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'Digital Media Now' at Cal Poly bridges the gap between the exhibit space and the virtual world 

“Digital Media Now” at Cal Poly’s University Art Gallery takes the familiar media of sculpture, painting, and drawing, and tosses them headlong into the virtual world. The viewer is left on the analog side, beckoned by tantalizing partiality into the digital realm.

The standout piece is Sean Phillips’ Slinky Forest, an installation of sound, light, and—you guessed it—Slinkys. The aforementioned spring toys hang from the ceiling in what is immediately recognizable as a “forest,” even in this estranged setting, amid the greenish light of implied leaves and the hum of nature sounds. A lengthy explanation (of which this exhibit has no shortage) includes instructions to “strum and bounce” the Slinkys, thereby causing the forest noises to increase and eventually transition into recordings of “distress” from NASA. The artist’s statement indicates that “the idea that progress can sacrifice certain kinds of beauty in the attainment of others” is behind this transition, a pointed message to the viewer whose increased interactions with the piece seem to elicit a negative reaction from it.

Other pieces in the exhibit include Qian Liu and Yoon Chung Han’s elegant and complex data visualizations and sonifications (including Rainbow and others), Gottfried Haider’s Drawing Circuits (the most overtly humorous pieces in the show), and Matthias Dörfelt’s Mechanical Parts, a series of drawings created by an “autonomous drawing robot … determined to reproduce.” These drawings imply the phallic both in appearance and description, but no more overt explanation is given and the viewer is left to marvel at the wall of robot penises.

There’s a lot of negative space here, room around and within the pieces for the implied viewer/participant, which might loosely be termed the Internet or the “cloud.” Jacob Garbe’s installation from Closed Rooms, Soft Whispers is the only piece to have its own entirely distinct space, and it’s also a piece that requires a smart phone to view. Smart phones are definitely ubiquitous these days, but this barrier to entry nonetheless makes both technological and financial assumptions about its viewers, assumptions that might be less troubling if the piece included a smart phone for use by the viewer. The exhibit as a whole seems strangely but purposefully incomplete, as if the real exhibit lay elsewhere—in the digital world. “Digital Media Now” runs through March 14 at the University Art Gallery, in the Dexter Building (34).

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