March 16, 2000
High Tech Is the Art in San Francisco
By SALLY McGRANE
Cultural sea change is nothing new
to the Bay Area of San Francisco, and
the city that spawned the beats and
psychedelia now finds itself a few degrees
north of the technology revolution's epicenter. But is there room for art in the no-nonsense commercialism of the tech world,
where everybody has a business plan?
The answer, it turns out, is yes, with a
twist. A number of Bay Area artists are
taking the technology that is transforming
the area and making art with and about it.
Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
Rebeca Bollinger, a San Francisco artist who uses personal Web pages in her
work, says she is "equally disgusted with and passionately seduced by"
Several factors make the Bay Area a
fertile region for technology-related art.
Artists there are surrounded by technology
as dot-com companies take over industrial
neighborhoods that were once artists'
haunts. Splashy Internet advertising plasters billboards and dominates radio spots.
There are also last year's products, discarded by the tech industry but still useful
to artists, as is technological know-how.
"Technology is in the atmosphere here,"
said Jim Campbell, a San Francisco-based
technology artist. Mr. Campbell, who works
in Silicon Valley as a hardware engineer
three days a week, said that the Bay Area
creates an environment in which technology
and art feed off each other. He is working on
a piece that explores compression technology and the impact it has on information
and meaning -- because, he said, "I've been
working with compression in my job, making 40 or 50 pixels represent something."
Ken Goldberg, a technology artist who is
also an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said there
was no question that the technology revolution was making itself felt in art circles. "In
some way," he said, "all artists in the Bay
Area are directly or indirectly responding to
technology because it is so pervasive here."
Nonetheless, art and technology often
have an uneasy relationship. Rebeca Bollinger, a San Francisco artist who uses the
Internet in much of her work, said she was
"equally disgusted with and passionately
seduced by" technology.
"I try hard to be on
the outside of what's going on in the industry," she said. "I get so sick and tired of all
the technology propaganda. I'm sick of all
"We're so immersed in the economy of it.
If you go to other parts of the country, you
see that it's totally different. But what's
happening here will happen there, eventually. We're living in this strange space of
In some cases, companies and organizations in the high-tech field have embraced --
and financed -- existing art groups. Survival Research Laboratories, for instance, a
prominent feature of the alternative Bay
Area landscape since Mark Pauline founded
it in 1978, builds large robots and creates
violent spectacles where machines wreak
destruction on one another. More recently,
the group integrated the Internet into its art,
connecting laptops to the robots and allowing remote Internet users to aim and fire
powerful machinery during shows.
"Probably since 1992 all of our shows
have been affiliated with organizations related to technology," said Mr. Pauline, who
has created events for clients like the publisher Miller Freeman, Wired magazine and
Webzine99, a San Francisco conference for
Internet-based alternative magazines.
But while the booming economy has
brought in money that has benefited artists,
it could also impose restraints. Eric Paulos,
director of the Experimental Interaction
Unit, an art group, pointed out that being
employed in the technology sector could
limit artistic freedom, especially if an artist's projects are critical of technology.
"It's hard to do anything too controversial
if you're at a dot-com," he said. "This is an
incredible time because you can do creative
expression -- design work -- and get paid.
But if what you're doing is driven by money,
you're not really in control."
Every other Thursday, arts@large reports on the intersection of technology and the arts, including Web-based art exhibits, interactive music, hypertext fiction and other expressions of digital creativity.
Mr. Paulos said he made a point of distancing his work -- which includes a vending machine that sells a mock lethal pathogen and tracks users' identities -- from his
role as a graduate student at Berkeley's
computer science department to maintain
his artistic autonomy.
Ray Thomas, on the other hand, is firmly
in the anti-tech camp. A spokesman for
RTMark, a kind of cyberguerrilla group
known for lampooning politicians and making mischief for corporations, Mr. Thomas
pointed to escalating rents as a death knell
for art. "Silicon Valley has basically destroyed the art scene in the Bay Area by
bringing in so much money and so many
people," he said.
Many of his artist friends are moving to
cities like Los Angeles, where rents are
"It's basically so demoralizing, people don't even have energy to make art
about it," Mr. Thomas said.
In a few cases, technology companies are
looking to artists for new ideas that could
lead to the development of new technology.
Corporate research centers like the Interval
Research Corporation and the Xerox Palo
Alto Research Center are financing artists
in residence. Michael Naimark, an artist at
Interval, said: "It's a funny situation right
now, because there really isn't an N.E.A. to
support experimental work, and there's so
much money and activity in high technology. The question is, how do artists fit in?
Nobody really has the answer."
They do appear to fit in better in the Bay
Area than down the road in Silicon Valley
itself, which is generally acknowledged as
not having much of an art scene (although a
foundation for art and technology in the
Valley is in the works). When asked about
art in Silicon Valley, John Weber, a curator
at the San Francisco Museum of Modern
Art, said: "In Silicon Valley? They work.
That's all they do. When they get interested
in art, they move."