There was a time when the artist was asked to humanize the machine. Now it's the informational technologies -- television and computers -- that need humanizing. Collaborative video artists Connie Coleman and Alan Powell are trying to do just that in an entertaining and occasionally challenging show of tapes, drawings and installations called "The Ballet Di.Gi.Tal."
Coleman and Powell work within a familiar framework. Commercial television, mass media and corporate culture are the formidable givens of technological "non-reality." It is the colossal combined force of media and corporate structures that dictates the false tenor of contemporary life. As Coleman has written, "Television has become the window that intertwines life and fiction to a such a degree that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other."
These artists take what is by now a stereotypical stance in itself, however. Coleman and Powell pit themselves against a pervasive and corrupting commercial technology by engaging the very tools of that technology. To deflect any implication of artistic taint they come down from their high-tech horse occasionally and use old-fashioned artist-approved practices -- drawings in the form of digital images (done by hand with felt-tip pens), a kind of printmaking executed on dot matrix printers and installations involving wall graphics, video and even a pseudo-naive figure sculpture.
That high-power technological processes have separated us from such natural phenomena as sunsets and butterflies should hardly be news to the non-reclusive population of America. It's also not a big surprise to find that the nightly news isn't all that objective and benign. And then the erotic content of commercials must go unnoticed only by creatures still replicating by binary fission.
This is the problem of the show: The critique is threadbare. Yes, the soaps do shamelessly manipulate the emotions. Real news, actual events, the lives of living, breathing people -- all these things are distorted by fake lives and fake news. But where doColeman and Powell fit into this technological blur? Are they providing alternatives. Comic relief?
They are, it turns out, most effective with parody and humor. "As the World Turns," a video installation, shows a crude male figure with a camcorder projecting from -- to use D.H. Lawrence's favorite term -- his "loins." The camera shoots a rotating globe of the world sitting on a table covered with popular magazines. The resulting image appears in a monitor installed in the man's head. As an ironic aside to classical knowledge, the ensemble is framed by classical columns and pediment. This is engaging and amusing.
They also ruffle the placid waters of TV with their tapes. It is here that technical skill and imagination most effectively come together. They take apart televangelists in "Sermon," for instance, with just enough post-production processing to make their point. In "Desire" they inflate the underlying erotics of commercials until ever drop of hand cream and every remotely phallic object is hilariously sexualized. The tapes effectively explode whole strings of stereotypical TV images.
But I wonder: Is this not an art of false redemption itself? Are we, the audience, the in-crowd? Do we know all about that evil technological empire spewing forth its daily poison? Or do the artists hope for an innocent somewhere in the audience who will say: "Wow! We really are a corrupt bunch here in America, aren't we?" It's the problem of art that invades the camp of the enemy.
The Ballet Di.Gi.Tal
Videos, video installations and drawings by the collaborative team Connie Coleman and Alan Powell.
Through June 30 at CEPA, 700 Main St.