Hans Gremmen with Monique Gofers, Empty Trashcan, 2004
You probably spend hours a day staring at this screen working, playing, talking to friends, shopping. With so many creative people spending so much time on their computers it is no surprise that the computer interface itself has become source material for contemporary art. Daily immersion in a two-dimensional space has raised an intriguing question that many contemporary artists can't resist: what is the physicality of the screen? The ubiquitous interface experience has created a symbiosis between the metaphorical space of the computer and the physical world.
Jan Robert Leegte, Scrollbar, 2002
The boundary between the screen and life started blurring with the first graphical user interface. Architectural metaphors like the desktop and the window were used to make the screen more intuitive. But these interfaces have gained so much symbolic importance in our lives that they have left their metaphorical antecedents behind. In his series of scrollbar pieces Jan Robert Leegte makes luminous recreations of browser handles. The sculptures are reminiscent of Dan Flavin's work both artists are interested in light and space. But Leegte is exploring a dimensionality that was designed to be viewed flat, from a single perspective. There is no precedent for what kind of shadow the glow of a browser casts. The integral role the screen plays in our lives has created a hybrid between two and three dimensions. Leegte is one of many artists attempting to render this two-and-a-half dimensional space.
Liron Ross, Masking Tape Folder, 2002
Liron Ross' Masking Tape Folder is instantly recognizable as a recreation of the folder icon rather than an actual folder. The universality of the interface experience has made the folder a potent symbol. Once a humble office supply, the folder has become the system by which we organize everything in our virtual lives music, contacts, messages, movies, etc. Because of this, the digital notation for a folder has far more currency than the object itself. This inversion of phsycial and digital forms raises the question of the materiality of the folder Liron's piece is an interpretation of what the desktop icon might feel like if it could be touched.
Cory Arcangel, Disassembling 48K, installation view Migros Museum, Zurich, Switzerland, 2005
Of course the dominant architectural metaphor of the computer interface is the screen itself (and the many smaller screens that populate it). But many people have a more intimate experience with the video game screen than the computer screen. In his series Disassembling 48K Cory Arcangel hacks 8-bit Nintendo games to remove everything except spatial/environmental elements and then projects the resulting landscapes onto the walls of the gallery. The reduced visual grammar is unexpectedly resonant with modern architecure's agenda of reduction and abstraction of space. In a recent collaboration with the art collective Paper Rad, Arcangel further muddles the boundary between 2-D and 3-D by presenting a movie inside the Super Mario Brothers video game.
Doug Aitken, Sleepwalkers, 2007
Doug Aitken's recent installation Sleepwalkers on view at (actually, on) MoMa, transformed the entire neighborhood around the museum into a screened environment rivalling its neighbor to the West, Times Square. Inigo Manglano-Ovalle's work makes a more explicit connection with architecture. Mies van der Rohe is a recurring presence in his video installations, particularly the curtains of glass Mies created in such buildings as the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago where Manglano-Ovalle filmed his installation Climate in 2000. The proliferation of screens for advertising is a topic that has been well documented but these installations recreate the deeply personal way that narratives are constructed and combined on screen.
Dahn Vo, detail from Exhibition at My Parents' Home, 2004
Other artists' use of interface elements is purely incidental. For example, Danh Vo's work explores his experience as a Vietnamese refugee in Denmark. Much of his work involves communicating with figures of authority or artists who have influenced him. These communications are presented matter-of-factly in whatever form they were made: an official letter from the German police, or an e-mail from Robert Gober (shown here). The work is not about technology but in the same way that collage has always captured the editorial design of its era, this contemporary mail-art project records the Hotmail interface as a commonplace aspect of the artist's everyday life.
Over the last decade artists have recorded the rapid evolution of the computer interface. Leegte's scrollbars reference the windows32 gui (95, 98); the tan color of Ross' Folder reveals that he works on a PC; Hotmail is already in decline from it's heyday as the premiere webmail application. These anachronisms are also part of what makes Hans Gremmen's desktop sculpture so compelling as well. The elements of the "desktop" he recreates have almost as much nostalgic appeal as the schoolhouse chair featured in the piece: the font suitcase he so wittily constructed will soon be as obscure as the typecase it replaced in the designer's office. But these works also reveal that changes to our sense of place are far more subtle and unpredictable than the regular progress of technological change.