Daily Bytes | Exhibition Reviews

You’ve Got Art: FAX at the UMOCA

Installation view of FAX at Para/Site Art Space, Hong Kong

by Geoff Wichert

What is the FAX machine? It’s a teleportation device. It’s the beginning of the Internet!
—Aaron Moulton, Senior Curator of Exhibitions, UMOCA, in an interview on KCPW.

Aaron Moulton is wrong about the relation of the Fax, or facsimile machine, to the Internet. While the first digital fax machine appeared in the 1960s (prior to that, facsimile transmission was analog, which is to the computer what a parrot fish is to a parrot), the first fax/computer interface didn’t appear until 1985, by which time the Internet was well along on its parallel development. Keep in mind: while parallels go in identical directions, they have no points in common. In fact, the feeling among computer experts was that the popular acceptance of Fax technology set the rise of the computer back 15 years. What they meant, and why they drew a distinction between the two technologies goes to the heart of the relevance of FAX, an international exhibition that Aaron Moulton has brought to UMOCA.

What made a Fax machine useful was its ability to scan any existing document, so long as it was in the form of an appropriately-sized piece of paper. (I can recall watching a professor cut the pages out of his textbook in order to feed them into a Fax.) A digital Fax machine converts that visual information into a bitmap—a huge, non-compressible file that can be sent over a telephone. The recipient prints out the file, and produces a document similar to the one that was encoded at the source. After 1985, computers learned to turn digital documents into bitmaps, which could be sent to a Fax machine and there assembled into the same sort of copy that pure Fax technology would produce. What makes a Fax a different species is that the analog image is a picture, not a text. The reader of 15 Bytes—100% digital, both text AND photos—can download the words and pictures seen on the screen, change them around, and send them back (which our critics often do). The recipient of a FAX has a printed picture. Any words are pictures of words, not assemblies of letters, and can only be handled as a picture. The picture can be collaged or painted over, but in order to use the words as words or easily manipulate the images, it would have to be laboriously converted to what would essentially be new digital data.

Paradoxically, this makes the Fax a powerful device for artists. The ease with which an artist may manipulate an image in, say, Photoshop, is matched by the next person’s ability to work further changes on it. In an important way, there is no true original of a computer document. A Fax may degrade in transmission, always in interesting ways, but once received it is arguably a unique work, uniqueness being something that still has meaning in art. The provocative Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan said that when a new medium arises, older media have the power to subvert it. By producing a level of authenticity the computer lacks, the Fax machine demonstrates one way this can happen.

At UMOCA, artists will be Faxing in works done elsewhere, to be printed out and displayed in the gallery. As a long-time Mail Artist, I am excited to compare art sent on a postcard or an envelope, with all the limitations the post imposes on them and accidents it exposes them to, with the inspiration and outcomes of the Fax machine.

FAX is at UMOCA through June 23.

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2 replies »

  1. Dear Editor,

    To put some context back into my quote, my saying the fax machine is a harbinger of the internet is about technology transmitting information into the ether: this is a basic and metaphorical truth touched in the teleportational idea mentioned and not an apple/orange question. It’s about the cloud better known as iCloud. Yes these are different kinds of data streams floating around us but you get the point. My apologies for creating any possible confusion given to the writer, your readers and listeners of the initial broadcast on KCPW. Since the writer carries on as he does about the differences between technologies I think it would be good to bring the context of this review back to the exhibition.

    I would like to point out that based on the text I’m not certain whether the author has actually seen the exhibition in person, whether he likes or dislikes it, or whether anything he writes about eventually relates directly back to the show itself. These points are important.

    Also I am not the curator of the exhibition FAX nor did I personally bring it to the museum. Joao Ribas is the curator and the exhibition was programmed before my arrival. His name is written large in all material about the show. This should be corrected in this text as it is incorrect.

    The image should also be captioned “Installation view of FAX at Para/Site Art Space, Hong Kong” so readers don’t mistakenly believe it is UMoCA in the image. If that information wasn’t originally given I apologize and am offering it here now. The exhibition at UMoCA looks fundamentally different from this image. However the use of this image and distance of this location further emphasizes the teleportational idea of the exhibition going from Hong Kong to Salt Lake City.

    Please let me know if I can help clarify anything further to this or answer any questions at all about the exhibition. I invite all of your readers to please come and visit the FAX exhibition at UMoCA on through June 23rd.

    Thanks and best,

    Aaron Moulton
    Senior Curator of Exhibitions
    Utah Museum of Contemporary Art

  2. Thanks Aaron.
    I don’t think the piece was meant as a review or assessment of the exhibition, but rather a short piece to bring attention to it. We hope to follow up with a further discussion of the show itself.

    Thank you for the note on the image title. And welcome to SLC.

    Shawn Rossiter
    Editor, 15 Bytes

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