It’s nothing to take pride in, but I’ll say it anyway: I’m something of a Luddite when it comes to new (and even not-so-new) technology. I’m also a bit suspicious when smartypants artists appear to overemphasize the technical aspects of what they produce. However, when I first heard about FAX, a “telecommunications art” exhibition that opened last Friday at the Knoxville Museum of Art, I found the idea of similar shows occurring simultaneously and new works being continuously added to the mix very intriguing.
Museumgoers will likely be fascinated by the variety of artists who have sent or are sending works via facsimile for this event. Among the more than 60 people with faxed pages posted at KMA are architects, scientists, designers, and filmmakers, as well as artists. East Tennessee-based participants in FAX are John Bisonette, Emily Bivens, Hunt Clark, Nick DeFord, Brian R. Jobe, Evan Meaney, Greg Pond, Jered Sprecher, Patricia Tinajero, and David Wolff—with Bisonette, Jobe, and Pond concurrently presenting work in a KMA Contemporary Focus show.
Together, this diverse ensemble of exhibitors has been and will be contributing to the countless and dizzying faxed pages on both walls and tables. The only unifying element for the pages is an identical cover sheet with a large black forward slash—credited as having been designed by Dexter Sinister. It’s a mind-boggling combination of transmissions, predominantly in black and white, running the gamut from single-page typed sonnets to groupings of as many as 40 illustrations combined as one piece. To its credit, KMA has managed to lend clustered and singular works a modicum of visual rhythm.
An elaborate Konica Minolta copier and fax machine stands guard at the gallery entrance, humming away as viewers come and go. The original exhibition curator, João Ribas, has remarked, “The fax machine is kind of this dumb thing in the room, but it is also essentially a printmaking machine… a machine that people treat as a camera, appropriate for a kind of ‘collage sensibility’ suggestive of early Dada.”
In fact, the facsimile technology that many of us regard as a 1980s phenomenon actually dates back to 1843, when Alexander Bain of England came up with a device that could copy writing using a pair of pens and pendulums connected to wire. Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli’s “pantelegraph” machine from 1862 improved upon Bain’s invention by adding synchronization capabilities. 1925’s “Belinograph,” named for Frenchman Edouard Belin, is most like today’s fax machine in that it was capable of scanning an image on a cylinder with light that was then converted into electrical impulses transmitted along telephone lines.
Powered-up as KMA’s leviathan of a machine is, a fax can arrive at any minute from anywhere in the world. Ribas has said that flawed transmissions with smears, lines, and errant marks become part of the finished product, making the machine a kind of “collaborator.” Originating at the Drawing Center in New Rork in 2009, FAX is a cumulative exhibition meant to evolve and expand into many venues at once; in Canada, England, France, Hong Kong, Mexico, New Zealand, and elsewhere. And one could easily spend days perusing printed text and images in any one of those places. Each venue or institution presenting FAX asks additional artists for submissions that remain in the ongoing shows.
As a travel junkie, I get a momentary thrill when seeing one of those multiple clocks that reveals the time in various places, and looking at transmitted pages in different languages with unfamiliar names and styles of handwriting affords that same excitement. Even more exciting is the breadth of material FAX includes—grids of multiple images, writings, instructions (i.e., for making Eduardo Kac’s origami bunny), doodles, collages, architectural sketches (Rem Koolhaas’ Cube theater in Omar’Dam, for instance), signage, storyboards, photography, even Op art (by Han Yu). If there could be some sort of fax noise soundtrack to accompany the art, the show might be even better.
The first non-business faxes were possibly produced to alleviate office boredom—copies of silly jokes, images unmentionable body parts, etc.—sent to distant colleagues and friends. But it didn’t take artists long to use fax machines for what exhibition literature calls “[marrying] the art of the hand with the foibles of electronic transmission.” That said, I should express my hesitation to lap up all the hype associated with FAX concerning the means by which the art is conveyed. After all, immediacy and interactivity can be achieved with digital photos and the Internet. (And if you’ve ever had “text sex,” add that to the list.) Nevertheless, if I’m at the KMA show when an image from an artist comes in, I’ll probably trip over myself running to get a glimpse of it.