“Art + Tech: A Citywide Collaboration,” now rolling out in more than a dozen museums and universities around Boston, throws a wide, easy net over digital art, a medium so common that almost any American city could coordinate cross-institutional programming.
But this project belongs here.
Some of the earliest Internet networks were launched in the Boston area. E-mail and Facebook were invented here, WGBH’s “New Television Workshop” put pioneering video art on the air, and MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies was founded in part to weave new technologies into art.
“Art + Tech,” spearheaded by the Institute of Contemporary Art’s chief curator Eva Respini, coincides with the ICA’s “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today,” notably, the first US museum exhibition to trace the history of art since the advent of the World Wide Web. Other shows sweep through time, from ancient videos at the MIT List Visual Arts Center to cutting-edge neural network art at Boston Cyberarts Gallery.
That context is crucial, as technology today evolves so quickly that it’s hard to see past its dazzle. Back in the 1990s, art theorists were still puzzling over what would come after post-modernism. Now, the Internet has reshaped the way we see, process, and think about visual culture. Even traditional-media artists, like painter Laura Owens in the ICA show, depict information familiar from screens. One (terrible) term for today’s aesthetic is post-Internet art.
“Screens: Virtual Material” at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum also reflects on how profoundly digital technology has changed our lives, although its pared-down, formal approach strikes a sharp contrast to the profusive “Art in the Age of the Internet.” Shows like these help us to see the water we’re swimming in.
“Art + Tech” arose when Respini took her position at the ICA three years ago. With “Art in the Age of the Internet” on her to-do list, she met with curators around Boston to discuss a joint effort. Some of her colleagues already had tech art on the calendar.
“There were a lot of people thinking along the same lines,” Respini says. “Why not make these threads visible in a city where tech is part of the fabric?”
“Art + Tech” isn’t without precedents. The Boston Cyberarts Festival was launched in 1999 and ran biennially through 2011. Like “Art + Tech,” its debut capitalized on the zeitgeist.
“I thought it was going to be 20 organizations participating,” George Fifield, director of Boston Cyberarts, says of the first festival. “Sixty wanted to. They were all asking, ‘What do computers and technology have to do with our world?’ Now, everybody kind of knows.”
Everybody knows, and we’ve reached a moment of such immersion, we’re ready to reflect.
Collaborations such as these are great marketing strategies: Good for the city, good for the venues, good for the audience. The gold standard is Los Angeles’s Pacific Standard Time, which has had three ambitious Getty Foundation-funded iterations since 2011. In Massachusetts, there’s at least one other cross-institutional extravaganza this year, “Mass Fashion,” which takes its cue from another, “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture” (2013). There was also “Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections,” which featured books from 19 area collections at three institutions in 2016.
Several exhibitions included in “Art + Tech” dovetail beautifully with “Art in the Age of the Internet.” “Before Projection: Video Sculpture 1974-1995,” a delightful show at MIT List Center for Visual Arts, further grounds us in history — specifically, the dark ages when video was confined to boxy monitors, which made artsy purists uneasy because of the association to lowbrow television.
The show doesn’t reach as far back to the early TV-based video art experiments undertaken by WGBH, but you can see similar work made in San Francisco in the deCordova’s “Cool Medium: Art, Television, & Psychedelia, 1960-1980.”
Video and other digital media are part of an increasingly dematerialized picture. A lot of post-Internet art cannot be touched; it goes straight to our heads, plugging into the malleable, imagistic world of the mind’s eye. We spend increasingly more time in the alternate realities of screens — a space that’s part hive mind, part hallucination.
Artists have always dallied in dreamland, but they embodied their dreams in paint or stone. Then, a century ago, the idea overtook the object when Marcel Duchamp labeled a urinal art, and film moved art to the screen. And in the 1960s groups such as Fluxus arose, aiming to make art about experience, not stuff.
Museums today have fully bought into that model. Installation and performance art, events such as late-night programming at the Museum of Fine Arts, and interactive works thrill and entice. And while Happenings came long before social media, marketing departments have keyed into the immediacy of that kind of experiential programming.
Art these days, then, is less about looking and more about participating. That’s certainly the case with the Peabody Essex Museum’s “PlayTime” which doesn’t revolve around technology; like most thematic contemporary art shows, it simply includes high-tech work. (And, like “Art in the Age of the Internet,” it has its own web platform.) Two standouts are Pedro Reyes’s musical installation “Disarm Mechanized II” made from decommissioned guns, and Cao Fei’s stunning video of hand-puppetry, “Shadow Life.”
The most experiential piece in “PlayTime” is decidedly low tech: Martin Creed’s “Work No. 329,” a room crowded with pink balloons. Walk on in: It’s a frothy physical experience.
Art has always been a physical, material enterprise, and there will always be art that tethers to the tangible. But dematerialized art has opened a door to a vast new playroom, with innumerable toys and playmates. In 10 or 20 years, when another lens will undoubtedly be turned on art and technology in Boston, we can all don virtual reality headsets, sit alone in our living rooms, and experience the exhibitions together.
ART + TECH: A CITYWIDE COLLABORATION
“Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today,” through May 20, and related programming at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, 617-478-3100. Show details: www.icaboston.org
Interdisciplinary arts seminar at Berklee College of Music, culminating in “Binge Watch,” a public performance on May 10, at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
“Artificial Creativity: Neural Network and Augmented Intelligence Art,” through Feb. 18 at Boston Cyberarts Gallery, 141 Green St., Jamaica Plain, 617-522-6710, www.bostoncyberarts.org
Artist Dara Birnbaum lecture, March 29 at the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, 617-496-5387, carpenter.center
“Screens: Virtual Material,” through March 18 and “Cool Medium: Art, Television, and Psychedelia, 1960-1980,” through March 11, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, 781-259-8355, www.decordova.org
“JODI: OXO,” through April 23 at Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org
“Caught in the Net: The Early Internet in the Paranoid Imagination,” film series March 9-18 at Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, 617-495-4700, hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/
“Judith Barry: Untitled: (Global displacement: nearly 1 in 100 people worldwide are displaced from their homes),” through June 27 at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way, 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org
“Before Projection: Video Sculpture 1974-1995,” through April 15 at MIT List Visual Arts Center, 20 Ames St., Cambridge, 617-253-4680, listart.mit.edu/
“Cyber-INsecurity,” a series of talks March 28-May 9, at the Museum of Science, 1 Science Park, 617-723-2500, www.mos.org
“Blueprint for Counter Education,” March 2-July 8, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, 415 South St., Waltham, 781-736-3434, www.brandeis.edu/rose
“Slumpies,” sculptures by Jillian Mayer, through April 15 at Tufts University Art Galleries, 40 Talbot Ave., Medford, and School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, 230 The Fenway, 617-627-3518, artgallery.tufts.edu/Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.