Ok, this may not be the best moment for cyberspace. Napster is stumbling. nasdaq is a bust. Whole sectors of the virtual economy are wrapping up their stories at Chapter 11. But who cares if investors lose faith in the digital world? The artists are sticking with it-at least the ones who lately have been making some galleries look like electronic stores, full of dot-matrix screens and wall-mounted monitors. Remember when videotape was the hot new medium? Compared with cd-rom art and screen-saver art, with website artworks or virtual-reality goggles, videotape is starting to look quaint, even primordial. Like charcoal.
You know these developments must be reaching critical mass when two museums decide simultaneously to look into them. "BitStreams" at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City and "010101: Art in Technological Times" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are Zeitgeist shows, attempts to collect a few specimens of this emerging practice and let them vibrate in proximity to one another. There is not much effort in either exhibit to draw broad conclusions, no gathering of everybody into schools or "isms." The spirit behind both is to let a thousand digits bloom.
In some ways, this is a moment like the first decades of the 20th century, when biplanes, automobiles and skyscrapers looked like portents of a magnificent new world in the making. The essential task for many artists then was to align themselves with the dynamic forces of that world, to heap up raptures to horsepower and the Brooklyn Bridge. Cyberspace and digital technology have some of the same glamour and promise, but the romance of technology has long since wilted. After two world wars and Three Mile Island, who can take seriously the militant modernity of the Italian Futurists or the Russian Constructivists? What artists want now is to use new technologies without falling for them.
So when Inez van Lamsweerde (at the Whitney) digitally erases her boyfriend from Me Kissing Vinoodh (Passionately), 1999, she is not worshipping digital photo retouching. She's just taking advantage of it to examine herself contorted by a passion without its object. And when Jochem Hendricks (at sfmoma) uses a specially constructed helmet to read the smallest movements of his eyes and translate those into a scribbled line drawing like Reading, he is not paying homage to the electrocardiogram. He's using a similar technology to achieve a strangely more intimate end.
All the same, it is hard to penetrate to the heart of something when you're trying to keep your distance. Is that why digital technologies still haven't found their consummate expression in art? Consumer culture eventually gave rise to the cheerful vulgarities of Pop, a critique of that culture that was all the same a wholehearted embrace. But digital art, like high-definition television, hasn't found its industry-wide agreed-upon format, the master metaphor that can lend meaning even to lesser works. In the absence of that, many artists are content just to see how stuff looks when it's digitized. It can look pretty interesting, of course, jumpy and mesmerizing. Its real predecessor is Mondrian's last great painting, Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-1943. Mondrian's rhythmic arrangements of colorful squares loom behind John F. Simon Jr.'s Color Panel v1.5, 1999-2001, in which little squares bounce around a video screen like rubber confetti. Mondrian is there again (at the Whitney) with three of the five screens of Jeremy Blake's Station to Station, 2000-2001, whose glowing boxes make sexy pulsations as they mutate from crimson to violet to lime.
Like a tropical-fish tank, works such as these can be watchable for quite a while. And it doesn't hurt that both of them, as so much digital art, are displayed on wall-mounted, flat-screen TVs, bits of cultural merchandise as sumptuous in their high-tech way as the Baroque wooden garlands that frame a Rubens. But when Mondrian began Broadway Boogie Woogie in 1942, the work also operated as a diagram for the energies of America at mid-century. Most new digital-pattern art doesn't seem to be conditioned by any underlying realities. It's high-concept wallpaper.
Which brings us to online art. Both museums are featuring several examples on their websites (sfmoma.org and artport.whitney.org). Before it gets its Picasso, the cyberart world could use a Daniel Boone, someone to guide you through sites so intricate that you need a trail of bread crumbs to find your way out, or to help with the finicky software you have to download first. (Who knew there could be so many dialogue boxes saying things like "unable to find the first part of the multipart archive flashplayer5installer.hqx-4'"?) All that just to reach work full of tricks not so different from those that website designers have been doing for years without calling them art. Even so, at times all your most exasperated typing can be worth it. At the sfmoma site, there is Mark Napier's Feed, which turns any Web page into visual chaos by displaying it without its underlying html coding. You could call this high-tech fantasy. But in a virtual world, what is verisimilitude?
Maybe it's no surprise that one of the most bewitching works in either show is a lyrical triumph of mid-tech. For The Telephone Call, at sfmoma, Janet Cardiff combines two of the most common consumer-electronic devices: headphones and a palm-size digital videocam. Leave a credit card and a photo ID at the visitor's desk, and the museum equips you with both devices.
On its foldout viewscreen, the camera displays the visuals for Cardiff's 17-minute "video walk." With the headphones, she directs viewers through galleries, into empty back stairways and even across the museum catwalk. In real space you move along empty passages that on your screen are full of people. Or you move down crowded passages that are empty on your screen. All the while, Cardiff reminisces and riffs as bursts of music rise and fall. In no time, her fantasies are inseparable from your own internal noise. The borders of your consciousness are slyly overrun. More fun than a funhouse excursion, as intimate as Molly's soliloquy in Ulysses, it's a work that places all your synapses on a new kind of high alert. Is this the future of digital art? Then let a thousand digits bloom.