ITS eyes hold your gaze for a split second before they dart
around the room again - restless, searching, sad. It stands on its
three legs as gracefully as a lost animal, head slightly cocked as
if ready for flight. One can't help but smile at the sad machine
with its computer-generated video eyes and its computer brain
balanced atop the skinny tripod legs. Aptly named "Voyeur" by its
maker, Alan Rath, this weird work of art cannot participate in the
life it appears to observe.
A machine that evokes pathos, that begs for identification with
its "plight," could only exist in the art world. And many of Mr.
Rath's electronic works, in the four-room exhibit at the Walker Art
Institute in Minneapolis, just now raise issues best expressed in
the context of art. His works question the place of technology in
our lives, but they quite obviously do not disparage that
Alan Rath is no cynic: His creations are witty, many of them
wise, and a few quite touching. He offers appropriate cautionary
tales about the misuse of machines and then cheerfully puts them to
good use. His is a beguiling, friendly, even inspired view of the
technological world. We tend to think of art as man-made rather than
machine-made, but here the machines are made by Rath's hand, from
scratch, and he clearly revels in the systems he creates. So there
is a buoyant sense of joy in his work. You see that joy in the
children's response to "Bumper II," a large speaker on a tripod that
huffs and puffs at odd intervals as it makes them jump and then
giggle when they've come too close to the apparently static piece.
RATH came to art through the backdoor not long ago. Trained in
electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he
had begun a lucrative career in industry when he saw an exhibit in
London of kinetic sculpture that started a chain reaction in his own
thought. He came home from that business trip and resigned his job,
still not knowing what he wanted to do. Having written his
engineering master's thesis on electronic computer-controlled light
sculpture, he had made friends among art students and faculty, and
he joined one of these friends in San Francisco. There he found
electronic parts plentiful and cheap (Silicon Valley is nearby).
Then, too, he took a job hauling art to and from galleries.
"I was surprised at the art," he told me by telephone recently.
"It was not resonant with the world I knew. That frustrated me.
Then I became even more interested in making my own objects. So I
started doing it in private."
Seven years after his first exhibition, Rath's sculpture has
become a natural extension of his training. Humor pervades the work,
and sometimes the humor seems a little dark. One piece offers the
viewer a joy stick to manipulate the movement of the words "So
What?" on a video screen.
"That's largely influenced by my stint in engineering. There's a
great drive to do things with ever-increasing speed and precision,
an engineering obsession that propels that kind of advancement.
Speed, precision, more features - these things can be 'improved,'
but there's no analysis as to whether it's useful or desirable or
interesting. So that's my 'So What?' on that. It is a very
precisely made machine, but it doesn't do anything useful, it just
does it well."
Even darker than "So What?" is "You Can Make a Difference."
A telescope is mounted on the wall with a button next to it. The
telescope is focused on a large number on a video screen across the
room. When the viewer pushes the button, the number increases by a
single unit, and a polite "Thank You" indicates that one has
contributed to the piece.
"You pay various bills and you have these huge account numbers...
. There's something about the scale of things in this electronic
system, this media environment. We're aware of so much going on
around us, and the sheer scale of that electronic environment dwarfs