March 16, 2000
High Tech Is the Art in San Francisco
By SALLY McGRANEultural 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?
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" technology.
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
"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
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
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 the marketing.
"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 present-future."
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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 lower.
"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."