There is nothing usual about the current exhibit at the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs. Some 650 images from 23 countries flash before the eyes on 30 matching computers in a room where poor lighting is a calculated effect. Some of the art transforms itself at the demand of the viewer. None of the art has a price tag.
So it made sense, in a way, that the opening of the Bit-by-Bit digital art show offered surprises even to those, like Executive Director Rodney Wood, who had been involved for months in the preparation. "I walked in and it was quiet and there was a room full of people staring at the art," Wood said. "No one was talking about the Broncos or the new restaurant down the street."
While the specter of people gawking at hypnotic on-screen images may seem like a prelude to a future generation of couch-potato, "television art" junkies, the character and depth of the art in this show defies comparison with today's television. "Sure, there is some eye candy," Wood said. "But there are some really compelling pieces as well."
Local artist and prize-winner Elaine Bean goes so far as to say that digital art has distinct advantages over more conventional art forms. "The art has an inner glow that is so much more vibrant than two-dimensional pieces," she said. "It has a light source inside of it instead of shining on it. The light is a part of the art."
Photographer Ric Helstrom sees additional advantages. "The great thing about digital art is that once you have learned the technical stuff, you are only limited by your imagination. There is so much you can do." Still, Helstrom says he entered the digital realm of photography out of necessity. "If I hadn't, I would have become a dinosaur. It is such a fantastic creative tool."
Bit-by-Bit illustrates that variety in digital art can be breathtaking. One piece starts out with the viewer looking at ancient cliff dwellings and then, with a drag of the mouse, turns the scene 180 degrees to reveal a computer- constructed, but exceptionally lifelike, mountain range.
Another entry combines the fun of a video game with the presence of art. In Australian graphic artist Alyssa Rothwell's piece, the screen starts out showing a bulging dresser whose drawers open and close in time to the background music. A click of the mouse brings a voluptuous figure sauntering onto the screen to pull her dress out of the drawer and squeeze into it. Click on the ringing telephone on top of the dresser, and she returns, picking up the phone to listen to heavy breathing for a moment. "Oh dear," she exclaims in a delightful Australian drawl and slams down the receiver.
On the next monitor, Golan Levin of MIT has created a piece titled "Splat," where participants can create their own shadowy streamer lights on-screen and encourage amoeba-like forms to divide. "People have been having a lot of fun with those," said Wood.
But the fun is only a part of the significance of the interactive work. "They are taking the viewer-as-opposed-to-artist concept and tearing it down," said ceramist and digital artist, Adam Curry. "They are taking the person viewing the work and making them integral to the art."
Still, the vast majority of the work is in the form of single view work, which can be viewed in its own digital gallery at www.bitbybitdigital.org. Going to the BAC gallery is worth the trip though, because each of the five jurors has a monitor set up to display their top 20 selections. A tandem monitor rotates the juror's top five picks.
Many of the award winners are awe-inspiring pieces indeed. One of the "Best of Show" recipients -- the honor shared with Dave Jones for his interactive piece, "Teeter" -- is from Massachusetts artist James Higgins, titled "Kinsale Castle." It is a series of melded black-and-white photographs that produce a fictional Irish scene with a young girl posed in the foreground. Higgins juxtaposes incongruous elements in the piece to produce a thought-provoking final product. "It has good energy and feeling," Helstrom said. "It stirs up something inside you."
Top-twenty selection "Pueblo Depot" by Bean is also a largely black-and-white photographic work that evokes an extraordinary depth of feeling. The original photograph was taken in the 1980s on color film. It sat a victim of Bean's high personal standards, until she became interested in the capabilities of PhotoShop software. "I didn't do a whole lot in the darkroom," she says, "because I am allergic to darkroom chemicals." Now Bean can do many of the same things with her computer that were traditionally done chemically. "Pueblo Depot," for example, is a result of washing all the color out of the original slide except for the rich red of a neon "lunch" sign.
"Digital Warrior," by Helstrom, started out as an actual photograph he took of an Native American last year. He superimposed a circuit-board effect on the model's skin and shield to give an entirely new feel. "I wanted to combine the low-tech element of the Indian photography with a digital element to make a kind of futuristic cyborg warrior," he said. The final product is an innovative use of color and texture to provoke an emotional response in the viewer.
Wood says that digital work, like his Bit-by-Bit show, is here to stay. "I firmly believe this is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "I think the overall quality of the show is way up there. I was flattered by the response." A strong statement from a person with Wood's personal leanings toward more traditional art forms. "Some people think of me as almost a computer-hater," Wood said. "I'm always saying, 'Whatever happened to the human part?' "
Wood said that when he and BAC office manager David Ball first came up with the idea for the show, they didn't realize what they were getting themselves into. "In one afternoon, it went from sanity to 'What were you thinking?'" Wood said. They started to recruit people they knew well, like Curry and Helstrom to help with the project.
But technical sponsorships were difficult to find at the beginning. "We would describe the idea and they would say, "Oh sure, you're gonna pull that off," Wood said with a laugh. "Then we started to find out why." The project ended up requiring what Wood estimates as 2,500 to 3,000 man-hours to prepare. "There was so much passion and commitment," he said. "And just stupid amounts of time." About 90 percent of the participation on the project came from volunteers.
Eventually, a few sponsors came through and gave the show the lift it needed to become reality. Helstrom says Jerry Carter and Firesale.com were instrumental. "They supplied all the computers and monitors," he said. "Without them it wouldn't have been possible. I'm not sure anyone else would have done that."
Wood anticipates that the show will only grow larger. "Next year, I think we will have double or triple the number of entries," he said. The international flavor of the show, combined with the cutting-edge nature of this year's entries, make the potential regularity of this event something for Colorado Springs residents, as well as art lovers around the world, to anticipate with joy.