City Paper is not for tourists
Multimedia historian, teacher, and artist Randall Packer documents, inspires, and explores the emergence of a hi-tech utopia.
What you and I call “the Web,” Randall Packer calls “The Network.” He’ll say “Internet,” too, every now and againhe’s not that geeky. But more often than not, when Packer talks hyperlinks, dataworks, and metamediahe’s talking about The Network. Capital T, capital N.
“I’ve been pursuing multimedia as a kind of Holy Grail for the last 15 or 20 years,” the 47-year-old historian, teacher, and artist says. Right now, he’s finishing up his soon-to-be-released magnum opus, Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, an ink-on-paper collection of essays on art and technology co-edited with online-magazine pioneer Ken Jordan. Packer’s 150-year timeline ties together a diverse bunch of arty and technological types: opera composer Richard Wagner, whose 1849 theorization of the immersive Gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”) makes him the granddaddy of “virtual space”; Allen Kaprow, whose Happenings of the ’50s and ’60s dissolved traditional boundaries between art and daily life; and visionary egghead Vannevar Bush, who proposed the personal computer way back in 1945. When W.W. Norton publishes Packer’s volume next spring, it will likely establish him as the H.W. Janson of new media.
But Packer’s digi-guru credentials would be impressive even without a weighty art-historical-technological tome under his belt: He’s the former director of multimedia at the San Jose Museum of Art, the former director of San Francisco State University’s multimedia studies program, and a former professor of digital art at the University of California, Berkeley. Since he moved to D.C. from San Francisco last December to marry National Gallery of Art Webmaster Phyllis Hecht, Packer has had local arts organizations lining up to pick his brain’s theoretical treasure trove. He’s currently teaching at the Maryland Institute, College of Art (MICA), is slated to give a Washington Project for the ArtsCorcoran-sponsored lecture in the fall, and negotiating with the Corcoran College of Art and Design to teach a class next spring. “No one has ever walked in with such a detailed proposal, such varied and stimulating ideas, and such an impressive background in multimedia history and practice,” says Corcoran Professor Bernard Welt.
Like an Internet Age St. Paul, Packer traipses into the schools and converts young artists to his digital ways. “I think I’m lucky to have found Randall,” says Jorge
Castro, a painter-turned-Internet-artist who was one of Packer’s MICA students last spring. “Randall was my father and mentor in thinking. It’s difficult to find people who work deeply for the purpose of art and nothing commercial. Randall works in deeply theoretical art projects.”
The single-named artist Yauger studied painting as an undergrad but wandered into one of Packer’s digital-art classes at Berkeley a couple of years back, he says, “out of curiosity.” He hasn’t touched a palette knife or a can of gesso since.
“Randall took me over to digital work,” Yauger says. “He has the phenomenal ability to place someone in that world and to get good [artistic] results.” Yauger goes on to praise Packer’s strong tech background and his well-balanced knowledge of history and theory. “Technology is becoming the avant-garde,” Yauger says. “[It’s] moving further faster than other types of art. That excites Randall.”
That both Castro and Yauger set aside their easels to go digital attests to the power of Packer’s vision. Castro’s reverence for The Network sounds remarkably like his teacher’s: “On the Internet,” Castro says, “all is ideal and working perfectly.”
“We have opportunity for creating a better world and more ideal culture with The Network,” Packer says. We’re sitting at a simple wood table in the basement of Packer’s new Glover Park house, sipping coffee. “The Net has empowered artists [because] with the medium you can reach anyone directly, without a museum or gallery,” Packer says. “Many say…that technology can have a tendency to remove and isolate people,” he continues. “[But it] also has the ability to connect everyone on the planet….What interests me is that it has the potential to transform the world.”
Part of the transformation Packer is talking about is empowering the masses. One of Packer’s heroes is American avant-gardist John Cage, who relinquished artistic control of his works by allowing chance to determine how they would be performed. This, Packer says, is the essential tendency of the art of the future. “The role of the artist becomes that of a facilitator,” Packer says.
Packer pops a video of Cage’s 1965 work Variations 5 into the VCR. The tape rolls. Music screeches. Dancers flail. The performance is a parade of 20th-century art starsCage’s piece features the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and uses images made by Jasper Johns, Nam June Paik, and Robert Rauschenbergbut it’s also frenzied and disquieting.
“There is no relationship between the sound and the image other than that they exist together in time,” Packer tells me excitedly. “[This piece was] created entirely using chance technique.” Only the length of the work, the area of stage, and the images used were preordained; the rest was a one-off event.
But what kind of meaning can you derive from an artwork that’s always changing?
