Communicating Vessels
e-art: New Technologies and Contemporary Art - Ten Years of Accomplishments by the Daniel Langlois Foundation

Jean Gagnon, Exhibition Curator

For this exhibition, it is, regrettably, impossible for us to display all of the highly diverse projects that have been supported by the Foundation (DLF) over the years. The best tool for this purpose remains the DLF Web site. (1) Here, more modestly, we offer Montrealers a glimpse of works by artists who have defined and continue to define the merging of art with electronic and digital technology. This exhibition focuses on individuality – works and artists whose offerings are both unique and powerful. In this sense, we are running somewhat counter to the received notion that the meeting of art and technology demands groups of people sharing a range of artistic and scientific skills. Nor are we marking the return of the “Renaissance Man,” who, like Leonardo, single-handedly embraces the entire field of knowledge of his or her era. Yet certain artists in the exhibition have both engineering or scientific and artistic training (Jim Campbell, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer), while others create their own software or the electronic circuits used in their works (Campbell, David Rokeby, Jessica Field, Philip Beesley). Then there are those who draw on the services of specialised laboratories (Eduardo Kac) or teams of experts (Lynn Hershman, Marie Chouinard). And while most of the works challenge the notion of subject and creator – or even throw it into crisis – they are, paradoxically, works that are very much “signed,” if this word were to still have meaning, by artists who are characterised by their techniques and themes.

The works in our exhibition stem from art practices in which the object, subject or method of the work are discourses, attributes and techniques borrowed from science and technology as well as from art. It is thus that Jim Campbell can pay homage to scientists Shannon and Nyquist in some of his works, while presenting one of the two tributes to Michael Snow featured in our exhibition (the other being the new production by Luc Courchesne). These works are therefore at once grounded in the scientific, the technical, and the artistic.

The title of the exhibition, Communicating Vessels, was inspired by the title of a book by André Breton. To the father of surrealism, these vessels were the conscious and the unconscious. The means of this communication, this transfer between the two levels, was automatic writing – a kind of bridge between the real and dream. Here, the computer is the vehicle of the transfers, code conversions, and translations between universes, which, until recently, were surrounded by solid boundaries. The impact of new technology has rendered these boundaries porous, and in the works featured in our exhibition, we witness the entanglement of art and science, the real and the virtual, human language and the language of machines, and interactive space and its human users. The works undergo change through processes that include dematerialisation, coding, transcoding, representation and performance, and they also ultimately play along the porous boundary that separates subject from object, centre from periphery, the organism from its environment, and self from other. In a number of these works a sort of back-and-forth game takes place on either side of the border.

These notions of transcoding and transfer are new neither to media analysis nor to semiology, for they were found in the writings of Marshall McLuhan and Roland Barthes as early as the 1960s. The former wrote that a metaphor is a form or transport, and that “each form of transport not only carries, but translates and transforms the sender, the receiver and the message.” (2) The latter developed the concept of “shifters,” the translation of one code to another to permit the transfer from a technological structure to one of representation and discourse. (3)

Many works in the exhibition are miroirs automates” (4) or “mirrors machines.” Some are driven by a caricatural impulse (Field), others are portaits of ourselves and how we relate to the world and other people (Catherine Richards, Luc Courchesne), while still others imitate human characteristics (robotics and artificial intelligence). Many are revealing in their failure to be truly human. “It’s a strange way to think,” states David Rokeby, “but I think you can use the computer ironically as a way to learn more about yourself as a human being.” (5)

The Foundation has boldly supported artistic practices driven by their era, not only because of the technologies used in the works, but primarily because many of them raise ethical questions crucial to this epoch of human redefinition. While some may describe these times as “post-human,” many of the works in our exhibition actually reinforce the place of the human in a dialogue with our technological environment. They expose our ambivalence within the constant struggle between mastering the evolution of technoculture and surrendering to the delights of its fantasies. It is written in Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis (1998-99), the work by Eduardo Kac at the end the exhibition path, spurs us into fundamental reflection on this power, at once creative and destructive, which places enormous responsibility on us as these tools of modern science and information technology become increasingly refined and powerful, and our domination of the Earth escalates at a blinding pace.

(1) The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology:
(2) Herbert Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998 (1964)): pp. 89-90.
(3) Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983): p. 6.
(4) We have borrowed this expression from the title of a book by Gérard Chazal on the representation of the human through technology. See Gérard Chazal, Le miroir automate: introduction à une philosophie de l'informatique (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 1995).
(5) Xavier Ess, “Interview with David Rokeby” in Interactive Media Arts Lab (December 14, 2003):
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Daniel Langlois Foundation