PRINT May 2023


!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Ashley Madison Angels at Work in Fort Worth, 2023, LCD screens, metal trolley stands, video player, cables, pink lighting gels, neon lights, five-channel HD video (color, sound, 8 minutes 7 seconds). Installation view, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Photo: Kevin Todora.

TWENTY YEARS AGO, debates on the presence of screens in art museums centered on issues of space. Artists, art historians, and curators saw the projected image as a site of tension between the physical environment of the gallery and the illusory space on-screen, between embodied and cinematic modes of spectatorship. In more recent years, the proliferation of digital screens has complicated matters, giving audiences—or users—the power not just to view but to act on virtual and physically distant spaces. Such developments have, in turn, had major consequences for the institutional experience of digital art. The art historian Kate Mondloch has proposed that digital screens exacerbate the “spatial uncertainties” of earlier projected images, instigating a “tug-of-war between being ‘both here and there’—psychologically and physically invested simultaneously in the physical gallery space and in screen spaces—and being ‘neither here nor there’—being overcome by so many screen-reliant spaces as to be effectively prevented from being consciously present in any of them.” Profoundly destabilizing for the individual, this condition also disrupts the kind of focused, contemplative viewing that museums have historically sought to foster.

“I’ll Be Your Mirror: Art and the Digital Screen,” organized by Alison Hearst for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, was a case study in the circumstances Mondloch describes. Encompassing the work of fifty artists variously engaged in analog and digital media, the exhibition cast its net far beyond the early days of video art to include computer art, video installation, internet art, AI-generated work, augmented-reality pieces, and artworks minted as NFTs. Also included were montages of found images culled from the internet, paintings informed or generated by digital technologies, and sculptural objects produced through the amassing and repurposing of electronic waste. The exhibition began its chronology in 1969—the year of the televised moon landing and the launch of the early computer network Arpanet—and extended to the present day. This expansive remit made for a cacophonous, sometimes entertaining, but often incoherent viewing experience, one that exposed the challenges involved in wrestling with a topic as multifarious as the “digital screen.”

View of “I’ll Be Your Mirror: Art and the Digital Screen,” 2023, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Foreground: Simon Denny, NFT Mine Offset: ETH Ethereum Miner 3 GPUs miner, 2021. Background: Simon Denny, NFT Mine Offset, ETH Ethereum Miner 3 GPUs, 2021. Photo: Kevin Todora.

Hearst organized the exhibition around nine themes that, she acknowledged, were porous and overlapping. Some headings, like “Connectivity” and “Sur­veillance,” are so ubiquitous in discussions of screen culture that they were of little use in contextualizing or illuminating the strategies on display. The show clustered most of the works produced between the 1960s and the ’90s in the first room under the heading “Liminal Space.” There, visitors were greeted by a 1992 iteration of Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha, pointing to the show’s central thesis: that screens “hold up a mirror to society and contribute to forming meaning in life and mainstream culture.” In Paik’s iconic work, a Buddha statue appears to contemplate its own image on a monitor in a continuous feedback loop made possible by CCTV.

At the Modern, this monitor was positioned in front of a temporary wall that separated it from—and connected it to—Lynn Hershman Leeson’s pioneering interactive installation Lorna, 1979–84, which likewise centers on a figure staring at a television screen. That figure is the viewer, who is invited to enter the apartment of the fictional Lorna, sit in her chair, and use a remote control to navigate thirty-six chapters on a videodisc (originally a LaserDisc) displayed on a monitor. Piecing together Lorna’s agoraphobic existence, the viewer negotiates the various chapters and makes decisions that can lead to the character’s suicide, her continued confinement, or the violent destruction of her television set. Viewing this work in conjunction with Paik’s better-known installation was revealing. Whereas Paik’s work highlights the video screen’s liveness and immediacy, qualities that lend it a mirrorlike aspect, Lorna treats the screen as a permeable interface through which users can manipulate other subjects and spaces with potentially catastrophic results.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Lorna (detail), 1979–84, still from the interactive digital videodisc component (sound, color, indefinite duration) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising television, modified remote control, television cabinet, night table, end table, wood chair, upholstered chair, mirror, fishbowl with plastic goldfish, clothing, wallet, belt, shoes, watch, telephone, magazines, framed storyboards, framed art.

