Jennifer Steinkamp/Light In Space
By Peter Lunenfeld
Enter a room. All is darkness, except for a luminous play of color on the floor. There is no way to resist walking into the light; the projection plays down like a sunset devised by a technologized god. Skin becomes a canvas, as your shadow is transformed into a pictorial element. "Un-titled (1993)"
The sound of gagging penetrates the air, growing in volume as you ascend the staircase. Above, the skylight has been covered with an imagescape that swirls in tandem with the retching sounds, turning the space of the staircase into a disembodied throat. "Gag" (1993)
Projected light moves from blue tones to red, as the airy heavens morph into fiery hells and back again. The projections, gridded and intertwined, take hold of the space, and the wall swells and deflates like a lung. "Elbowroom" (1994)
After Einstein, we know that the speed of light is the constant that relates matter to energy and vice versa, and therefore that playing with light is far more than an aesthetic gesture: it is to intervene in our certainties about the materiality of matter and the flow of energy. Projecting complex, and often interlacing animations onto surfaces that were formerly blank, Jennifer Steinkamp's computer-generated installations challenge our prejudices that architecture is stable, while the projected image is not. Her riots of color, form, and light blur and reconfigure the place of bodies in space and the relationship of those bodies to the installation, the architectural environment, and each other.
Systems are often most vulnerable where they deviate from their systematicity. With this in mind, Steinkamp searches for architectural idiosyncrasies, for those spaces vulnerable to aesthetic fission. In one untitled piece from 1994, the exterior, rounded walls of the theater of the California Museum of Photography serve as parabolic canvases on which Steinkamp creates a dynamized audio and imagescape with movement both elliptical and mirrored. What seems to be dead space carved out behind a specialized structure becomes a pulsing grid of black squares, between which can be glimpsed fleshy expanses of yellow and pink, which both emphasize and transcend the site's curved lines. "Balconette" (1994) made use of an otherwise anonymous detail at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Ohio. High above the spectator, a balcony window which looks out onto an interior courtyard is replaced with an hallucinatory projection -- black and white riddled through with flashes of intense color. Here, a sphere rushes out at the spectator, eventually fills the screen, and then retreats. The effect is of a field folding in on itself, advancing and then flattening again. Steinkamp's digital trompe l'oeil, her op art in motion, takes on added resonance as it plays off the romantic implications of an inaccessible portal.
Steinkamp has also built her own environments, most successfully with "Swell" (1995). In a light-proof room, projectors are situated on either side of a specially constructed wall, with a pass-through enabling the spectators to walk from one side to the other. The front projection extends only part of the way across the wall, and appended to the wall is a scrim of equal height but reduced width, which serves as the screen surface for the rear projection.  Both imagescapes are in essence the same -- confetti-like bits of blue, yellow and white which appear to be blowing through a wind tunnel, like some slapstick meditation upon eternally dissolving matter; but the one on the scrim is shifted by ninety degrees - from the horizontal to the vertical - and considerably smaller, though a similar aspect ratio is maintained. Coming into "Swell," then, requires a series of adjustments: first, from the quiet and the sun's glare outside the gallery to the controlled sound and light within; then, to acknowledging the fact that what appear to be two distinct imagescapes are in fact, rotations of one another; and finally that the faith in a single, wholly legible projection, cultivated by years of movie-going, has been ruptured by the use of another, positioned opposite.
As spectators move from the front to the back, they intersect with the dual projections, their shadows becoming part of the piece itself. With this awareness comes the invitation for others to participate, to cross from spectator to element of the piece, to become involved in the piece as a social construction. Like "Swell," "Happy Happy" (1997), "Blue Blow" (1997), and "Double Take" (1996) encourage viewers to immerse themselves in the play of light by casting their own shadows into the art work (this works especially well in the latter piece, "Double Take," which derives its look, soundtrack, and psychological undertow from Hitchcock's "Vertigo," itself a canny investigation of ego and desire). These pieces - or experiences, to be precise - play with the narcissism inherent in contemporary technologies. That is, so much of digital visual culture involves a feedback between the user and the machine: the fabled interactivity that is less open system than closed loop. Though Steinkamp's art doesn't involve this kind of interactivity, her installations are perforce interactive: Viewers revel in the recognition of their own shadows, and elevate the traces of their own bodies to the realm of art. But the very transience of their marks on the image field denotes the vanity of their efforts.
