Showcase Showdown

The Austin Museum of Digital Art's programming challenges the city's notions of creativity

Showcase Showdown
Photo By Roxanne Jo Mitchell

AMODA Digital Showcase 39

Friday, Oct. 13, 9pm-2am

Mohawk (912 Red River)

$7 general; $4 members

Last July at the Copa Bar & Grill on South Congress, a group of digital artists and musicians, as well as fans of digital art and music, museumgoers, hipsters, and curious onlookers, gathered to celebrate – for an evening at least – digital creativity in a stubbornly analog city on the banks of the Colorado River. There were no acoustic guitars at this event and no paint brushes, no improv comedy troupes or spoken-word artists with worn journals. No one appeared to have the blues.

The occasion was the Austin Museum of Digital Art's latest bimonthly Digital Showcase, the museum's flagship program and an integral part of the city's visual art and music scenes. Willfully forward-thinking in a town too often enamored of its own past, and at once both intellectual and populist in conception, these showcases are events built around the idea of aesthetic experience as sensory overload – with myriad musical performances taking place throughout an evening, accompanied and recontextualized by digital video displays and installation pieces – suggesting perhaps that the time between showcases is just long enough that the museum's curators feel the need to fill their rare evenings to the brim, lest people forget before another two months roll by just what AMODA is trying to do.

What AMODA is trying to do is open some eyes, says new President Rob Turknett, who has been with the group since its inception in 1997. According to Turknett, AMODA's goal is to expose as many people to as many sides of the rising tide of digital creativity as possible: from computer-generated, sample-based dance music to motion graphics design and digitally processed animation. "Personally," he says, "I'm always looking for something that's not just going to reaffirm my current preconceptions about the world but that will show me something different and change the way I think."

As president, he wants to offer the same opportunities for new artistic revelations to others. "Somebody going to AMODA for the first time is probably going to see something they've never seen before," he says. "Maybe it will introduce them to a new world, a new zeitgeist. And that's important."

Digital art is our art, like it or not, a reflection of the yearnings, fears, and inclinations of the age. Like D.W. Griffith with his moving camera or Phil Spector with his recording studio, past and future AMODA contributors like James Sumner, Jetlag, Lonja, and Bleep Labs use the tools of their time to explore new avenues of human experience or, as the man said, to hold a mirror up to nature. We are living in a computer age, so computers have become the means by which we measure ourselves and the newest tool artists have to forge the base metal of modern human experience into works of lasting significance.

"The computer is the metaphor we have right now to understand ourselves and what our brain does," Turknett says. "It's always been the case that the most advanced technology of the age is the metaphor that gets used to describe ourselves and to understand our universe. These days, it's the computer."

For a museum without a fixed address, AMODA does remarkably good business with their Digital Showcases, often pulling crowds of several hundred in a night. But as with any relatively young arts group, AMODA has to work to keep those crowds coming in.

According to Todd Simmons, AMODA's executive director and the man most responsible for the success of their Digital Showcases, there are real difficulties in curating for a digital-art museum in a town like Austin, where there's often a heavy premium placed on things like familiarity, roots, and nostalgia.

"A lot of people in Austin tend to stay within their comfortable bubble and not go outside of that to find new things," he says. "AMODA exists in the awkward spot where we don't completely appeal to the indie rock kids, but we don't completely appeal to people who want to go to galleries, because it's a little too much of a party, or the people who go to dance clubs, because it's a little too abstract or weird."

Simmons, a sound designer for video games, has been the chief curator and executive behind the showcases for five years, first under the mantle Digital Showcase director and most recently as AMODA's executive director, a change in job titles that Turknett says reflects Simmons' "role as captain of the ship." Under Simmons' watchful eye, the Digital Showcase has evolved from essentially a fundraising party with drinks and dancing to an important, cutting-edge traveling multimedia exhibition.

"There aren't that many places to see digital art in Austin, or media art in general," says Simmons. "There are occasional exhibitions, but most midsized to large cities have a media-art organization or museum or space. We would like to be that for Austin. So in order to get the largest number of people out, we set up the showcases so that people ideally can experience them on a number of different levels. Because we know there's not a ton of people who are hardcore digital art or hardcore electronic music fans, so we need to be able to appeal to a wide range of people. We try to make it inviting and accessible, but at the same time, hopefully some element of it is challenging, so people will think, 'Oh wow, that's something I've never heard or seen before.'"

"There are a lot of people in Austin that are doing things that have nothing to do with roots music or traditional art," Turknett says. "We started AMODA because we wanted something that represented that artistic strain and that said, 'This is Austin, too. And it's not a small part of Austin either.' I think AMODA is good for Austin. I think novelty is good for Austin. There are already plenty of places in town where you can go and hear something you've heard before."

A musician himself, Turknett feels that it's AMODA's charge to alter people's misconceptions about digital art while demonstrating that digital creativity can be just as vital and emotional as any other medium: Simply because art comes from a computer doesn't mean it's inhuman.

"You say the words 'digital art,' and the association is already 'cold,'" he says. "That's one thing that I hope AMODA will change: this perception that digital art is cold and soulless. Art is the soul of the world, and I want AMODA to put the soul in the computer.

