Gutter Ball

Lost in Cyberspace with Shu Lea Cheang

"The project just took off with that 50-foot lane, and took off on its own and I had no control of that ball, almost....."

--Artist Shu Lea Cheang, on her Bowling Alley installation at the Walker Art Center

So much for artistic license. What Francis Ford Coppola's artistic ego and Apocalypse Now were to the United Artists studio, it seems Shu Lea Cheang's techno-lust and Bowling Alley are to the Walker Art Center. But where a worthy film came out of the former ordeal, most viewers are left scratching their heads over the installation borne of Cheang's free reign in the Walker's Gallery 7 and in cyberspace. It's a perfect illustration of a point that should be considered more often where technology is concerned: Just because it can be done, doesn't mean it should be done.

Bowling Alley sets out to connect a high art enclave (the Walker), a traditionally working class leisure site (in this case, a bowling lane at the trendy Bryant-Lake Bowl), and cyberspace (with a site on the World Wide Web). Spares and strikes scored on a lane at BLB trigger changes in the display of text and images at the other two locales. In Gallery 7, Walker patrons find an installation that includes a wall-sized video screen, an automated bowling lane, and a Powerbook to access the website--which features e-mail messages written by local artists/collaborators and visitors. All of this, we are told, is in the service of challenging notions about various dichotomies (public/private, virtual/actual, local/global, and so forth), and exploring that potent triad of "power, access, desire."

Ultimately, though, the whole shebang comes down to little more than an arty, and at times quite sophomoric, commingling of bowling and sex. It's the kind of work one might expect from a neophyte undergrad entranced by theory (albeit one with lots of dough) rather than a New York artist with a 10-year resumé under her belt, billed as "one of the most significant new voices in media arts." (Cheang's first feature film, Fresh Kill, screened at the Walker last year to some glowing reviews, including one in this paper.)

During a panel discussion about Bowling Alley, Cheang, who readily called herself a "techno-sucker," boasted that "every piece
I do, I have to have a new toy. I have to use this computer and that computer and I want 20 monitors...." Thus, doing this installation must have felt like wandering through a virtual FAO Schwartz. She started off two years ago with a commission from the Walker and a budget of $80,000, some of it thanks to the good graces of AT&T Bell Laboratories, Dayton's, US West, and other high-tech enterprises. She assembled a phalanx of specialists (a "cybernetic architect," three web programmers, plus a host of other supporting consultants and designers), many of whom, thanks to the communications age, hadn't met in person until the installation's opening day. The crew worked to translate Cheang's concepts into reality: devising sensors to read different colors of bowling balls; transmitting the "behind-the-lane" scene at BLB over to a monitor at the Walker via a custom ISDN-Vista Phone; designing the bowling lane for Gallery 7; constructing the website. After all the donations of materials and services, the cost of the installation soared, according to Cheang's estimate, to around a quarter of a million dollars.

No doubt there were innumerable bugs and obstacles to deal with, but in the process of hammering out the technological form of Bowling Alley, its content must have fallen by the wayside. A mark of good art, no matter how high-tech or high-concept, is that the viewer can intuitively absorb messages, meanings, or at least feelings from it. But while Cheang herself may have envisioned an intertwined array of connections, metaphors, and relationships in Bowling Alley, they're communicated feebly, if at all, by the work. Instead, one is compelled to reference a lengthy fold-out brochure on the piece, which attempts to describe what's going on with language like "The website apparatus works toward blurring the distinction between verbal and visual, interfering with the standard syntactic activity, aiming to breakdown authorial traditions."

So where does bowling, not to mention the heavy-handed eroticism, fit in with all the state-of-the-art technology? Written on the gallery walls, streaming across the video screen, and displayed on the website, various texts clumsily force connections by conjoining clichés ("Hack the code, bowl me over") and making immature innuendoes ("open those holes," "three fingers in deep," "legs split wide open at the end of the bowling lane, the ball runs toward me," etc.). Mini-movies on the gallery's video screen feature people doing kind of pervy things: squatting on a toilet while holding a bowling ball, strapping on a bowling trophy-cum-dildo, and bowling in lingerie and heels. Like some music videos, they're supposed to signify as Serious (not silly) by virtue of an arty film format--here, the grainy, shaky, stop-action of a Quick-time camera.

Moreover, rather than accept the website typefaces specified by The Man over at Netscape, 11 ornate fonts--some of them virtually unreadable--provide further techno-excess. They were specially designed to communicate each artist's e-mail and that of the "aliens" (other website visitors), so never mind that downloading much of this is a slow process even on a high-end computer, or that the fonts detract from the words themselves. There's an age-old art trick at work here: If a piece has a shortcoming, claim it was intentional and frame it with positive critical lingo. According to one of the website designers, people are supposed to "enjoy" watching the text gradually materialize on the screen.

And while you're in the gallery, note that inconspicuous camera overhead, which shoots an image of the gallery every 30 seconds that gets beamed to the website. To hear this technophile talk about it, as she did at the opening day panel discussion, you'd think it was installed for quite personal ends: "I am going back to New York," Cheang said, "but I am going to be with this installation via the Internet, because I can get the gallery view.... it's kind of [me] still wanting to be connected [with the installation], rather than surveillance." Surveillance is "very '80s," she noted obliquely. So maybe Bowling Alley is very '90s in that it's "organic" and "process-oriented"--which, stripped of artistic innuendo, means that the work still has numerous technical problems: the bowling ball falling off the lane, the Powerbook freezing up, and the ever-changing format of the website, whose non-surveilling view into the Gallery 7 is as yet unavailable (for the general public, at least).

No doubt there's talk going on as to
how Bowling Alley shows us that, well, technology is not as easy or infallible as we like
to think. Indeed, since whatever content to
be gleaned is half-baked, this project's greatest marvel seems to be that it came into being at all. I don't doubt that Cheang is a formidable handler of what curator Marlina Gonzalez-Tamrong calls "the big-boy toys" of high technology. Rather, the fact that
she gets off on their power and magic
has effectively obscured any kind of state-ment she might have been aiming for. As it is, all I can see in Bowling Alley is a crass statement about how anything, propped up by artistic privilege and info-age gizmos, can seem credible.

Bowling Alley is on display at Walker Art Center through February 4; it will be one of the topics at a panel discussion on Women and Technology on January 12. Call 375-7622 for more information.

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