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From Technological to Virtual Art

by Frank Popper
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007
471 pp. 154 illus. Trade, $45.00
ISBN: 978-0-262-16230-2.

Reviewed by Paul Hertz
The Collaboratory Project
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60201, U.S.A.


Frank Popper’s From Technological to Virtual Art could hardly arrive at a better moment. Interactive digital art has expanded far beyond the cozy enclaves where it began, garnering popular and critical attention if not acclaim. In the last decade, it has disembarked in numerous artworld venues, gained a few outposts in galleries, and settled into various crowd-pleasing museum shows. A growing body of contemporary art historical research examines its origins. Curators hold conferences on its preservation: acquisition is the surest sign of recognition. The oft-repeated complaint of artists dedicated to the field, that the artworld has been most comfortable conferring its favors on established artists who "go binary" rather than on digital media pioneers and their inheritors, starts to sound a little wheezy, even if the artworld still has a long way to go. Books like From Technological to Virtual Art–and there have been quite a few over the past decade–construct the art historical corpus of digital media, identify its pioneers and long-term practitioners, document the mutual influence of digital and traditional media, and incidentally enable future liaisons with artworld markets by establishing a legitimating critical record.

As author of Art of the Electronic Age (1993) and Origins and Development of Kinetic Art (1968) and curator of the "Electra" exhibition of electronic art (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1983), Popper brings a depth of scholarship to the field that few can match. Add to his careful scholarship a gift for clarity and a generous capacity for letting artists speak about their work, and you have a book that should endure for some time as an art historical text. Building on his assertion in Art of the Electronic Age that art humanizes technology, Popper defines virtual art as a new departure in art, emphasizing interactivity, multisensorial perception, and a philosophical shift from the real to the virtual. The virtual for Popper involves technological art from 1980s onward in which interactivity, participation, and immersion create experiences that simulate reality rather than recreating it in physical form. Virtual art partakes in a larger social transformation, "the passage from a culture of objects and stability to a culture of flux and instability." Artists producing virtual art are developing a new aesthetic drawn from a commitment to both art and technology while their awareness of the social implications of their medium engages them in extra-artistic social and scientific goals, not the least of which is, precisely, the humanization of technology.

Popper offers his arguments for the category and term virtual art in his Introduction, where he also (all too briefly) presents his criteria for selecting artists and points out areas of new media, such as video and electronic music, that he has chosen to exclude in order to maintain a focused investigation. The opening chapters of the book summarize the historical antecedents of technological and virtual art and review some of the ground covered in Art of the Electronic Age. The major portion of the book consists of chapters largely constructed from interviews with artists, divided into various categories with introductory remarks by the author.

As a condensed scholarly survey, the opening chapters are immensely rewarding. There have been many scholarly constructions of the historical antecedents of electronic art and the development of practices that emerge from it. Few offer the range of Popper’s scholarship. Though often limited to brief paragraphs and lists of names, Popper’s text includes a broad array of tendencies and historical figures, some quite obscure, that populated the early 20th century avant-garde, and which often do not figure in standard histories, generally focused on painting and sculpture. He reveals how the ferment of experimentation of the early avant-garde in multisensorial and intermedia art works, light organs, responsive architecture, and procedural art, to mention but a few of the early experimental domains, seemed only to be lacking a proper instrument, as early electronic artists realized. Popper’s coverage of electronic art provides less of an inclusive survey, because he wishes to emphasize how itineraries followed by artists serve as models of the various ways that electronic media art developed. One could argue that the text privileges European constructivism, at least to a degree, but if it is idiosyncratic, it also has the virtue of giving pioneering artists who have escaped mainstream histories (and even digital art histories) some long overdue attention.

The major portion of the text presents works by individual artists active from approximately 1983 up to the present, distributed into four categories: materialized digital-based work, multimedia and multisensorial off-line works, interactive digital installations, and multimedia online works (net art). The line of increasing dematerialization that orders these chapters coincides, roughly, with a timeline from early virtual art to the most recent. Dematerialization proceeds both through increasing interactivity and participation and through shifting of delivery from off-line to online. If the inclusion of an artist in one category or another occasionally feels arbitrary, the utility of a systematic approach and the author’s care not to overstate the organizational scheme reduce the problematic nature of assigning categories.

Popper has developed his text from interviews and artist’s statements, and there is much valuable material here. When this presentational technique succeeds, it has the great virtue of giving us a sense of the artist’s voice and philosophy. Occasionally, it must be said, it is a source of annoyance, when artists lapse into language too personal or too overburdened with theoretical constructs to allow the reader to understand its connection to the artwork–an annoyance made all the more patent by the clarity of the author’s expression. One might wish that he had employed an editorial scalpel with greater zeal. Failing that–and one could certainly argue that the artist’s words should stand, whatever their failings, because they are the artist’s words–one could wish that Popper would elaborate more on his criteria and interest in the artists. It would hardly matter if his selection proved to be somewhat arbitrary, as one suspects any selection must be, if his critique revealed the same clarity that pervades his historical perspective. Indeed, readers hoping for a systematically developed theoretical apparatus should look elsewhere. Popper’s point of view is that of an art historian. In that capacity, he would rather let the artists speak and leave the apparatus in a provisional state, ready to go off in many directions, than overload the text with arguments and conclusions.

The book closes with Notes, Bibliography, Artist List, and Index, all useful. It would have been a great favor to researchers and other curious readers to provide the Artist List, which mostly consists of URLs, in online form. In an age when electronic resources commonly extend the utility of books, this omission is rather surprising.

Considering From Technological to Virtual Art as a whole, its flaws seem scarcely worth noting. This is a book that deserves a place on the shelf of any artist or historian seriously interested in new media art. Moreover, its utility lies not so much in its being a definitive history, but in the very provisionality of its conclusions and inclusions. The field of virtual art continues to evolve, in breadth and in complexity. The number of people working in the field has expanded beyond the capacity of any one historian to capture everything or everyone in a single text. The solidity of the markers that Popper sets down in the historical record, the precision with which he describes the advent of virtual art, and the historical value of the assembled interviews and documentation make this an indispensable text–not because it closes a line of argument, but because it opens up many. The most indispensable texts are those that urge others to research, document, and write. Let us hope that many more books, essays, and documents are already taking form, stimulated by From Technological to Virtual Art.



Updated 1st July 2007

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