The multitude of screens in “I’ll Be Your Mirror”—not to mention the smartphones in all our pockets—situated viewers in a perplexing yet ever more familiar space that was, per Mondloch, “neither here nor there.” Tadao Ando’s building facilitated this effect, coaxing visitors around, into, and out of the central exhibition spaces housed by the structure’s five pavilions, the multidirectional flow sometimes feeling symptomatic of curatorial uncertainty. Some works appeared in one group in the catalogue, only to be rearranged in the exhibition. In the publication, for instance, Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds, 2002, was discussed in the context of video game culture with works by Cassie McQuater and Eva and Franco Mattes, but in the show, it was projected across an entire wall alongside paintings by Jacqueline Humphries and Laura Owens, alluding to a shared digital aesthetic. This confusion felt especially pointed in the gallery dedicated to “The Posthuman Body.” There, paintings by Caitlin Cherry and Avery Singer jostled for space with an early webcam video by Petra Cortright, a machinima film by Carson Lynn, and AR face filters by Huntrezz Janos, in a chaotic installation that distracted and detracted from every work involved. Formal resemblances triumphed with little consideration for the divergent modes of spectatorship the various works invited.

More compelling was the section headed “Ecology,” which explored the environmental impact of digital technologies and exhibited a legible curatorial throughline. Two of Simon Denny’s NFT Mine Offsets from 2021 displayed homemade ethereum miners, the high-powered computers used to create, authenticate, and add new transactions to the blockchain prior to the cryptocurrency platform’s transition to a supposedly more energy-efficient proof-of-stake system in 2022. Denny purchased the miners on eBay, retiring them from the network and donating their processing power to an environmental-research project that uses such computers to model the outcomes of climate change. Presenting these objects as readymade sculptures and digital animation, Denny’s project made ethereum miners palpable as emphatically physical, polluting machines. Nearby, Rick Silva’s Western Fronts: Cascade Siskiyou, Gold Butte, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Bears Ears, 2018, demonstrated a similar point, splicing drone footage with 3D animation to envisage the threat of resource extraction posed to Indigenous public lands after the Trump administration loosened protections for national monuments. Here, too, the digital’s supposed immateriality is betrayed by its brute ecological impact. Opposite, Elias Sime repurposed Western consumer electronics gathered from markets in Ethiopia to create an intricate, multipanel relief sculpture, updating the Rauschenbergian assemblage for the age of the global electronic waste trade.

Gretchen Bender, Total Recall (detail), 1987, twenty-four monitors, three rear-projection screens, video and 16 mm transferred to eight-channel digital video (color, sound, 18 minutes 2 seconds). Installation view, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2023. Photo: Evie Marie Bishop. © Gretchen Bender Estate.

Intriguingly, the works that fared best in “I’ll Be Your Mirror” were those presented in spaces of their own—including the frenetic, gyrating spectacle that was Gretchen Bender’s Total Recall, 1987; Hito Steyerl’s two-room installation How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Educational Didactic .MOV File, 2013, which extends the screen’s historical function as a form of concealment and camouflage; and Arthur Jafa’s The White Album, 2018, which exposes and dismantles whiteness in a video collage that is by turns excoriating, tender, and chilling. These works demanded—and were granted—the viewer’s full attention, even as they amplified and parodied aspects of screen culture. Bender once proposed that her work deliberately invited the scanning televisual gaze to which ’80s audiences had become habituated, explaining that she “turned up the voltage” to estrange and critique that gaze. Perhaps museums should follow suit. If digital culture’s modes of spectatorship have, inevitably, come to bear on the experience of art-viewing, institutions must endeavor to critically examine that spectatorship, presenting works of digital art in ways that do not flatten but individuate and make legible their specific effects—thus freeing us from ingrained ways of looking. 

Anna Lovatt is associate professor of art history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.