MANY of the artists in the 2002 Whitney Biennial (through May 26) are young and new to New York, but the rituals surrounding the show, including its fraught critical reception, are old and familiar. The reviews have been good, middling and bad, some of the last replete with end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it prognostications.
The biennial is always, at some level, as much about art-world politics as it is about art. The 2002 curators assembled a show that barely acknowledges the New York art establishment; predictably, whistle-blowers sprang into action. But, in fact, the art world's center of gravity is constantly changing, as work emerges in new forms, in different places, for different audiences. To an older generation, digital technology is foreign, suspect terrain, just as video was 30 years ago; for many young artists it is a rich and ductile aesthetic medium.
Art's geographic coordinates are in flux internationally; and in New York some eyes are looking to the Lower East Side for the next un-Chelsea, post-Brooklyn situation. Models for showing art are growing flexible, as they periodically do. Galleries with odd hours keep turning up in odd places (apartments, hotel lobbies, churches). Some artists work co llectively, like rock bands. Those collaborating on Web-based art often never actually meet, and the art they're producing can be sampled, and even added to, by anyone, anywhere.
The notion of an art world run by a command central is arri╦re-garde by now. And anyway -- bottom line -- after all the biennial words are in, it's artists who matter and have the answers, and there are some good ones at the Whitney.
THIS year's show has a particularly strong film program. And one of its participants, Irit Batsry -- born in Israel in 1957, now based in New York -- has been given the biennial's Bucksbaum Award of $100,000. Her contribution, a gorgeous, digitally edited 80-minute film -- her first -- titled ''These Are Not My Images (Neither There Nor Here),'' begins as a kind of travelogue by train and foot through Southern India, a world seemingly made of impressionistic, jewellike colors filtered through a hazy light.
Gradually, though, a story emerges, set in the future and told through the disembodied voices of three characters. One, played by Ms. Batsry, is a Western visitor sent by the government of some unnamed country to make a film about ''the East.'' Another is her elderly, half-blind Indian guide: much of the film may be imagined as seen through his failing eyes. A third character is an Indian filmmaker torn between the culture he is part of and the unsettling lure of the modern West.
All three are, in different ways, adrift; but by the end of the film, each has had an experience of altered consciousness -- suggested in bursts of explosive color and in an auditory hallucination of a soundtrack by Stuart Jones -- which lets them reconcile fantasy and reality in their lives. Cultural displacement was a central theme of the ''identity'' art of the late 1990's; Ms. Batsry gives some sense of where that theme, with its didactic kinks now worked out, may be heading.
SITE-SPECIFIC performance is central to the art of William Pope.L, 47, whose endurance-test pieces draw equally from socia l ideas and personal biography. For his Whitney performance, titled ''The Great White Way,'' he plans to crawl 22 miles through Manhattan -- from the foot of the Statue of Liberty, up Broadway to West 207th Street, and across the University Heights bridge to the Bronx, where his mother lives.
Mr. Pope.L has already initiated the piece, which he has described as a symbolic gesture referring to immigrant history, the courage of the homeless and ''the privilege of being a vertical person.'' He plans to complete it in increments over five years. The first segment, last December, took him from Liberty Island via ferry to the Custom House at Bowling Green; the second, in March, entailed an arduous uphill climb from Bowling Green to the corner of Wall Street and Broadway.
On that occasion, he was the subject of solicitous attention from surprised bystanders. Some asked him what the problem was; others offered him water; still others wanted to talk about what the performance meant. All the reactions were examples of what this utopian conceptualist calls ''the generosity of the city.'' And surely more of that generosity will be extended to him during the third segment of his journey today, beginning at 11 a.m. Wearing a Superman costume and with an emergency skateboard strapped to his back, he will crawl up Broadway from Wall Street, past ground zero, to City Hall.
AT 30, the Israeli-born Omer Fast is the youngest artist of the six included here. And in his multitasking work, video, sound, performance, meticulous craftsmanship and popular culture come together.
At the biennial he is represented by a video piece titled ''Glendive Foley,'' installed on two monitors. One carries images of bungalow-style homes in the small, remote town of Glendive, Mont. On the other are shots of the artist, who moved to the United States as a teenager, sitting at a microphone and orally creating a stream of sounds -- the whoosh of rushing cars, the twittering of birds, the barking of dogs -- to accompany his images of a n all-American place.
Mr. Fast -- who, like several artists in the biennial, has yet to have a one-person show in New York (his solo debut will take place in Paris this June) -- is producing increasingly intricate work combining video technology, language and performance. In the recently completed ''CNN Concatenated,'' a genuine tour de force, he articulates metaphysical questions by piecing together thousands of seconds-long clips from the taped performances of television newscasters. And in ''Berlin-Hura,'' also done this year, he links the history of Germany (where he now lives) with that of Israel, through the memory of an elderly woman in Tel Aviv, in a story of forced-movement displacement. As Ms. Batsry has been doing for some time, he is making a formally virtuosic art of increasingly expansive ideas.
