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From Technological to Virtual Art

by Frank Popper
The MIT Press (Leonardo Books), Cambridge, MA, 2007
471 pp., 154 illus. Trade, $45.00/29.95
ISBN: 0-262-16230-X; ISBN: 978-0-262-16230-2.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
POB 240Berkeley, CA 94701


Technological and virtual art have become so prevalent in recent years that I find it difficult to conceptualize a world in which static media were the norm. Frank Popper’s From Technological to Virtual Art chronicles the trajectory that brought about this revolution. Defining virtual art as art that allows us, through an interface with technology, to immerse ourselves in the image and interact with it, the book surveys the originality and power of recent projects and offers some historical antecedents as well. A well-respected art historian, long at the forefront of art and technology studies, Popper is an appropriate figure to present this material. Among those who have taken the art/ science/technology interface from the fringes and into the mainstream, his expertise is vividly translated into this well-documented and comprehensive study of the paradigmatic change. Here he argues that the move toward technologically based projects, largely begun in the twentieth century, has humanized technology due to an emphasis on interactivity. It is also noteworthy that many of the artists Popper focuses on see their commitment to art in larger terms. As the book details, this brings them in touch with politics, the community, and various social dimensions. Reading through the publication is like visiting an exhibition with a smorgasbord of themes, a global sweep, and sensitivity to the personal relationship artists establish with their projects.

Popper sets the stage with an impressive history of technology inspired work from 1918-1983 that immediately demonstrates the wealth of material packed into this volume. Accounting for about a third of the book, Part I includes historical antecedents and key figures. This section begins to make it clear that the artistic imagination sometimes finds the "right" technology through incremental experimentation. Surveying technologies that include lasers, holography and eco-technological, computer and communication art, the overview also offers a fine foundation for the coverage of contemporary technological/virtual art and artists, which comprises the bulk of the publication. Part II is subdivided into sections on materialized digital-based work, off-line multimedia and multisensoral works, interactive digital installations, and multimedia online works (net art). Covering 1983-2004, the second part examines plastic and cognitive issues, sensory experiments, interactivity, and experimental modalities more recently pursued. Well-crafted vignettes of key innovators, in both sections, underscore that many practitioners who bring science and technology into their research are sensitive to aesthetic values. What sets them apart is that formal elements are addressed in tandem with investigations of everything from politics to philosophical questions about the real, their own virtual "space," connections between the real, the virtual, and the imagined, and multisensory experience. Indeed, the juxtapositions of themes and formal goals accounts for the work’s strength and power.

Given its sweep, From Technological to Virtual Art is a hard book to evaluate critically. Popper shows a willingness to let the artists speak for themselves and honors their intentions by explaining their aspirations non-judgmentally. This style of authorship successfully outlines artistic histories and the movement’s growth but does not contextualize the kinds of critical themes that are apt to arise in a general academic discussion of the art, science, and technology interface. It is my impression that when critical questions were introduced in depth it was because an artist brought this dimension into a discussion with Popper. This minimalistic approach led me to relish the few parts where deeper issues were more fully brought into play. One of these exceptions was in the chapter on Interactive Digital Installations; perhaps the strongest in the book. Here there is some discussion of how the transcendental approach of immersive, virtual projects (such as Char Davies) intersects with the historical view. Stepping aside from his theme driven biographical survey style, Popper mentions how transcendence, as discussed by Plato, Kant, and other philosophers who have thought about this topic, differs from the common presentation of virtual art. Including more developed commentary throughout the book on how the field has re-visited philosophical issues and artistic questions would have added a nice tension to the chapters.

