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Bits as Art

Thursday, March 15, 2001
by Mark Hurst

The growing awareness of bits - not just computer technology - has arrived in the art world. Consider these current exhibits around the country:

- Opened March 2: Networld, a permanent exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science, allows visitors to "walk inside a bitstream" (says a 3/19 Industry Standard blurb).

- Opened March 3: 010101, at SF Moma. (The online exhibit has been active for several months, though you'll need every plug-in known to man, and a huge amount of bandwidth, to view it at all.)

- Opening March 22: Two exhibits at the Whitney Museum of American Art here in New York. BitStreams and Data Dynamics, in the words of the Whitney, use "digital media to achieve new dimensions of artistic expression through the transformation of images, space, data, and sound." De-hyped English translation: we're using bits to make art. Cool.

I'm excited to see bits explored as art, since it will help us understand this new form of matter in a new way. Yet I see the limitations that (as always) bits bring to the issue. For example, how does one collect bit-based art? Let's say that you hang it in the flat-screen display on the bedroom wall... fine. Let's assume that art on flat screens becomes common. Now, what if your art crashes and you constantly need to reboot it? What happens if the operating system that runs your art goes out of production (so it no longer runs on your display), or needs constant upgrades? How do you know the value of your art, if a million exact copies might have been made before you bought it? Or if the art-bits were encrypted to protect the value, wouldn't you want a backup?

Now consider good old-fashioned atom-based art, where few of these questions even apply. Compared to bits, atoms are the ultimate persistent technology: they never need upgrades, they don't require a buggy operating system to run, and they aren't controlled by a Microsoft monopoly. (For now, at least.) Sure, atoms are vulnerable to fire and theft, but so are bits on a flat-screen display. Art-bits have all the vulnerabilities of art-atoms, but none of the upsides.

As far as I can tell, the only advantage to art-bits is that many new kinds of art and experiences can be created, which is why I'm looking forward to the Whitney exhibit. (If you can't make it to the Whitney, one good site dealing with bit-based art is Just keep in mind the limitations of those bits.

A final rant: Why do museum websites always confuse the exhibit with the simple pointer information about the exhibit? The BitStreams page is about as high-bandwidth as anything I've seen online. While I enjoyed clicking through the obscure interface, I know that most visitors to the page aren't blessed with a T-1 line, the Flash 5 plug-in, and lots of time and desire to play around with the floating buttons, just to extract basic information about the exhibit. The experience should focus on simple plain text and gif graphics to help people get to the exhibit, then let the exhibit itself immerse visitors in the compelling experience.

(Thanks to Christine, Heidi, and Cat for the pointers.)

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