Art Review: 'Urban Living' gadgets electrify.

By Mary Thomas.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - 6 February 2008


Wood Street Galleries continues to be the top local spot to see artists who are working in innovative ways with current technology.

Curator Murray Horne -- past presenter of such headline-grabbing notables as Stelarc in a Web-fed performance and Eduardo Kac of fluorescent green rabbit fame -- batches five works under the title "Urban Living," a show inspired by the increasing numbers of Downtown residents who may be looking for "options for shaping their domestic and social lives."

Whether Golden Triangle homesteaders embrace the options exhibited or run for the nearest Ethan Allen store will probably depend upon their comfort level with wires and blinking lights. But don't underestimate the appeal of electronic gadgets: Witness the demand for Sony's robotic dog Aibo (which means "pal" in Japanese and is an acronym for Artificial Intelligence roBOt) when it was released in 1999.

The seven robotic dogs of French artist France Cadet's "Dog [Lab] 01," while sharing Aibo's animal aspects, have critical baggage that the latter doesn't harbor.

Cadet has altered the physical look and programming of her "dogs" to make commentary on actual biotechnology experiments being carried out in the scientific community. In Plexiglas pens lined with artificial grass, they move about, tilt heads, bend, stare with lighted eyes and emit barks or other sounds. Each comes with a chart detailing "genetic origin" and "characteristics" that explain pedigree and research application.

The genetic origin of the hybrid, whiskered "Copycat," for example, is 50 percent dog and 50 percent cat. Characteristically, this "new species combines the independence and cleanliness of a cat" with "the affectionate and playful nature of a dog" to create the perfect pet.

More controversial is "Dolly" -- whose mooing, horns and black spots on white hide emphasize the 15 percent cow in this mix that also fictively includes 50 percent dog, 30 percent ewe and 5 percent sheep. She's suffering from BSE, or Mad Cow Disease, and periodically her knees buckle and she falls over with a thump and whines before eventually righting herself. A study of Dolly's genetic makeup, Cadet proposes, could lead to the prevention of the DNA deterioration and side effects associated with cloning, such as susceptibility to Mad Cow, premature aging and the like.

Among the others, the two human ears on the back of "Flying Pig" reference Stelarc's implantation of a third ear onto his arm and "GFP Puppy" draws on the green fluorescent jellyfish protein Kac placed in his bunny (though this phosphorescent-coated specimen lacks the vivid glow).

Cadet's "dogs" have succeeded in generating reaction and discussion, raising awareness of the "brave new world" potential of transgenic manipulations but also the wrath of the British National Farmers Union, which felt the Mad Cow piece was insensitive to their grief.

For those who don't warm up to a plastic dog clunking about the house, perhaps an elf in a potted plant would appeal.

The twittering coming from five trees, some in leaf and some in bud, sounds like a flock of birds settling in for the night. But it's actually coming from small, solar-powered, "electronic life forms" (elfs) by Pascal Glissmann and Martina Hofflin that are placed amongst the branches.

Here, surely, the disjunct between man and machine is readily drawn. But, amazingly, these little packages of circuity have their own charm, illustrating how certain signals elicit deeply programmed responses in our own species.

Other works are Information Lab's sparkling "Cell Phone Disco" (bring your cell phone to light up these walls) and Roman Kirschner's mysterious "Root," an effervescing tank resembling a cross between a block of amber and a dim pond interior. It produces sound generated by the interaction between flowing electricity and crystal growth. Sabrina Raaf's smart "Translator II: Grower" is a small "rover vehicle" that paints rows of grass upon the wall, its lushness and height proportional to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by visitors.

While such work has its problems -- batteries run down, switches break, a sensor that responds well in its original environment is sluggish in a less controlled space -- it's important to remember that the field is relatively new and that tweaks are part of the territory. As with experimental video of the 1960s, which has evolved to include sophisticated and arresting work, the future of electronic art is wide open and full of promise.

"Urban Living" continues through April 5 at 601 Wood St., Downtown. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is free; 412-471-5605 or

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"Dolly," a "genetically altered" robotic dog by France Cadet, is one of seven such pups in "Urban Living" at Wood Street Galleries, Downtown