Biennale de Lyon

Culture trickles down in France, and computer culture is no exception. Just like the television set in the ’50s and ’60s, which was for a long time a luxury item, personal computers—much less CD-Rom players or Internet connections—are by no means widespread. Only about 10 percent of French households have computers, and only 10 percent of these are connected to the Internet or an online service, while the number of CD players is estimated at 500,000. This means, for the moment at least, that the art that has sprung up around these new technologies is remote from most people’s experience, but not necessarily in the same way as “classic” avant-garde production. Indeed, the teenager who has grown up with video games and MTV is likely to have more insight into the new “electronic” or “multimedia” art than the museum curator.

The third Lyon biennial of contemporary art is both a product and an illustration of this situation. In an obvious attempt to tap a more general public, 64 artists variously working in film, photography, video, and performance—with a dash of Internet for good measure—were brought together under the somewhat misleading banner of the “moving image.” Notwithstanding this gesture toward Lyon’s native sons Auguste and Louis Lumière in the centennial year of the French cinema, the biennial’s “historical” section of 23 works began only in 1963 with the respective video distortions of Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell. A bit like the dinosaurs in a natural history museum, these and other relics of what may well be the prehistory of multimedia art—Bruce Nauman’s “Video Corridor” pieces, 1969–70, Michael Snow’s De La, 1969–72, Dan Graham’s Body Press, 1970–72, Steina and Woody Vasulka’s Machine Vision, 1976, Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s videos and photographs of their performances, 1977–80—are displayed in the spanking new galleries of the Lyon Museum of Contemporary Art. Seen out of time and out of context, few of these works are inherently captivating, and this may be the ultimate revenge of their creators, who were at the time doing their anti-institutional best to stay out of museums.

The one glorious exception to the taxidermy syndrome is Bill Viola’s 1976 video installation He Weeps for You, which manages to encapsulate the viewer, the gallery, and the world in a single drop of water. Unlike much of the gadgetry that is presented today under the heading of multimedia art, Viola’s installation uses technology as a means and not as an end in itself, for, as he puts it, “Art is about people, not machines. John Coltrane’s saxophone is not the music.”

This lesson seems to have been lost on a number of the artists featured in the contemporary section, with its virtual sofas, automatic pianos, and endless feats of digitized illusionism presented in the Palais des Congrès. Like He Weeps for Us, the few recent works that succeed in engaging rather than amusing their audience create environments that transcend both the space and the time of the exhibition. Teiji Furuhashi’s Lovers, 1995, for example, is a kind of virtual performance of words, sounds, and human figures orchestrated by the movements of visitors in the room. Keun Byung Yook’s The Sound of Landscape + Eye for Field Survival Is History, 1995, similarly transforms an audiovisual installation into an environment, this time through the continuous projection of archival film footage recapitulating the less glorious moments of recent history. And perhaps most audaciously, Muntadas’ File Room, 1994– , an interactive computer archive of cultural censorship, was physically installed at the biennial (as it was at the Chicago Cultural Center and elsewhere), but also has a continuous presence on the Internet, where it is consulted, and updated, by hundreds of people every day.

If works such as these do not really lend themselves to being “exhibited,” they are, by contrast, extremely well presented on the CD-ROM that accompanied the show. First of all, the CD-ROM’s much-vaunted possibilities of combining image, sound, movement, and text are particularly appropriate for reproducing works that are themselves “multimedia.” In addition, the introduction of brief video interviews with each of the artists—in their native languages, subtitled in French and English—adds a vital human dimension. But beyond this very intelligent use of the CD-ROM’s inherent properties, there is a no-frills approach to the presentation—it essentially functions like a database—providing a welcome contrast to the prevailing multimedia esthetic of overkill, as seen in this show and elsewhere.

Miriam Rosen