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  Interview w/ Deadtech  
  By Chris Johnson, published in citylink newspaper  

I showed up to Deadtech gallery in Logan Square. Tech artist Paul Davies buzzed me in; proprietor and curator, Rob Ray, was still in transit. Davies, a long-time Deadtech collaborator, let me into the workshop adjoining the gallery where he was working on a large installation piece. We sat down to a table cluttered with circuits, tools, an old monitor, and catalogs for electronic parts. Davies was building modules that will display videos when plugged into the device clamped to the nearby workbench.

I asked Davies about the origins of electromechanical art. He traced a line of development from Da Vinci's interest in mechanical devices and human anatomy, the aesthetic of the Futurists of the 1920s, to mechanical devices showcased at World Fairs. But art tech, as we know it now, probably started in the 60s with artists like Norman White, who builds kinetic electronic devices, and Stelarc, a performance artist who examines the radical symbiosis of man and machine.

Ray arrived, made coffee, and we discussed tech art. Ray opened Deadtech in 1998 as a showcase for electromechanical art. He runs the space by himself and asks no commission from artists, content to meet others with his interest in tech art and provide an forum for this "untested medium." "I figured I was already paying rent on this place", he said. He looks for work that is interactive, often internet ennabled, and inquisitive of technology. "The artists are looking at technology as a conceptual entity instead of a utilitarion entity." At first, he wasn't sure that outside artists would make the trek to Chicago to exhibit. But artists come from all over the world. "We've had artists from every continent. Except Antarctica", said Ray. While art tech enjoys greater popularity on the east and west coast, and especially in Europe, Deadtech is one of its few regular venues in Chicago. The space offers 8-10 exhibits a year, with occasional music performances. For the second year in a row, the gallery has been invited to display at The Stray Show, a prestigious art fair for midwestern emerging art galleries and unconventional spaces. Ray said the show is good exposure for the Chicago art scene, which "suffers from its third city status."

Interactivity plays a big role in the Deadtech experience. One show featured a backpack rigged with a camera worn over the shoulder, to be worn and passed off to other audience members. Others wore screens receiving the images. It's sometimes hard to convince people that they can not only touch exhibits, but actually use them. "They have to overcome a lot of cultural programming", said Davies. Once they try, they have a blast. Ray and Davies insisted that, with the advent of common personal technology, this kind of interactivity is more like real life. "For example," said Davies, "people drive cars everyday. You don't call it interactive. You call it driving." Davies defined tech art as "an examination of technology. Technology deserves questioning. It's one of the great themes of the contemporary western world. The entire world, actually." As cellphones and computers become more ingrained, interactive art engages people on a level that's closer to their daily experience.

Featured Deadtech artists share a fascination with the cultural implications of technology and often take delight in exposing jeopardy in the modern world. Many focus on themes of surveillance and out-of-control technology. "Artists respect it [technology] more and fear it less", said Davies. Deadtech hosts the yearly tactical media event called Wardriving. Participants patrol the city with personal computers in cars, searching for wireless networks that are unsecured. The Wardriveres found that over 60% of the networks they identified were not secured, including 3 networks inside the Chicago Federal Building. Are these unsecured networks vulnerable? "It's the computer equivalent of leaving your front door open", said Ray.

Deadtech frequently features installation pieces that have working parts, computer programs, or require a lot of electricity. I asked Rob if he ever has problems with the installation process. "Always," he said without skipping a beat. "Install time is insane. Sometimes as much as a week. Things will go wrong, and then you have to mitigate. The electronic pieces can be a huge curatorial challenge." But Rob is always willing to jump in with his soldering iron to jerryrig a repair. Deadtech's web-site has a floorplan that maps out the location of its electrical outlets to aid artists in their preparation. The artists also have access to a 780k DSL connection and 7-8 working computers.

The most difficult and involved installation so far was erecting Paul Davies' interactive environment, The Tornado. The walk-though architectural sculpture incorporated found objects, sound, video and light, taking up the entire exhibition space. 7 people worked 14 hours a day for four days straight to build the piece. It took Rob 2 days and 30 large contractor garbage bags to remove the piece.

Deadtech often hosts audio performances, usually from the electronic genre, noise. Ray considers this experimental music a major intersection of art and technology. "They take apart musical instruments, and put them together with other instruments. These are the people who take apart the toy instead of using it." Sound design is increasingly incorporated into intallation art as well, as personal computer audio applications become cheaper.

On March 16, Deadtech features Television Power Electric, an experimental noise ensemble. The next art show exhibits an installation by Ontario artist, Tamara Stone, who will begin a month long residency at Deadtech in March. The work examines notions of surveillance and the artist as observer of our world, and opens March 29. Hours: saturday 12-5, tues 8-12, 3321 W. Fullerton Ave. Chicago IL. For more information, visit







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