“Work that’s emerging from this medium is work in which the medium changes,” Packer says by way of explanation. “It’s an entirely different paradigm, and you can’t have the same expectations.”
Later, he shows me a tape filmed in the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo 1970 in Japan. The pavilion was masterminded by another one of Packer’s heroes, tech artist Billy Klüver. Klüver got together with some 75 artists and engineers and came up with an interactive mirrored dome in which images, sound, and the movements of visitors were combined to produce a quasi-theatrical, entirely erratic performance. In the video, set to a soundtrack of jangly ’60s guitar rock, hundreds of confused people walk around inside the dome, holding handsets to their ears. They look up at the ceiling and down at the floor to see funhouse images of themselves, as well as an image-and-light show. Occasionally, they exchange bemused glances.
Never mind the appearance of disorder: Klüver’s Pepsi Pavilion is another milestone on Packer’s timeline of the evolution of art and technology. Its audience-participatory system of art-making may look messier than traditional techniques, but Packer thinks it’s the way of the future. “With media that has interactive capabilities, you can…engage the audience in new ways,” Packer says. “Net artists are interested in the ability to create an environment that the viewer can enter into and have some form of participating in the way that the experience unfolds.”
His eyes widen. “The viewer, rather than being a consumer of the work,” he says, “will become a recipient and participant of the work.”
“He is so enthusiastic and energetic and creative. You can’t help but be interested, too,” says Hecht. The two met at a conference on museums and the Web a few years back and bonded over The Network. “We laugh that not many people would sit around the dinner table talking about information architecture,” she tells me.
Packer switches one of his computers to the CNN Web site, which is broadcasting live coverage of the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. The night before, he says, he and his wife had some friends over to watch the Lieberman speech. “I thought it would be fun to simulate the convention hall with reverberation,” Packer says. He reaches down to an effects processor and tweaks a dial. “Hear that?” he asks. The tinny buzz of the convention hall surrounds us.
Packer loves his gadgets. Downstairs in his basement studio, the heat of his many gently buzzing machines pushes up the temperature. A fan whirs atop a bookcase, but it doesn’t do much to cool things down.
Packer’s work station orbits around a little beige box clamped to the wall just above the floor molding. That’s his DSL connection. “I function here as my own network,” Packer announces. The high-speed connection allows him to stay online 24-7. He also hosts a local-area network right here in his house: He sends intranet e-mails to his wife’s computer upstairs, and he tests his own Net-art creations on the Web while simultaneously editing them locally with one of the three computers crowding his desk.
Packer futzes with the mouse and taps the keyboard. Up springs a black screen with a wriggly white line, just a few inches long. The line forges an irregular path across the screen, lashing like a giant sperm. “That’s seismographic data live from Berkeley,” Packer explains.
For the collaborative installation Mori, which debuted last year at the InterCommunication Center in Tokyo, Packer wired the live data to a darkened room with speakers embedded into the floor. As the data were fed into the installation’s computers, music software converted them into sound modulation. The rumbles came louder or softer, depending on the vagaries of the fault.
“We actually had the ethernet cable that carries the data from Berkeley inside [another] cable,” Packer explains. “You hold onto the cable [to enter the piece and] you’re actually holding onto the lifeline of this work, which is the data being fed into the installation.”
“This work could not exist without The Network,” Packer says, wiggling in his chair. “You’re having this experience as a result of real-time data being passed through the Internet.”
Although he won’t admit it, Packer obviously believes that this sort of interactive advanced-technology art is better than all that boring old static stuff we’ve seen before. “Maybe we could have a picture of an earthquake or something,” he says. “[But] there’s no way that a painting could be generating the live activity of the Earth.”
Of course, generating the live activity of the Earth requires quite a bit more than tubes of oil paint and a swath of linen. So Packer has a great stack of black-boxed thingamajigs. There are two Prophet 3000 samplers, two synthesizers, two effects processors, a DAT recorder, and a 16-channel mixer. Oh, and a MIDI keyboard.
Packer tells me about his recent interview with the British sound artist Scanner, who was in town a couple of weeks ago to give a talk at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Packer used his portable DAT recorder to capture the interview in four-channel digital audioa sound quality light-years ahead of that produced by the tiny black Sony microcassette recorder I’ve toted around for our meetings.
He’s curious: Does my recorder have a backspace function? Otherwise, won’t it take me a very long time to transcribe our interview? Apparently, Packer’s transcription of his DAT required long hours of starting, stopping, rewinding, and starting again.
I tell him that at home I have a positively antediluvian transcription machinean entirely different animal from my pokey little recorder. It came complete with foot pedal and adjustable backspace control. Packer’s eyes widen. “Really?” He seems awed. “Can you control the tape speed?” CP