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.
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.
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.