Just as thorny as her relationship to interactive art are attempts to craft a genealogy for Steinkamp's work. The default comparison is to non-figurative painting, distilled here by David Pagel: "Without paint or canvas, her abstractions fulfill many of the Abstract Expressionists' intentions, simultaneously pushing painting into the fourth dimension."  Art criticism routinely bows to these venerated masters whenever abstraction enters the frame, but in her acute attention to the fourth dimension of time, Steinkamp is at least as indebted to structuralist filmmaking of the 1960s and 1970s as AbEx canvases of the 1950s. To take just two precedents, look at Paul Sharits and Michael Snow. Sharits' color flicker films, among them "N:O:T:H:I:N:G" (1968), create chromatic chords, assaulting the sensorium with staccato bursts of light. Snow's single screen, dual sided projection piece, "Two Sides to Every Story" (1974), forces spectators to constantly readjust their positions, dissolving the boundaries between two and three dimensional representation, and creating a unique kind of 2.5-D space (precisely what screen-based digital virtual environment strive to effect).
Yet, while filmmakers like Sharits, Peter Kubelka and Tony Conrad worked within the controlled space of the theater -- in darkness, with the sole light source of the film projector -- Steinkamp engages with the diffusion of environmental light sculpture, and works within the constraints of a number of differing media. Interestingly, I almost never think of her work in terms of video, though she uses video projectors and has created single channel tapes. Yes, she uses videodisks and video projectors, but if she could go straight off a hard drive into a hi-res data projector, she would. In other words, for all of her attentions to video's limited color palette and the specificities of using the technology within projection installations, her attention to video boils down to an entirely pragmatic assessment: "whatever gets the job done."
This attitude towards getting the job done betrays a particular West Coast pragmatism, a willingness to engage with materials on their own merits in the service of a series of concrete investigations. It has been said of the metaphysical pragmatist Robert Irwin that the more you look, the more you see, and the same applies to Steinkamp. But her relationship to Irwin is more pointed. A central figure of the 1960s' "Light and Space" movement, Irwin created ephemeral interventions into architecture which challenged the viewer's perception of the environment and the play of light within that environment; subtlety and diaphanous materials -- neon tubes, sheer scrims, highly determined lighting schemes -- were the work's distinguishing characteristics. Irwin was also well known for his obsession with the automobile, and the great flowering of California car culture in the 1960s (that last stand of aestheticized mechanization that Tom Wolfe summed up in his title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby). The mobilized gaze that the driver commands from behind the wheel, landscapes whizzing by at sixty miles an hour, the glimpses of architecture, the distance from the human pedestrian, all of these have helped to shape both the modern and the postmodern, from the Futurists to J.G. Ballard. It also fed into the finish fetish so typical of that era's art in Southern California. But what the customized hot-rod was to the '60s, the full-blown, RAM-hogging, graphics engine is to the '90s. And it is precisely that sort of high-end, Silicon Graphics equipment (in all its purple and indigo glory), that Steinkamp uses to create her animations. Her works, like Irwin's, are self-conscious of their luxe and sheen, and revel in the possibilities of technology without fetishizing the machines or even the processes of their production.
These processes are, admittedly, complex. From the earliest 3-D modeling of the space of the exhibition, to the development of animations on high-end SGI graphics engine hardware, to the melding of image and sound, Steinkamp is determined to precisely situate the work within its architectural context. She develops detailed three-dimensional computer schematics of the hardscape and then designs a series of renderings to plan for the deployment of the projectors and speakers. Once that is completed she begins to run a series of simulations of the play of light within the space. Steinkamp has also been collaborating with sound artists and to add an aural dimension to her work and these explorations into expanded multimedia come together to transform silent, white spaces into rhythmic and extruded abstractions. 