CHRIS WARE collects and recycles vast amounts of cultural and personal data and mixes them together for immaculate hand-drawn comic strips. Mr. Ware, who was born in Nebraska in 1967 and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he now lives, publishes most of his work serially in a self-produced periodical called the Acme Novelty Library.
Inspired by American comics from ''Krazy Kat'' and ''Little Nemo'' to ''Superman,'' he developed a polished graphic style and an idiosyncratic, quasi-autobiographical content, exemplified in his extraordinary visual novel ''Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.'' Nearly 400 pages long, the book tells the story of a child growing up, repressed and clueless, in a dysfunctional family. As we watch him change from an aged-looking 8-year-old to a middle-aged nerd to an old man isolated in a nursing home, the book shifts surrealistically back and forth among several generations of Corrigan men, suggesting that the same history of embarrassments and disappointments has repeated itself, detail for detail, in different eras.
Visually, Mr. Ware's minutely rendered jigsawlike compositions suggest abstract paintings from a distance; up close they read l ike excruciating self-revelations. Like many artists in this biennial, he slips among genres. He is a cartoonist who is also an epic artist-writer in the line of Henry Darger, for whom images and words were inseparable and who turned nostalgia into deeply scary emotion.
MARY FLANAGAN, born in Milwaukee in 1969, is one of several digital artists in the biennial whose work is entirely independent of an institutional setting; her piece, ''[Collection],'' is available online at www.maryflanagan.com/collection.htm to anyone with PC access to the Web. Once you've signed onto her site, a program begins to scour your hard drive, randomly harvesting bits of data from e-mail, text files and images, just as it has done from the drives of all the users who have signed on before you.
This raw digital material is transformed into a three-dimensional holographic collage, constantly in motion. The artist describes the results as a ''visible, virtual, networked collective unconscious.'' But it can also be seen as an anonymous, collaborative version of concrete poetry in which, in Schwitteresque fashion, language and images are given an equally mesmerizing and abstract presence.
Ms. Flanagan, an associate professor of multimedia design in the art department of the University of Oregon, has done some fascinating writing on how women relate to the new technology, and she has created a Web-based adventure game for girls, ''The Adventures of Josie True.'' Like other digital artists in the show, including Margot Lovejoy, Josh On & Futurefarmers and Lisa Jevbratt/C5, she clearly understands not only the visual potential of a medium still in its infancy, but also its political implications: revolutions can begin, remotely, here.
THE 2002 biennial gives extraordinary attention to the medium of sound work, which in its ''pure'' form is independent of visual components. Some pieces involve the use of spoken words; others are based on music; still others are wrought from ambient or fabricated sound.
Stephen Vit iello is among the most versatile younger artists in the medium. Born in New York in 1964, he started playing in punk and noise bands in the 1970's, then collaborated on projects with the multimedia artist Tony Oursler. In 1991, when he organized a concert with the video artist Nam June Paik and the Bad Brains, an African-American postpunk band, he was introduced to antic antimaterialist Fluxus performance. In the late 1990's, he began to operate as a solo artist and composer of site-specific work, in which sound was produced by, and occupied, physical space.
His piece in the biennial, ''World Trade Center Recordings: Winds After Hurricane Floyd,'' derives from a 1999 artist residency on the 91st floor of Tower One, where for months he recorded sounds inside and outside the building, including its structural movements during a storm. Although by art-world standards the sources of Mr. Vitiello's work are unorthodox -- he cites one of them as ''being 14 and almost inside the speakers at the Palladium during the Clash's first U.S. tour'' -- he is an integral part of a contemporary lineage that includes, in addition to Fluxus, figures like Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci.
CAPTIONS: Photos: IRIT BATSRY -- A first film is a layered look at foreignness. (Whitney Museum of American Art [above]; Irit Batsry [below]); WILLIAM POPE.L -- A 22-mile crawl through Manhattan. (Whitney Museum of American Art); OMER FAST --Pop culture finds a meticulous craftsman. (Whitney Museum of American Art); CHRIS WARE -- The comic book as a surreal epic novel. (Whitney Museum of American Art [above]; Marnie Ware [below]); MARY FLANAGAN -- A digital revolution, on the Web only. (Whitney Museum of American Art [above]; Franklin Miller [below]); STEPHEN VITIELLO -- Sounds of the World Trade Center. (Whitney Museum of American Art [above]; Paul Court [below])
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