Net Art With a Groove
by Reena Jana

8:40 a.m. Sep. 27, 2000 PDT

NEW YORK -- These were Internet artists? Then what were a bunch of supposedly geeky loners doing, boogying onstage to techno music instead of writing code?

That was the scene at Tuesday night's sold-out program entitled "Call and Response" at Manhattan's artsy theater space The Kitchen, where some of New York's most respected Net artists -- including Yael Kanarek, a recipient of the Alternative Museum's Digital Commission 2000, and Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, recipients of a New York Foundation for the Arts grant in computer arts -- found themselves bumping and grinding in front of a live audience.

They weren't partying, though; they were participants in a surprisingly low-tech group performance orchestrated by media artist Cary Peppermint, who claims to have conducted some of the first real-time performance-art broadcast online.

The dance was the grand -- albeit somewhat silly -- finale to an unusual showcase of work by 12 high-profile Net artists.

"Call and Response" was based on the concept of calling out to the outside world for input and information, then creating impromptu pieces of art derived from the responses. The idea originated in an email exchange between some of the participating artists on Rhizome, an online journal of digital art.

The program's title had many layers of meaning, referring to Internet protocols (calling a server for a response), the art-world practice of public calls to artists for submissions of work to be considered for show, as well as a rhythm and blues technique of musical improvisation.

All the artists involved used or referred to a network such as the Web. But none were required to use any specific technology.

Their collective goal was simply to gather to interact and collaborate with the audience and the non-art world. And create new digital art, of course.

"It's rare that this many known digital artists come together and engage in a presentation that's not simply a series of show-and-tell demos," said Kathy Brew, director of Thundergulch, the new media arts initiative of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which sponsored "Call and Response."

Thundergulch regularly sponsors an ongoing series of public salons featuring artists working with new technologies. But this time around, the scale and the spontaneity quotient were different.

Spontaneity was required at those moments when technical difficulties delayed the third presentation by G.H. Hovagimyan, which consisted of a series of live prank calls to institutional voicemail systems dialed by a computer and executed by a digital voice.

"Potential network failure is always a possibility with this kind of art," said Kanarek, the evening's emcee and organizer, as the artists tried to jumpstart their computers. "So consider this part of the event."

Some of the artists welcomed potential glitches, though.

"There are a few variables that we built into the work that are out of our complete control. This is OK with us. The Net and technology in general seems a little sanitized at times," said Mark River, who, as part of the artist duo known as MTAA, orchestrated a mass phone-in order of Chinese food for the entire audience.

Not all the pieces were so purely playful. The duo of Diane Ludin and Ricardo Dominguez, for example, presented "Sorry, Wrong Number: Calling the Loss." The piece was a meditation on warfare -- including Internet-based "war," or the distribution of powerful, potentially brainwashing propaganda online -- incorporating large-screen projections of television coverage of riots and war accompanied by a somber dialogue between the artists.

Other works were abstract, like Mark Napier's psychedelic, beautiful "P-Soup," in which a large-screen projection featured real-time, live responses to the artist's "Potatoland" website. Site visitors' responses were depicted by multiplying circles and squares.

Some audience members, including Christiane Paul, the Whitney Museum of American Art's Curator of New Media Art, were impressed by the varied offerings.

"The lineup (was) an interesting exploration of the parameters of call and response, which become both a trigger of creative processes and the mechanism enabling them," Paul said.

Others found the nearly two-and-a-half hour presentation and its unpredictability tedious.

"Basically, this is what I expected to see, but that doesn't mean I think it's so great," said artist Ursula Endlicher.

"While some of the pieces are interesting, most are just too long," she said. "Artists need to realize that they can just demonstrate what they do, but they don't need to extend their performances just to extend them."


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