October 11th, 2010

Vast Array at Exit Art

photo of installation

In programming languages a variable is like a box which holds a value for you. The most basic values are Booleans, Numbers and Strings.
A boolean value is a binary option between true and false.
If you imagine a variable as a small box, then

var alive = true;

means that you took a piece of paper and wrote “true” on it and put it inside a box labeled “alive.”

In the same fashion Numbers are integer values:

var age = 26;

and Strings are letters:

var name = "Pedro";

Out of these three you can make Objects. An object is a collection of variables.

var friend() = {
name = Pedro;
age = 26;
alive = true;

An Array is a special kind of object. It holds values in series. So if we were to write our object “friend” as an array, it would look like this:

var friend = [Pedro, 26, true];

This would be like taping three small boxes side-to-side, each one with a little paper inside, and labeling the ensemble “friend.”

Arrays are the basis for most–if not all–databases. If we were to take another array, say: var cousin = [Mike, 32, false],  place it below the first one, and tape those two ensembles together, then we suddenly have a database:

var people = [friend,cousin]; (equivalent to people = [[Pedro, 26, true],[Mike, 32, false]];)

This is known as a two-dimensional array, and if you were to put an array inside another array–say two small boxes inside one of the boxes in the previous group–it is called a multi-dimensional array.

That Excell spreadsheet in your desktop is nothing more than a two-dimensional array. Your record collection would be a multi-dimensional array. A stack of National Geographics? You get the point by now; they are all databases.

So either by accident or by design, Herb Tam, Lauren Rosati, Papo Colo, and Jeanette Ingberman have created what is probably the most computer-friendly exhibition I have seen without having to plug-in anything more that a couple of light bulbs. At their latest exhibition at Exit Art, they have assembled an exhaustive physical (and historical) database of Alternative Art Spaces in New York City. The show is centered around a long table containing a two-dimensional array of boxes. Each box is labeled with an organization name, and inside each one is what can only be described as a treasure trove of material surrounding the activities/ideas/principles of that particular alternative space.

Not exited yet? OK, I’ll come out of geek-mode. The beauty of this show is not necessarily on the objects themselves, although these have been treated with great care and there certainly are aesthetic concerns present. The beauty lies in what happens when you look through the objects and finish the piece with your mind. There are 130 spaces in the long table, and just like a database you may push and splice values into the array, and query information from it. Each visitor is bound to have a unique experience depending on which boxes (read spaces) he chooses to examine. You could very easily spend an entire afternoon in there going through the material.

In my case, I came out in sheer awe of the of the collective efforts of so many individuals in the city that we all call home. Some of these spaces I have even taken lightly or dismissed in the past, but viewed within the larger historical context of alternative art spaces they seem stronger and more relevant. This in itself is something unexpected since most phenomena shrink by comparison when looked through a historical lens, and in this respect the exhibition itself is art. There are many other sub-themes that run through the work which provoke more comparisons with information technology. For example: variables can be changed at any moment by the programming language. We could take our previous friend object and overwrite it with:

friend = [Mario, 31, true];  (ouch!)

so in that sense variables are alternatives. There is also the fact that the boxes are “spaces,” and the spaces themselves hold “values,” albeit of the ethical/spiritual kind.

I don’t want to over-simplify the work with my own puns and interpretations. Different people will come out of this show with different conclusions. Hopefully they will leave the space (and Exit Art is an alternative space) having been inspired; like me. But at the very least they will leave with a sense of history and all the different roads that were paved for us by previous generations of artists; roads from which new generations of artists are branching off into new directions.

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