The digerarti

 ‘Pixilerations’ plugs in Providence art
By GREG COOK  |  October 2, 2009

Strapped into Erik Conrad’s electronic vest, I stood waiting for the personal digital assistant, attached by a wire to the outfit, to make a GPS connection. Conrad, who resides in Buffalo, New York, GPS-tagged several Providence buildings, converted their images into sound, and “then optimized for vibrotactile playback,” which I was supposed to be feeling through the vest.

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ADDING IT UP Christina Erickson’s Debt Reducer.

The project, titled Bark Rubbings: City As Forest, is the artist’s contribution to the First Works Festival’s “Pixilerations [v. 6]” (through October 11), the sixth annual roundup of digital art and music. When I picked the outfit up at RISD’s Sol Koffler Gallery (169 Weybosset Street, Providence), Maya Allison, “Pixilerations” director as well as gallery director at 5 Traverse, advised: “If the vest gets too intense you can loosen it up or turn it off.” This sounded promising.

I strolled over to Kennedy Plaza in Conrad’s vest and explored. Somewhere along the way, I realized that the wired-up vest looked like suicide-bomber fashion and I was heading to a transit hub. Oh, goodness. Every cop car that rolled past had me envisioning myself at gunpoint trying to explain. “Officer, it’s some sort of art project. I think it’s supposed to massage me or something, but it doesn’t seem to be working.” Then I get sent to Gitmo.

Actually, no one paid me much attention. The vest dug uncomfortably into my upper back — it may have been bulky batteries or motors — but nothing electronic seemed to happen. And that was it.

There are two common risks to digital art: (1) technical difficulties and (2) artists getting so caught up in the programming and wiring that content seems neglected. “Pixilerations” frustratingly runs into both problems.

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DOWN ON ITS LUCK Andrew Ames’ Space Invader Returns Home.

At 5 Traverse (5 Traverse Street, Providence), Paul Myoda of Chepachet hung a chandelier resembling a probe droid from Star Wars. Motion sensors trigger it to spin and strobe lights. German artist Christin Bolewski reimagined traditional Chinese landscape drawings as a scrolling video of photos and digital models of mountains, animated snow, and video of mountain climbers. Also check out Bostonian Andrew Ames’s joke electronic sculpture: a down on its luck, panhandling Space Invader. Each of these was amusing, if not particularly trenchant.

The Sol Koffler exhibit leans toward interactive computer projections. Several were high-tech exercises in graphing, like Setauket, New York, artist Christina Erickson’s Debt Reducer, which projects tallies of the national debt, average student loan debt, and the average visitor debt across a corseted dressmaker’s dummy. A laptop invites you to input your personal debt total, triggering (it seemed) a machine to tighten the corset. The symbolism is too obvious.

Providence artist Clement Valla wrote a computer program to generate McDunco, which projected scrambled versions of highway signs for McDonald’s, Home Depot, Mobil, and the like on to the wall. “McLet: Peek House.” “Vro bank: the America smile.” “The Home Kinger.” We all know that advertising leeches and distorts meaning; to push this into purposeful nonsense just feels irritating.

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