New York Times 1999.04.15
Kosovo Conflict Inspires Digital Art Projects
The conflict in the Balkans has given rise to political speeches, public protests and private debates, but new-media artists are starting to voice their opinions on the subject through their chosen medium of creative expression: digital art.
The largest showcase for these efforts is Weak Blood, a virtual gallery on the Web that links to 55 freshly minted works of visual poetry, kinetic imagery and interactive art submitted by more than 35 international contributors, all of them making anti-violence statements.
Reiner Strasser, an artist and high-school art teacher in Wiesbaden, Germany, put up the site on March 27. He vowed
to continue adding one or two pieces a day "as long as bombs are falling and humans are massacred" in the region.
Klaus-dieter Michel, a new-media artist in Bielefeld, Germany, has shuttered his digital-art site, The Blinkface, for the duration of the crisis and is directing visitors to Virtual Heatwave 2: Anti.War.Art, which contains eight works by Michel and others.
Michel's "Pictures of a Bridge," which is also listed on the Weak Blood site, is representative of the work that addresses the crisis, with lots of blood-red type and urgently flashing images. In the piece, a postcard-perfect photo of the Petrovaradin bridge in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, is supplanted by a close-up shot of its bombed wreckage, overlaid by the word "disconnected."
The speed and global reach of the Internet have helped connect those who are concerned by the actions of the Milosevic regime, the impact of the NATO military offensive, or both. For digital artists, though, the Internet is a creative medium as much as a communications pipeline, and for the first time since the debut of the Web, they now have a war to catalyze them.
This is the digital-era continuation of an artistic tradition. Countless paintings, books, songs and films glorify the heroes of battle or depict its victims and the horrors they have endured.
Weak Blood and Virtual Heatwave carry antiwar messages, sometimes with strong images meant to shock. But there is a "Ballad of the Green Berets" for every "Give Peace a Chance," so it is likely that a
pro-military art site will soon emerge on the Web, if it does not exist already.
The Internet has changed the rate at which such works can gain an audience. With the Web, digital artists can post their work as soon as it is done, instead of waiting for the paint to dry and for a local gallery to mount an exhibition.
Theodore K. Rabb, a Princeton University history professor and co-editor of "Art and History: Images and Their Meaning," said, "Even 'Guernica,' for all the white heat with which Picasso produced it, took nearly a month to complete."
But the medium's immediacy has a downside. Many of the works on the Weak Blood site are little more than llustrated slogans, and Strasser acknowledged than some of the artists he solicited for contributions to the site declined to participate right away, saying they needed more time to develop pieces.
"Not many artists in the world are able to work with such speed," Strasser said. But a look through the contributions, which are listed in the order in which they were received, shows that "pieces are becoming more and more elaborate," he said.
Strasser wrote his visual poem "Weak Blood" after receiving an e-mail message from Belgrade that was a plea for a stop to the NATO bombing. "Blood is not connecting us so much," he said. "In Germany, we say 'thick blood' when we talk about strong connections between people."
Strasser established a separate site for the piece, then alerted his circle of contacts that the page was up. Within an hour, he had submissions from Valery Grancher in France (co-author of this project), Esben Fest in Germany and Miekal And in the United States.
So far, most of the contributions are from the United States and Western Europe, with none from artists in the Balkans. "They have other things to do than to make art at the moment," he said.
From the 17th-century artist Jacques Callot's "Miseries of War" to Barbara Kruger's bold sloganeering, propaganda and fine art do intersect with some regularity.
The digital artist Piotr Szyhalski even teaches a course in political propaganda at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in which he urges his students to learn the genre's tricks in order to strengthen the impact of their pieces.
Szyhalski is putting the finishing touches on "The People Project," his own commentary on "ethnic manipulation." Although the project has been under way for a while, he said he was motivated to finish the work by the developments in the Balkans. He plans to post the interactive piece on The Spleen, his Web-based gallery, in the next few days.
The Slovenian artist Vuk Cosik has just launched an online collage consisting of television screens showing news coverage of events in the Balkans. In an e-mail message, Cosik said, "It's about watching, ain't it?"
For Tamas Banovich, co-director of the Postmasters Gallery in New York, participating in the political debate is even more important than watching events unfold, if only to supply evidence that the utopian ideals of the early Internet still survive.
"Seeing who doesn't take part [in online antiwar projects] will be just as interesting as who takes part and what will be put there," he said. Banovich is collecting statements on the Balkans crisis through the online War Artists Bulletin Board, which he is organizing. Submissions will be printed out and exhibited on the walls of the gallery from April 27
until May 8.
Strasser believes artists are compelled to respond to the situation in the Balkans. A month ago, he met Bill Viola at an opening in Frankfurt of an exhibit of the acclaimed video artist's works.
"He shares my idea that it's important to go back to the essence of human life, and he thinks there is a movement in this direction in the art," Strasser said. "People are looking for things which are really important, and not only for fun and beauty and entertainment."
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company