Anti-tech agitprop

Get out of your cubes! Wire the poor! Preachy public art finds a high-tech sponsor in San Francisco.

Published July 13, 2000 7:15PM (EDT)

"You suck, you selfish, gadget-obsessed excuses for human beings." That's the gist of a public art exhibit now displayed in billboard-sized letters on the outside wall of San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I've summarized it for you because if you're like most of the folks I saw there Wednesday, milling about within easy sight of the exhibit while on break from the nearby Semiconductor West conference, you probably wouldn't look up.

Six artists participated in "Word for Art," an outdoor exhibit that has converted the exterior of the museum near the Moscone Convention Center into a public message space. With a $25,000 sponsorship from Novellus Systems, a maker of semiconductor manufacturing technology, and the theme of "interconnectivity," artists contributed works such as a human figure outlined in computer characters.

"Look up now / While (life_slips_away)," ordered one installation. Another took technologists to task for ignoring the digital divide: "Two San Franciscos, One Frontera (border) Digital." The mixed messages -- should I spend less time in my cube or more time helping others get online -- could only leave those who do look up to see the works baffled.

Even Aaron Betsky, curator of architecture, design and digital projects at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art -- which is directly across the street from Yerba Buena -- says he hasn't figured it out. "I've seen it," he says, shaking his head, "but I'm not really sure what it's all about."

Anyone who has managed to profit from the area's technology boom will probably find the project insulting, as well as confusing. I tried to figure out what the lines for the Beatles' "I am the Walrus" -- seen as "EYEAMI/ACHOOARMY/ASTUARY/ENWEIR/ALL/TOGETHER" on one wall -- had to do with technology. Was it a reference to the technological brilliance of "Magical Mystery Tour"? A playful imitation of code? I sure don't know.

But I did enjoy the subtleties of Paul DeMarinis' piece -- a listing of the sounds of our digital day, ranging from the "ding" of an alarm to the "zoom" of traffic, to the "whirs," "ticks" and "fizzes" of the machines that have come to dominate our routines. Without judgment, DeMarinis seems to call attention to the way that technology has woven itself into our lives. We're accustomed to all the beeps and buzzes, and annoying as they are, we live with them by choice. Ultimately, we know we have the power to turn them off -- just as we have the choice to focus on our cellphone and ignore a very public art exhibit.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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