Like the work of her LA contemporaries Jorge Pardo, Pae White and Jason Rhoades, Steinkamp's environments are energized by commercial art's attention to surface, and must be contextualized broadly within visual culture rather than strictly in the terms of fine art. Obviously architecture is central to her work, but so are the design fields: graphics, computer imaging, and the three-dimensional arenas of industrial and product design. Steinkamp has worked for major production houses, and teaches computer animation at Art Center College of Design to a range of students, the majority of whom will not be working within the gallery/museum nexus. In 1997, she founded Blush, a boutique commercial animation house, and her first client was the band U2, who commissioned abstract animations for the massive video monitors of their "PopMart" world tour. In other words, Steinkamp creates work that demands an open field of inquiry aware of the present technological moment and informed by a raft of artistic and aesthetic discourses. 
This is not to say that in embracing computer graphics and entertainment design, Steinkamp is abandoning conceptual rigor simply to revel in tech. Too much art that engages with technology mutates into "techno-art," a ghettoized form that begs to be admitted to the big table simply because of the fact that it is so hard to make, or to make work. Techno-art can end up simulating Magic Eye picture displays in shopping malls, where a group gathers around, staring for ten or more minutes at an abstract pattern, until a three dimensional horse finally pops out. Yes, the group has seen something, but was it worth the wait? Steinkamp's work is extremely exacting and difficult to produce, but that is hardly the point. Her insistence on acknowledging the body of the spectator, and her resistance to the facile demands for a rote sort of interactivity lends her work a seriousness that her often playful titles belie (one of my favorites is the 1995 "Inney," which expands the notion of navel-gazing to absurdly cosmic proportions). Hers is a fully phenomenological interactivity, one in which the body in space is acknowledged as an active subject, and where the choice to orient the body in relation to the work is seen as every bit as "contemporary" as the deployment of buttons and tiresome tree structured interactions.
Jennifer Steinkamp produces a curious kind of art, dependent upon technology, though resistant to anything but direct experience. Fully simulated before being installed, it must be engaged bodily to be understood and appreciated. It derives from, then, but is not of technology. Here, there is a constant modulation between the aesthetization of space and the spatialization of aesthetics. The wall becomes another space; the space becomes another image; the image becomes another wall; in something like the way, I suppose, E becomes mc2.
 The use of scrims seems to be increasingly important in projection work. The third portion of Bill Viola's piece at the 1995 Venice Biennale was comprised of a series of hanging scrims with projections on either side, leading to the images eventually melting into each other. Char Davies' VR installation Osmose (1996) used a backlit scrim to incorporate the figure and movements of her "immersants" for those who watched the show without the benefit of the head mounted display.
 David Pagel, "High Tech Abstractions," Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1995, p. F3. Also see David Greene's comment, "at its core her art's closest analogue is still abstract painting," from his review "Jennifer Steinkamp: ACME, Santa Monica," frieze March/April, 1996, p. 72.
 Though fully integrating aural elements into the installations remains a challenge (she refers to sound as "a real beast"), Steinkamp has worked with Jimmy Johnson on "Feel Purple, Taste Green" (1994), Brian Brown on "Swell," and most lastingly with the techno-sound artists Grain on "Orange Six Point Sea" (1995), "Smoke Screen" (1995), "Naysplatter" (1996), "Double Take," "Happy Happy," and "Blue Blow."
 Steinkamp's practice flies in the face of recent attempts to control the emerging discourses of "visual culture." October recent special issue on the subject offered the editorial board's ponderous defenses of the disciplinary boundaries of art history and a questionaire on visual culture that generated such gems as Emily Apter completely hysterical definition of all things cyber: "Mobilizing ghostly, derealized selves within a dirty realist. sleaze, or pulp tradition (a tradition drawing visually on sci-fi, cartoons, comics, graffiti, porn, fanzines, slash and snuff movies, film noir, flight simulation, surveillance cameras, and technical imaging), cyber operates through a combination of ontological projection and ethical subjection," October 77 (Summer, 1996), p. 26.
Peter Lunenfeld, founder of mediawork and Director of the Institute for Technology & Aesthetics, teaches at Art Center College of Design, and is the editor of The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, forthcoming from the MIT Press.