Overall, the book works best as a tribute to the art/science/technology paradigm and as an invitation to seek out the pieces presented. I was delighted with the background material on a number of artists whose work I have encountered over the years, and on figures I know more by name than from exposure to their contributions. For example, Leonardo readers will particularly appreciate Popper’s summary of the life, inventive mind, and artistic contributions of Frank Malina. Also of note were summaries on Patrick Lichty, Nina Czgledy, Catherine Ikam and Louis Fléri, Roy Ascott, Orlan, and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. On the other hand, even a thorough introduction cannot include the wealth of talent within this community. In this case, I was sorry there was no mention of Margaret Dolinsky’s work and wished that Victorian Vesna’s research, particularly with nanotechnology, had received a fuller treatment. I also found myself surprised by some of the examples Popper chose. Jenny Holzer, for instance, is not someone I think of in terms of technological or virtual art, although her neon sign projects are well known and definitely qualify as technological artifacts. Just as I was ruminating on the Holzer section, I learned that she now has new silk-screen works on display at the Venice Biennial. Her latest turn to this older technology is a reminder that as the virtual becomes more a part of the art world, artists still move in and out of diverse media, at times returning to more traditional forms.

Perhaps the book’s greatest contribution is its expansion of the art/science/technology literature. Popper mentions early in the book that his intention is to present the history of technological and virtual art in a manner that goes beyond the contributions of Oliver Grau and Christine Buci-Glücksmann. In this he is successful. Grau makes a compelling case that media art has a history that is receiving more (well-deserved) attention, and Buci-Glücksmann demonstrates that technological art now has a place at the table. By contrast, Popper highlights the characters who have brought about our current vision. His much-needed history of key players brings Vasari’s sixteenth-century Lives of the Artists to mind. This is not a trivial comparison. On the one hand, both authors present brief overviews of the revolutionary artists of an era. On the other hand, both authors offer presentations that need to accommodate to the technological realities of their time. Vasari’s descriptions were primarily textually based due to the limitations in printing visual images in the sixteenth century. Although the second edition included woodcuts of the faces of most of the artists mentioned, there were no reproductions of the artworks he described. Ironically, the Popper book is similarly limited in relation to the artworks. One or two small black and white static images accompany the short sketches of the various artists. While numerous, these are a far cry from the actual installations.

Having said this, it should surprise no one that the distance between an illustrated text and physical reality was foremost on my mind as I read the book and prepared this review. During this period, coincidentally, I visited Anthony McCall’s installation, You and I, Horizontal (2005) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Although McCall is a figure Popper does not include, he could easily have found a place in the mix. Interacting with this piece, which emphasized the sculptural qualities of a light beam as it comes in contact with a changing geometrical projection and particles in the air—here, vapor from a theatrical haze machine, I could not help but think how poorly this active piece would translate if presented as a small black and white reproduction, even though it is a monochromatic work. Spending time digesting its magical qualities, as the haze seemed to continually change its "physical" form(s) in real time and physical space, underscored how necessary the unfolding experience is to our comprehension of technological art, virtual art, and art in general. To be sure, Popper’s words convey that he recognizes how hard it is to articulate all that "embodiment" adds in the book form. Fortunately he did try to address this limitation through the artist list at the end of the volume, which provides URLs that supplement the print medium.

Finally, it is important to underscore that a short review cannot even begin to touch on the many wonderful tidbits of information Popper packs into this history. Without a doubt, his knowledge of the field and personal acquaintance with the range of artwork discussed elevates his exposition of motives, technology, and the creative problem-solving involved in moving a piece from idea to actuality. Even given the distance between the publication and the actual experience of the work Technological to Virtual Art, (particularly with the supplementary material), provides a nice overview of the field. It would be a wonderful choice for a textbook in a course exploring the professionals who have nurtured the current art/science/technology climate. Educators could enlarge the book with the URLs, onsite visits, and other media examples that more fully convey the artistic projects outlined in the text. Indeed, and to Popper’s credit, much of the material about the work has genuineness to it that came about through his extensive reliance on personal interviews rather than secondary sources. Crafted to touch upon key themes within the work and the creative problem solving that motivated the artistic imagination and technological development needed to bring an aspiration to fruition, the book is a welcome addition to the field. Those who are new to the art/science/technology discipline will find the sweeping survey offers a nice map. Those who know the terrain will no doubt learn more about groundbreaking practitioners and appreciate the wealth of detail that illuminates how we got to this point in time. Libraries now building collections that cover the emergence of recent virtual and media projects should definitely put this book on their shelves. From Technological to Virtual Art is a book that marks the arrival of the art/science/technology perspective and presents the work of many of the innovative people responsible for its ascendancy. I highly recommend it.



Updated 1st August 2007

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