"I see AMODA as a force in the struggle to do something good with the technology we've created."

One of the five musical performers at the Digital Showcase last July was Chicago-based DJ Kate Simko, who trades primarily in minimalist techno, a dance-music subgenre that, despite its Spartan devotion to essentially unvaried repetition, has gained quite a bit of popularity in European dance clubs over the past few years. (As one could probably imagine, it's gained almost no popularity here in the U.S.) Simko's seductive tracks are composed primarily of a spare and hypnotic bass-drum rhythm repeated over and over, with occasional electronic sweeps and clicks thrown in to stir the pot.

AMODA's Digital Showcases tend to split the difference between art show and nightclub, so at any showcase the curators have no real idea how their audience is going to respond to the musicians or the art pieces. Will they be staid museum patrons or enthusiastic dance-club partygoers? The majority of the crowd at the Copa that gathered around Simko and her laptop – the instrument sine qua non for early-21st-century digital songwriting and performance – stood mostly still throughout her 45-minute set, despite the hypnotic beats' protestations of danceability. They, like me, seemed as fascinated by the functions behind the performance of live digital music as they were by the performance itself: What buttons is she pressing? What is happening on that computer monitor? What in the world is an Evolution box? (After enough time, and looked at from the right angle, digital-art performances can take on the air of secular catechism.)

According to DJ Cuba Gooding Jr. (Brandon Duhon, to his friends), a Houston-based electro-pop musician who also performed at July's Showcase, this crowd fascination with the particulars of digital performance is an intrinsic part of electronic music's appeal, like the combination of thrills and curiosity one feels when witnessing a top-notch illusionist or a wire-fighting scene in a kung fu movie.

"As far as the spectators of DJs are concerned," he says, "I think people are fascinated by the whole process because it's hidden. The computer is facing the performers, and no one knows if [the performers are] modulating sounds or checking their e-mail." In other words, for many, the "how" is often as alluring as the "what."

While Simko unraveled her soundscapes, behind her were being broadcast the films of Jonathan Coward, a Roanoke, Va.-based digital-video artist whose simple moving black shapes, like constantly morphing inkblots, brought to mind nothing so much as a malleable Rorschach test, and I appreciated the suggestion that in our digital age, psychology, like everything else, is inconstant. Who among us – with technology developing as rapidly as it is and with new geopolitical bugbears popping out from behind rocks every week, suitcase bombs in hand – can make claims to any sort of emotional consistency? An argument made all the more engaging when presented over a minimalist techno soundtrack entering its 35th minute of unwavering dedication to willfully meaningless mechanical repetition.

"The human brain is always trying to construct meaning out of things," says Simmons of Coward's moving inkblots and Simko's minimalist beats, which he says are symptomatic of the digital-art world's tendency toward open interpretation and contextualized meaning. "A lot of the electronic music and art that we're featuring is open-ended and non-narrative, and that alone means that it's not telling a story or communicating a specific idea that's forcing you down a certain path. It's more suggestive than that."

Turknett sees the virtues of digital art and the appeal of AMODA's Digital Showcases as an outgrowth of the continuing popularity of abstract art in general.

"It's probably the abstraction [of digital art] that appeals to people," he says. "A flower is abstract, but it's not chaos; it's beautifully organized. It's a mixture of complexity and simplicity, and I think that humans tend to be interested in things that, like us, are complex enough not to be predictable but organized enough that we can make some sense of them."

Like all Digital Showcases, the Friday, Oct. 13, program will be loaded with contributors, with work coming in from as far away as Paris, London, and Montreal. Once again, Simmons and his team of volunteers will attempt for the evening to walk the line between art exhibition and rave, between enlightenment and decadence.

Falling comfortably into the latter category will be headliner Drop the Lime, a dance DJ from New York who specializes in up-tempo, bass-heavy tracks. A recording artist for Oakland, Calif., label TigerBeat6 records, Drop the Lime uses layered real-time beats, loops, and samples to back up an energetic stage show. He'll be joined by six other musical acts including locals Yatsuzaki, a cheerful electro indie-rock group that sounds like Japanese pop being strained through a world of effects processors, and happy-go-lucky experimental techno artist MVSCLZ.

Accompanying these musicians and hopefully prodding them on to hitherto uncontemplated states of creativity will be the work of 12 visual artists, including the beautifully disorienting and meditative abstract films of Yuki Kawamura, an expatriate Japanese artist living in Paris; the animé-inspired sci-fi Western animation of London native Ben Hibon; and the conspiratorial digital mythologizing of local Omnibeasts Lanneau White and David Salinas.

AMODA is, and always has been, a museum without a home. For the past two years, their Digital Showcases took up residence at the Copa. For this month's Showcase, however, AMODA is moving to the brand-new Mohawk, at 10th and Red River, a great location with a checkered (some would say cursed) history: Over the past few years, the site has been home to at least three different bars. How many Digital Showcases the Mohawk will host – and how many people will show up when it does – is in the hands of the Fates. end story

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Austin Museum of Digital Art, Rob Turknett, Todd Simmons

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