On Little Italy's Western edge, on the twelfth and top floor of a yellowed twenties office building, Jeremy Blake is entertaining a Very Important Person. Greeting his guest, Blake navigates around a computer workstation, a diminutive combo TV-VCR, and an equipment-strewn desk. The room's only real highlight is a small orange vinyl divan, which the lanky, dark-haired 29-year-old artist offers his visitor. Something moves Blake to pardon his studio's relative plainness. "People come expecting to see a lot of bells and whistles and lights and buzzers," he says, "but it's just a couple of Macs."
Apology unnecessary: The Macintoshes are what the VIP has come to see. Blake, a CalArts graduate with a master's in painting, has been working mostly on a computer for nearly five years. He's met with considerable success, showing what his dealer calls "digital paintings" around New York and in a few European museums.
Now he's deep in the middle of working on Station to Station -- his most ambitious piece yet -- for the Whitney Museum of American Art. Today's visitor is the Whitney's newest contemporary-art curator, Larry Rinder.
Ultimately, Station to Station will appear on five adjacent 50-inch plasma screens mounted on the Whitney's walls just like paintings. For now, though, Blake has prepared an elaborate demo on one of his Macs. He's based the piece on something he saw painted on a bank of lockers in a Tokyo subway -- a mural of a modernist office building in a grassy corporate park. He clicks a play button. As the building's windows shimmer and gradually change colors, some of the locker doors slide open, like portals on the Starship Enterprise. The mural disintegrates, revealing a more abstract stained-glassy world within the lockers. Indiglo-toned mist -- mountain fog? Terrorist nerve gas? -- seeps from behind the wall. The fumes make a startling hissing sound from previously unseen speakers. Eventually, the peaceful mural reemerges, and we're back in front of the subway lockers. But whatever we thought we might have been looking at is now tainted with an air of instability, even danger.
Rinder coos at the screen shots and transitions -- "interesting," "great," "beautiful" -- then turns the conversation to what kind of seating to put in front of the wall where the piece will hang. Left unresolved is how the museum will describe the work. It certainly isn't a painting -- paintings don't have play buttons. Video art? But there's no camera. Perhaps it's virtual architecture. Or . . .
Actually, Blake's work is all those and none of them. But the real point is that categories don't matter -- at its best, digital art is making them obsolete. "When I was painting, I was envious of other media -- I never wanted to be part of a club that would have me," says Blake, who looks a bit like Quentin Tarantino without the pug scowl. "I like to hang out with musicians; I like that culture's immediacy. I love film, but making a film was not practical as a 24-year-old with no money. Doing something with a computer was." Working digital, he says, lets him "get the most out of everything I think is interesting."
"Five years ago, most digital artists were geek artists, whereas now it's artists who are really good with technology."
Digital artists are about to break down another boundary: the one between them and the art world's upper echelons. The Whitney's "BitStreams" exhibition, which opens March 22, is the first show devoted to such work at a major New York museum. Almost simultaneously, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has opened "010101: Art in Technological Times" -- an even broader survey of tech-influenced artwork. Downtown, a new media-arts umbrella organization called Eyebeam Atelier is raising $40 million for a new 90,000-square-foot art-and-technology museum set to come online, as it were, in Chelsea in 2004. And after several years of mainly watching from the sidelines, more New York galleries are showing -- and even selling -- digital work. "It's finally beginning seriously to infiltrate the collector system," says Sandra Gering, a dealer who has been representing new-media artists since 1993.
"It's astonishing how much work out there has been touched by or embodies digital technology," says Rinder, his eyes growing wide with appetite. "It's like the genetically manipulated corn thing -- what food isn't it in?"
In the wake of the dot-com bust, art that involves technology might sound like a trend that should have crested a year ago. But experts say it just needed time to grow up. "Digital art is like soccer -- it never attracted the best athletes until this generation," asserts Mark Tribe, founder of the pioneering art site Rhizome. "A huge amount of talent is now pouring into this league. Five years ago, most digital artists were geek artists, whereas now it's artists who are really good with technology."
Museum professionals are getting better with it, too: Like most everyone else, almost every curator and foundation officer in the country is now at least conversant with computers. "As a practical matter," Tribe says, "we've reached a tipping point."
Now that they've seen the glowing blue light, no one in the museum world wants to be caught missing the Next Big Thing. The Museum of Modern Art's Barbara London, an associate curator who specializes in new media, says the country's major contemporary-art institutions are making long-term commitments to supporting digital artists. "We're all taking it on in a bigger way," she says. "Digital's not going away."
For the Whitney, recent history has raised the stakes somewhat. Its former director David Ross is widely recognized as a tech-art visionary, having made his reputation with early and vociferous support of both video and Internet art. He left his Madison Avenue perch in 1998 to head sfmoma, taking Intel, which spent $6 million sponsoring Ross's two-part blockbuster "American Century" show, along with him. In terms of making the Whitney a haven for art and technology, Ross left his successor, Maxwell Anderson, with a tough act to follow. "It's been interesting to see Max Anderson position himself as David's competitor in terms of support for digital art," observes Andrea Scott, a critic and consultant who has worked on both coasts. "It is not a coincidence 'BitStreams' is happening when it is."
"It's not that we hope to be first," Anderson retorts coolly. "I assumed that '010101' would be opening on 01/01/01." (The sfmoma show's online component did in fact launch New Year's Day.) The Whitney's goal, he maintains, is simply to support emerging artists. "We like to crack open the egg before it's boiled."
Anderson has certainly had a longstanding interest in the Net, partly for its practical potential. Until recently, he seems to have focused most of his tech energies on projects like Web-based image banks and the Art Museum Network site. As far as actually showing digital work, though, the pieces in the group-curated 2000 Biennial marked a turning point. For one thing, a star emerged: Paul Pfeiffer, whose digital-video loops of Knicks forward Larry Johnson and a couch-humping Tom Cruise (sampled from Risky Business) earned him the first-ever Bucksbaum Award, a $100,000 best-in-show prize. Among those instrumental in picking new-media artists for the Biennial was Larry Rinder, then based in the Bay Area, whom Anderson hired full-time shortly before the show opened. It was a neat (if inadvertent) quid pro quo: David Ross had tapped longtime New York curator Benjamin Weil as sfmoma's new-media man a few months earlier.
Transferring east last June, Rinder, 39, was given just nine months to assemble "BitStreams," his true New York debut. (By contrast, "010101" was twice as long in the making.) Aided by associate curator Debra Singer, who chose the exhibition's portfolio of two dozen audio artists -- and by the traditional Whitney stricture that he show only American work -- Rinder sought out painting, photography, video, sculpture, installations, and assorted hybrids thereof. Everything was fair game as long as it in some way resonated with "the conditions of life in a digital age," says the curator: "It's not enough to prostrate before technology, or recoil from it in horror." Instead, he preferred an informed ambivalence.