The Theremin Computer Center is regularly saturated with a cacophony of sound. Located on the grounds of the Moscow Conservatory, the small studio stuffed with electronic equipment is plunged daily into eerie dissonance as piano scales clash with viola solos and opera arias. The harmonic melange is an appropriate backdrop for pioneering Russian computer artist, Alexei Shulgin, whose dissonant views and eclectic wit often catch his listeners off guard.
"I see the mundane world around me as an endless absurdity. My response is art," said Shulgin with a subversive smile. "Being an artist is the only honest profession. I don"t claim to be of any use to the world, to society. I just do what I find interesting."
Despite the 33-year-old Moscow artist"s cultivated air of detachment, his work has attracted substantial acclaim in Russia and beyond for his exceptional use of the Internet as an open space for art.
The Moscow World Wide Web Art Center, which Shulgin founded and has headed since 1994, is ranked by the American computer firm Pointcom as among the top five percent of the world"s most innovative Web sites. For many Moscow artists, the virtual art gallery, which currently is running some 16 original exhibits from photographs to performance art, gives them a chance to display their work, often for the first time.
Although Shulgin is the first to admit that art"s position on the Web is ambiguous at best, he is sure of one thing: "The Internet is the most democratic forum artists have ever had. It is giving more of them more access to each other than ever before.
Besides its permanent exhibits, the Center recently created its own award for art excellence on the Web called "WWWArt Award," which is an effort to recognize outstanding Web site designs as unwitting art. The object of the award is to find Web sites that don"t advertise themselves as art, but deserve the aesthetic distinction. During one of Shulgin"s recent digital meanderings, he found the winner for this year"s "Most Subtle Play with Sexual Symbolism" award, which was an American Web site about the Korean War that includes pictures of large bombers with risque mascot maidens painted across the airplanes" noses.
"It's uncertain whether the artist who posted these pictures realized the potent symbolism of juxtaposing the image of an attractive woman and the protruding fuselage of an airplane, but I think it"s pretty clear," Shulgin said. "This is art and it needs to be recognized."
The confusion as to what does and does not qualify as art on the Web is a problem of context, said Shulgin, who was an established and well-exposed photographer before ever beginning his pioneering work with computers.
"If I put on horns and a tail and run through the streets naked, people say I"m mad, but if I invite the media first and make an announcement about a performance - it becomes art," he said. "Likewise, art on the "Net lacks art"s traditional accoutrements such as critics, sponsors and, most importantly, physical monuments like museums and art institutes, all of which make traditional forms of art legitimate."
But, according to Shulgin"s computer art colleague Tanya Detkina, her medium"s unofficial status also has a few unexpected benefits. "So far, institutions for turning art objects on the Internet into buyable and sellable commodities do not yet exist. Accordingly, you don"t find the corruption, hypocrisy and envy that have become hallmarks of institutionalized art."
One of the obvious advantages of the Moscow Art Center is its wide accessibility, allowing artists to establish contacts with colleagues the world over.
For 25-year-old experimental filmmaker Olga Lialina, the Internet has been a miraculous resource. "One of the problems with experimental film is just getting information about it. With the "Net, I can find stuff in minutes that would normally be impossible to uncover."
Having attended Shulgin's seminar for the past three months, Lialina recently started publishing her own online film journal and has been getting mail from all over the globe. One of her readers is an experimental filmmaker from Paris, who, since linking up with Lialina on the Web, has agreed to come to Moscow in person early next June for a display of his own work at the Museum of Cinema.
About half of the exhibits currently running in the Art Center are digitalized versions of photographs and reproductions of art already displayed in galleries, a sign that the number of artists who use the computer itself as a medium is still relatively small. Shulgin thinks he knows why: "Artists are discouraged from using the computer, because computer art doesn"t exist and can"t."
"The problem is that what an artist did a year ago already looks shabby and antiquated today because the technology changes so rapidly," said Shulgin, who finished a Moscow technical school with a degree in cybernetics. The artist has a hunch about who is responsible for the world"s unhealthy obsession with technical progress. "People like what"s new. Its all part of the American ideology that everything has to be super - super fast, super convenient, Super Bowl."
Ideally, Shulgin would like to use technology to try to broaden Internet users" perspective of what can be considered art on the Web. Despite the artist"s infectious enthusiasm for the project, he has no illusions about his equipment. "I have no warm feelings for computers. The machine is ultimately empty, thoughtless and soulless."
To find the Moscow Art Center on the Web, visit:(http://sunsite.cs.msu.su/wwwart/)
Copyright 1996 Independent Press