Ethan Miller’s Netbody at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art
by Sally Sumida

Above: Ethan Miller, Netbody v2, 2008.

In a darkened gallery space, a video projection covers an entire wall. The sounds of bellows-like breathing, a voice and musical sound effects accompany a succession of images. A panel of user names, tags, photos and videos appears on the screen. One is highlighted in red. It enlarges before our eyes, shooting out arcs of red spider veins that connect it to the next wave of emerging images before it disappears, becoming a tiny dot in an orderly grid of proliferating nodes advancing from left to right across the screen. As the dance of emerging and fading images continues, only the spider veins and the nodes to which they are connected remain visible. They resemble a chaos of umbilical cords, or a tangle of wires, tangible traces of their points of origin and previous connections. Where are we and what are we experiencing? Welcome to the world of Ethan Miller’s Netbody.

Netbody examines the formation of identity and community in selected preexisting sites on the Internet such as You Tube and Flickr. Ethan, who just received his MFA in digital media from San Jose State University’s CADRE Institute, has written computer code that instructs his computer to find data relating to identity on these sites and to display what it finds. One randomly chosen item is highlighted and its connections to other Internet users are plumbed. The process continues forming a new community comprising a grid of nodes that houses each entity whose information has been captured and examined. What the larger ethical, political and artistic implications of using this data? These are questions that Ethan’s work invites us to consider.

Ethan’s artwork is the computer code that he formulates. It provides the vital structure, like a conductor’s musical score, that initiates an interaction with the computer whose actions create a performance of data capture and display. It is a fluid and open work of art initiated by Ethan and completed by his computer. Unless this process is recorded, it disappears like a musical performance that leaves traces only in the memory of his computer or in the minds of those who were present to witness it. His video becomes the visual record of the artwork, the evidence of its existence and a multi-sensory experience for an expanded audience.

Like other digital media pieces such as Listening Post by Rubin/Hansen or the work of Eddo Stern, Netbody has to be experienced in person in order to be fully appreciated. Words and photos can only begin to convey its fluid, dynamic and contemplative aspects. If you have a chance, visit the ICA, sit down, relax, open your mind and your senses and enjoy a different kind of cinematic encounter. Netbody version 2 is on view as part of Lift Off 2008 at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art through June 14, 2008.

About the Artist: Ethan is a formally trained painter. Having spent his undergraduate career and beyond perfecting his craft, he turned to digital media. How does a painter become a computer artist? Here’s what Ethan had to say:

Although I make an effort to produce work that is visually compelling, the foundation of the work has to do with how it functions as language, and how it intersects with contemporary culture. My current interests have a lot to do with contemporary culture and the histories that launched the trajectories we see today

Ethan Miller’s painting, Dot Me, 2003

I had a very naive sense of what being an artist meant all through elementary and high school. I wanted to study art for a long time, and pursued painting because it was more or less the model of an artist that was available to me. At the same time, I did have brief encounters with digital media (video games, computers, basic programming as a section of a high school class). As with any practice, in painting there exists that tension between necessary patterns/structures and the disorder that makes it fertile for new explorations. Through the course of my work as a painter, I became more and more aware of the pattern/structure elements of the practice. Within painting many patterns come from the long history of painting, and the particularities of a given painter‚Äôs sense of color and gesture. As I thought more about those structures I felt the need to address ‚Äúthe fact‚Äù of structure and pattern. My paintings took on a more algorithmic nature – I would decide on a set of parameters to work within, and execute the work. Because I was simultaneously developing skills in programming, it was natural to continue that investigation through code. For me, code based work has the advantage of being relatively fluid with the underlying constraints of patterns and structures. On the one hand you’re not committed to the historical trajectories of painting (although there is always a relationship), and on the other it’s a cleaner break from ‚Äúthe hand‚Äù of the artist.

Ethan Miller, Leaves (detail) 2003.

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