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Net Works

Artists look to the Internet for subject matter, grabbing pictures, sounds and live feeds off the Web for pieces that combine modes of communication.

April 19, 2001|DAVID COLKER | david.colker@latimes.com

Ed Glaze of Port Mansfield, Texas, (population 800) never imagined that snapshots of his house, rental property and mother's carwash business would make it onto a wall of the prestigious San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Glaze is not an artist. He's a Realtor with a Web site. And he didn't even know his pictures had been on display for the last several weeks in "Ed Glaze III," a work that is part of the exhibit "010101: Art in Technological Times."

"Well, how about that," said Glaze, 46. "I'm thrilled. We don't have much in the way of art in Port Mansfield."

How Glaze's otherwise mundane Internet images ended up in an art gallery says a lot about the evolution of electronic art. Since it gained widespread attention in the mid-1990s, the Internet has inspired artists--but with very mixed results. More than a few have suffered from the same sort of technological limitations that plague dial-up users trying to download a video file.

Recently, though, artists have started using images, sounds and live feeds from the Internet for pieces that are then installed in more traditional havens for exhibitions--museums and galleries. For these artists, the Internet is not just a tool, it's subject matter.

In addition to the San Francisco exhibit, the Whitney Museum in New York is hosting its own tech art show, "Bitstreams." Featured in both are artists who incorporate the Internet into their works.

"A relatively new development is that artists are combining the Internet with other media or modes of communication," said Larry Rinder, curator of the Whitney show, which is on display through June 10. "It's an outgrowth of the last six or seven years, when you had artists who created pieces that existed only online.

"Now you have artists who are exploring what happens when you combine the infinite reach of the Net with something that is tied to a specific time and place."

The most traditional of the Internet-based pieces in "010101"--at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through July 8--are by "Ed Glaze III" creator Rebeca Bollinger. This is a surprise considering her past work, which often used raw online feeds. For example, her 1994 "Alphabetically Sorted" was a video showing the results of a text-related search while a woman read them off, one by one.

"I'm interested in the specific patterns created by databases and online searches," said Bollinger, who lives in the Bay Area.

Her works for "010101" are derived from online searches, but this time she chose to represent them with small colored-pencil drawings. "I knew about her Internet works, but I had no idea she also did these beautiful drawings," said John Weber, one of five curators of the show.

Bollinger used graphics-based search engines, such as Ditto.com, to come up with a grid of thumbnail images on topics such as "Ed Glaze." Likewise, her search on "people communicating" produced several images of people at computers or on cell phones. "Important documents" unearthed a group that included the Declaration of Independence and a letter from Elvis Presley. And "need" generated images of a sports car, a tropical beach scene and Jesus.

Art: Internet Becomes the Subject Matter of Museum Exhibits

"I thought they were really poignant," Bollinger said. "The drawings are kind of snapshots in time of these searches. I was interested to see what happens when the thumbnails become a handmade object.

"I can't say how people will react to them, but I think being an artist is about the process of transformation, when you take something and show it in a different way."

Weber was struck by how Bollinger's drawings "heightened the peculiarity" of people putting parts of their personal lives on the Internet. "It's like a family album that you put on the biggest billboard in the world. You have no idea who will drive by," he said.

On a nearby balcony at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is an outdoor sound installation, "Ping," by Chris Chafe and Greg Niemeyer that consists of a circle of eight towering speakers encased in aluminum. From the speakers come sounds--ranging from low-pitched tones to percussive clanks--that are otherworldly. "It's kind of like Tibetan monks singing," said a visitor standing in the middle of the work.

Actually, it's the Internet singing. Chafe and Niemeyer made use of pings that are commonly used like radar to measure the speed at which information travels through the Internet and then back to the originating point. Putting those pings to musical sounds was an outgrowth of a National Science Foundation-supported project at Stanford University, where Chafe and Niemeyer are on the faculty.

They set up the piece so that the longer a ping signal takes to make its journey, the lower the tone it generates and vice versa. The NSF was interested in practical applications. "Because of our musical perceptions, this allows us to listen to a network in a fine-grained way," Chafe said. "It's different from just looking at a meter."

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