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What Fizzled Online Now Sizzles on Display--It's Art

Employees of failed Web ventures try to purge the past by turning their Net time into art.

April 12, 2001|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — One wall is a white-on-white graph of the Nasdaq. Another features the flashing Web sites of dead dot-coms. A third is half-covered with hooks that bear the most talked-about piece in "Dot-Gone," the art exhibition that opens tonight in this capital of high art and fading commerce--business cards from the New Economy legions who've been laid off.

First there was dot-com, the future. Then dot-com, the failure. Now meet dot-com, the genre. From museums to theaters to galleries such as the one that has been advertising "Dot-Gone" for months now, the Bay Area has been abloom with artistic takes on the end of its affair with technology.

Next week, for example, the San Francisco International Film Festival will open with the premiere of a new Wayne Wang film--"The Center of the World"--about the sexual comeuppance of a dot-com wizard. Later this month, the Galeria de la Raza will present "The Lab," a play about "the social, cultural and environmental consequences of information technologies." An ongoing exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is exploring the impact of the digital present on the human condition, under the title, "010101: Art in Technological Times."

The Bay Area art scene is among several being visited this year by the Muse of the Downturn. In New York, a group of artists has been embellishing stock certificates and selling them both as art and as shares in Webbittown, a virtual-community Web site. In Seattle, the comic one-man show, "21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com," has had its run extended twice since it premiered in February. A streaming Internet video of the show has drawn 25,000 downloads, and a book version from Simon & Schuster is due out next spring.

In each instance, the artists say, their aim has been to make sense of the past several years of boom and bust--or mania and depression, depending on the viewpoint, which, in most cases, is one of youthful disillusionment.

"I had to tell this story, partly because it was so fascinating, but also because it was fascinating to me how much in love I'd fallen with this company and with this idea that that we were going to change the world," explained Mike Daisey, 28, the ex-Amazon.com employee who wrote and stars in "21 Dog Years."

The show, a monologue about Daisey's stint as a workaholic dot-com wage slave, traces the arc of his faith with letters he says he wrote, but never worked up the nerve to send, to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. "It's about the death of a utopia," Daisey says.

In the case of tonight's "Dot-Gone," the inspiration arose from a mass layoff six months ago at a dot-com in the city's Financial District. Among the 60 or so sacked employees was a 24-year-old in online advertising named Jamie A. Michael, who had viewed the work as "my first real job."

Michael, who had used course work in art and architecture to create a major in visual design at UC Berkeley, said the experience--at a company she can't name due to a nondisclosure agreement--was as vivid as it was unsettling.

"There were rumors and whispers for weeks beforehand," she remembered, "and people were flown in from corporate offices on the East Coast, and we had appointments on the hour with them. It was such a weird day. You'd see someone in the hall, and it'd be, 'Did you get cut?' 'Did you get cut?' There were so many emotions. The only two people I saw crying were people who had survivor guilt because they'd stayed."

Michael said she took her small severance and went on a road trip to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; when she got back, she and a group of friends from her college art courses decided to make good on an idea they'd talked about for years--launching an art company.

"The long-term goal was to be self-sustaining," she says, "but we needed to get our name out." They decided to call the group "fAMOUS"--an attention-getting homage to Warhol, Michael's hero. Then they cast about for inspiration. It came, Michael said, in a conversation one day with a now-ex-member of the group, about a box of business cards she had stuffed in her closet, left over from her former workplace.

"It was a Wednesday afternoon," she said, "and we were shopping, and we just started to talk about all the stuff generated by dot-coms that's now totally useless, all the business cards and all the marketing material, and how we could take that as an inspiration into a high-art show."

They put an ad in Craig's List, the online networking Web site, soliciting the business cards of other laid-off dot-commers. The ploy, she said, took on a life of its own.

"People sent hundreds of cards and tons of e-mail. I have a stack of letters in my kitchen," she said. "Someone wrote us a poem."

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