Libraries have long been at the cutting edge when it comes to computer technology. The venerable card catalog has become virtually extinct, replaced by banks of PCs connected to online databases. Web surfing is now as common an activity in most libraries as newspaper and magazine browsing. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that several recent artworks installed in new Seattle libraries should also focus on the electronic processing of information. The newest and most high-profile of these computer-based artworks was unveiled this week at the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library, and it provides an interesting contrast to another piece of cyber art installed last spring at the Ballard branch. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, has recently visited the two libraries, and he joins us with his thoughts.
Alexander Calder is not the first person that comes to mind when one considers the current enthusiasm for interactive computer art, but who else was the first to fabricate sculptures that moved? Fountains, and theatrical designs provided generations of earlier artists with a way to surround their works with activity, but the mobile was the first sculpture where movement and modification was designed into the piece itself. When Calder, with his extensive background as a mechanical engineer, set flat, abstract shapes into motion by the interaction of weight, wires, and wind, he became in a sense the granddaddy of the interactive, electronic art movement of today. To the traditional sculptural attributes of size, shape, and weight he added another dimension — the arc of change over time.
Engineers and artists began to collaborate on a more regular basis in the 1960s, creating sculptures that whizzed, hummed, and even in one notable case, self-destructed. But interactive electronic art didn’t really take off until the advent of the personal computer, and the ability it gave enterprising artists to create works that could respond to input from the surrounding environment. The past two decades have seen an explosion of work, particularly in Europe, that uses sound, light, and movement to activate an electronic response, most usually in a public setting. We’re no longer surprised if the drinking fountain at an airport or the sink in a washroom begins to talk back, or if something with the look and feel of a computer game appears on the walls of a museum or the lobby of an airport. The increasing speed and sophistication of both computers and video technology is only intensifying artists’ interest in this field, and the general public’s gee-whiz response is far from being exhausted.
But it’s inevitable that as a creative field matures, repetition and cliché make their appearance. Perhaps the panel that selected the Donald Fels and his team for the artwork inside the Seattle Public Library Ballard Branch was hoping for something bold and exciting, but the resulting work hops on the electronic art bandwagon without any interesting ideas of its own, the cyber equivalent of the thousands of Calder mobile knock-offs that now clutter the gift shops of the world. Consisting of eight panels that hang down from the library ceiling like space heaters, the piece takes information collected by an array of weather instruments on the roof and displays it as a sort of animated bar graph. Orange, electronic stripes rise and fall in a seemingly random pattern, with no more visual dazzle than the control panel of a digital tape deck, difficult to see from below and hardly worth the trouble. The piece treats the weather information — wind speed, temperature, rainfall, etc. — as mere fodder for the art, thus granting us neither information nor visual reward for all our neck craning. Perhaps the art’s saving grace is its invisibility, unnoticed overhead by all but a handful of the library’s patrons, who may be forgiven for assuming that the library has no public art at all.
No one can miss, on the other hand, the spectacular new electronic work by California artist and cyber-guru George Legrady, just installed at data central on the reference floor of the new downtown library. Clearly, this is a library that takes its own metaphors seriously. Library planners have long referred to the 5th floor as a “trading floor for information.” Already in place were the exchange clients (library patrons), traders with wireless communication devices (librarians), rows of computer terminals and a high-tech setting of stainless steel and glass. Legrady decided to complete the marketplace metaphor with a sort of information-age ticker tape, where the flow of books and ideas could be tracked like the stock prices of General Motors and Microsoft, but here meant for general edification and stimulation, rather than monetary enrichment.
Legrady, whose degree is in art and whose background is in photography, visualized the ticker tape as a series of charts, electronically animated and flowing across 6 jumbo sized plasma screens mounted above the long librarians’ desk. Each chart — there are currently four, displayed in sequence - represents a different way of analyzing checkout data from the previous hour’s activity at the Central Library, and all are visually striking. Most straightforward is a chart called “Statistics,” which simply displays running totals from various categories of materials - books, CDs, videos — like the accumulating numbers on election-night TV, except there are no winners of losers. Most interesting is the visualization called “Keyword map,” reminiscent in a vague way of the comic diagrams purporting to show the divisions of a man’s brain into unequally-sized sections devoted to food, sports, sex, work, relationships. Here the collective brain of the library’s patrons is made visible by the appearance of hundreds of keywords, color-coded and weighted by category and popularity. A web of energetic white lines zip across the screen, connecting the keywords to the classification of the books they came from — history or science, biography or art. The keywords I saw (they are on the inside title page of most books) included some of the usual suspects, at least for a Seattle audience: “Therapy,” “Yoga,” “Technology,” “Plants,” as well as some intriguing outliers: “Bomb,” “Control,” “Pressure.” In the other two display modes, the titles themselves float across the screen, either swimming from left to right like tropical fish, or floating down like snow, in neat Dewey Decimal rows. This last display is the most reminiscent of the arrival and departure screens at airports — another rather apt metaphor for watching library media as they depart for points unknown.
Legrady, a Hungarian expatriate who has been experimenting with digital art since the late 1980s, plans to monitor the installation — titled “Making Visible the Invisible” — over time, looking for evidence that the behavior of library patrons might be modified by the presence of the artwork itself. In fact, not everyone who encounters the Legrady piece will realize that it is, in fact, a work of art. Legrady’s ambition is to blend information and visualization in a poetic way, but one suspects that in the library piece the requirements of including so much legible content trumped over the artist’s natural desire to create compelling form. A look at Legrady’s other work, visible on his fascinating website http://www.georgelegrady.com reveals that this is in fact the case. Left to his own devices, Legrady is as good as any artist I have seen at creating visually compelling abstractions using high-tech tools, such as his recent panels in a mass transit station in Santa Monica, which transforms traffic data into dazzling patterns of light and color, more visionary and compelling than the far more prolix animated charts in Seattle.
But does that matter? In this case, probably not. I’m not sure I would enjoy looking at Making Visible the Invisible on the walls of an office building. But in the new library, where there is no shortage of surrounding visual stimulation (and excellent public art), the six new panels will surely act as a popular focal point and a civic self-portrait, a fitting centerpiece for a building that is all about access, transparency, collectivity and connection.