraps restaurant, discothèque and light show into one organic entertainment." Call it a proto-rave, just without the ecstasy.

But only two years earlier, British artist Dick Higgins had written an essay in which he outlined a new approach to art-making called "intermedia." He wanted to explore ways in which previous forms of artistic expression could merge into new entities, like performance art and visual poetry. "We view paintings," said Higgins, "What are they, after all? Expensive, handmade objects, intended to ornament the walls of the rich or, through their (or their government's) munificence, to be shared with large numbers of people and give them a sense of grandeur. But they do not allow of any sense of dialogue."

So, on the one hand, here was a cerebrally motivated art movement that wanted to do away with old, staid modes and birth some kind of synthesis of visual expression, sound, and performance. On the other exists consumer culture grown bored with musty dance halls and craving something more epic. The term "intermedia" has since fallen out of all but the most academic vocabularies, supplanted by the overarching coined concept of "multimedia" that we know today.

Fluxus, the first intermedia/multimedia art collective, was an international group of artists, performers, designers and musicians in the late 1960s, founded in part by disciples of John Cage at The New School for Social Research. Anti-commercial and infused with a DIY spirit like Dadaism before it, Fluxus members would frequently create "event scores" or performances that included sound art, visual expression, video and poetry. Eventually Fluxus grew to a network of several dozen artists, filmmakers, musicians, and scholars, including Higgins, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Allan Kaprow (one of the developers of the "happening" concept), Jonas Mekas and John Cale.
A performance by Fluxus artist Ben Vautier
Fluxus' influence is far-reaching and indeterminate. But from the Fluxus tradition emerged artists like Laurie Anderson, who is now better known as a musician and wife of Lou Reed. Originally trained as a sculptor, Anderson began to experiment with music and performance in the 1970s, such as 'Duets on Ice' in which she played the violin while wearing skates frozen in a block of ice.

But Anderson also experimented with technology in music, creating personalized one-off instruments such as the tape-bow violin in 1977, which replaced the horsehair of a violin bow with audio tape and a magnetic tape head on the bridge. Later, she developed the talking stick, which was a 6-foot MIDI controller she said breaks sound samples "into tiny segments, called grains, and then [plays] them back in different ways. The computer rearranges the sound fragments into continuous strings or random clusters that are played back in overlapping sequences to create new textures." Perhaps most famous for her single 'O Superman' in 1981, she continues to merge storytelling, music and electronic sound experiments in her work today.

Laurie Anderson's 'Tape-Bow Violin' from 1977

A performance by Laurie Anderson with her 'Talking Stick'

Interactive Art: Viewers Become Users

One of the traditional differences between art and design is how the work is consumed by people. Artworks had almost always been "viewed" by viewers; the viewer passively received (and tried to perceive) the work and its message, but was not part of the art-making process. Design, on the other hand, implies some kind of utility. Users would interact with the object in question and employ it for some kind of function. Bridging the gap between art and design, interactive art figures the viewer as user, obliterating the distinction between artist and viewer. And while interactive art has roots in Dada and Happenings, it wasn't until digital technology entered the picture -- as computers, digital video cameras and projection tech became cheaper and more ubiquitous -- that it became a distinct medium in the mid- to late 1990s.

Aerial view of 'Pulse Park' (2009) by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer
Devoted Switched readers will know that we love the work of contemporary artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. The Mexican-Canadian artist utilizes video cameras, computers, light installations, and projections with interfaces that change the work with each user. For an exhibition at Madison Square Park called 'Pulse Park' in 2008, Lozano-Hemmer set up 200 spot lights around the perimeter of an oval lawn, with heart rate monitors on either side. Users would hold the heart monitors, which then translated their pulses to flashes of light from the lamps. Once 200 people had entered their pulses, the entire lawn erupted in a symphony of heartbeats.

Interior view of 'Wave UFO' (2003) by Mariko Mori
Japanese artist Mariko Mori stunned New York in 2003 with an immersive, interactive installation called 'Wave UFO.' A sort of teardrop-shaped spaceship invited users inside to recline on a Technogel chair and watch a projection on the sculpture's ceiling. Users wore electrodes once inside, which gathered brainwave data and modulated the imagery projected on the screen. Alpha brain waves, indicating rest or relaxation, would appear blue; beta waves would appear pink, indicating agitation; and theta waves, representing a dream-like state, would appear yellow. Three users at a time would sit inside the sculpture as their brain waves were given visual manifestation above, connecting them through technology, shared experience and a sort of spiritual fugue state induced by the images.

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