Pixels and Paintbrushes

Carmin Karasic refuses to be pigeonholed. Sometimes, she is a performance artist, as when she walked, dressed as a 19th century Dutch maiden, through the streets of Eindhoven, a city in the Netherlands. But much of her art is more serious, expressed in the swirling and blending of pixilated color and image on a computer screen. Karasic, who just turned 50, has had her works displayed in galleries in real space and online, including the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, MA, and the Cyber Art Gallery Eindhoven.

A self-described computer geek who worked in the software industry — including a stint at the upper tier of project management at Lotus — she was drawn to creating art with a computer after hearing an NPR story on digital art, and is currently completing a master of arts at the Massachusetts College of the Arts. In 2003, she was the director of the Boston Cyberarts Festival’s virtual gallery, and is also a part-time instructor at the Art Institute of Boston. An electronic activist as well, Karasic gained some notoriety in 1998, for co-authoring a software program that shut down Mexican government websites. The hack was in protest of the Mexican government’s policies in Chiapas.

Karasic sat down over a breakfast of coffee and fruit at her home in Quincy, MA to talk about digital art and how art is — and is not — transformed by new technologies.

Ken George: Arts online contributor Peter Walsh notes in his commentary “Digital Logjam” that “virtually anyone with a computer, internet connection, and a cheap color scanner,” can acquire an art collection. Will art museums, in the form of buildings, die out in the distant future?

Carmin Karasic: As much as I immerse myself continuously in the computer world, there is still something that is wonderful about standing and looking at a piece of art. Go to the Lutz Museum and stand there and look at the Dutch Masters. I don’t care how big your flat screen plasma monitor is — it’s not the same! If you look at Jackson Pollock in a two-dimensional presentation you cannot see how the little globs of paint are raised on the canvas. As you’re standing in front of one of them and the light changes, it sort of comes alive with its own rhythm – I don’t know how to describe it. I can tell you I never loved his work until I forced myself to go to that big retrospective in New York. And that’s why I think we have to have virtual museums, because not everybody can go to New York and see the Jackson Pollock retrospective. You have to have a way to at least get the idea of the work out.

Ken George: Is there something about the web that democratizes art?

CK: Absolutely. Online you are your own gatekeeper. Nobody has to decide if your work is ready to be seen. Nobody decides if your art’s good enough or if it has value. Or that it behooves someone else to show your work. That’s what I love about the net.

Ken George: Doesn’t digital technology create an economic divide, between people who can afford computers and those who can’t?

CK: A lot has been written about how the web is free information for everybody. But if you don’t have the first level of communications tools – basically a computer – you are cut off. Many people in the Third World don’t have access because their libraries don’t have computers in them. It is an elite world. That said, I do believe that someday it won’t be so elite. And of course there will always be people who don’t get into the web, but I do believe accessibility is going to become more and more generalized. Multinational corporations want to get their products out into the world so they are building an advertisement infrastructure, which is the net. I can piggyback off their infrastructure to make my art, to distribute my art, to distribute my ideas.

Ken George: Some critics charge that digital technology lowers the artistic bar.

CK: There is a ton of crap. And sometimes the crap is shown in the galleries as art. A gallery thinks it is going to be really hip and ‘with it’ by showing digital art, even though they don’t understand it or really like it. And on the web you don’t need anybody to decide your art is ready to be shown, so anybody can show anything. So yeah, there’s tons of garbage. But if you put your bad art out there, it’s not going to get that many hits, it’s not going to show up that much on the search engines. The bad filters to the bottom and what comes up in the search engines is mostly good.

Ken George: Do you call yourself an “artist” or a “digital artist?”

CK:I hardly call myself just an “artist.” I felt I have to qualify it because most people think of an artist in traditional terms and they don’t suspect I work with computers. Since everything I did involves computers in some way, I called myself a “digital artist” for maybe five, six years. I eventually found myself frustrated with that title and I switched it to “multimedia artist.”

The reason for the switch is because I do work that has the computer at its base. Sometimes it’s an installation. And if it’s an installation, there is a lot more than digital media that is involved — I might be using music, I might be using sculptures, I might be using projections; video. Calling myself a “digital artist” is a little bit too limiting.

Ken George: Are you primarily an artist, or geek, or a little bit of both?

CK: Definitely 50/50. My computer was stolen once and I was completely devastated. If somebody told me to make art but you can’t use a computer, I don’t know where I would start.
I went to Burning Man in ’99 and didn’t have electricity. One of the people said “come on, you are an artist, make art” and I said, “I don’t know how, I don’t have a computer.” There was this big pile of dead motherboards somebody just dumped there. I took the motherboards and fashioned a curtain to go around a stage. I was in an exhilarated, almost Zen-like mood because I was working with computers and not with the code. I was working with the physical of the computer.

Ken George: Do artists who work in pastels, paints, and clay regard your work with skepticism and hostility?

CK: I have certainly encountered some hostility. But I have also met people who feel like I am part of the new wave, the future. A painter once said to me, “this isn’t art, these are computers!” It just so happened I was setting up a project that involved Painter software. He didn’t even know how to use a mouse. I had to put my hand over his hand to show him how to use it. And I said, “You can do anything with this software. It’s true you don’t have a paintbrush in your hand, it’s true you don’t smell the paint, you don’t have the reflex of the canvas, but look at all these things you can do. You can adjust how hard you’re painting, you can adjust the substrate you’re painting on, and you have millions of colors.” After awhile he got into it and something clicked. He went away realizing this could be an art medium even though it’s also a computer.

Ken George: Do you prefer your work be exhibited in a virtual museum or in its bricks and mortar counterpart?

CK: When people go into galleries or museums — unless it’s a cyber museum — they have an expectation. And I don’t believe I am doing work that can meet that expectation. They’re thinking, “I’ve got 30 minutes to get through the floor of this museum,” and they’re just looking, looking, looking, looking. A web art piece means you engage with it and move around with it — it’s time based.

Ken George: Is there any financial profit creating art that can be easily downloaded from the web without paying a dime?

CK:I don’t make any money from my art. You want it? Take it.

To view additional works by Carmin Karasic, visit her electronic portfolio at http://www.pixelyze.com.