Ryoji Ikeda's data.tron is cold-hearted, aesthetically severe and, well, perfect. It's mathematical, geometrical, computational and methodical — devoid of the messiness of nature and human nature, and willfully adrift in the abstractions of mathematics and data. data.tron consists of a single screen, about 10 by 40 feet. You can stand back and take it all in or, given its size, you can move in close and immerse yourself, though the work is unaffected by one's presence, as uncaring as the inside of a computer. Some art reaches out and pulls you in, but here it feels like it's up to you whether to give yourself over.
Projected on the screen is a time-based sequence just under 10 minutes long, broken up into half a dozen distinct but related segments, and with a clear beginning and end: The screen goes dark before the next cycle commences. But we're a restless sort these days, and I noted that not everyone stuck around long enough to see that there's more than one segment. There's no indication of duration on the wall label, and departing viewers probably thought they'd "got it."
But regardless of where in the cycle you enter, watching it at least once all the way through is highly recommended because the work has a clear structure roughly akin to a musical composition. Not surprisingly, the Japanese-born, Paris-based, forty-something Ikeda was a successful sound artist before expanding his practice into multimedia presentations. His website describes him as "Japan's leading composer and visual artist"; presumably, others concur.
Here's some idea of what happens: At the outset, with a mood-setting electronic soundtrack, a series of white bars of varied widths constantly shift against a black background that is broken into lateral sections, with some bars moving upward and some down, while everything flickers like a silent film of too few frames per second. Of course, descriptions such as background, movement, etc. are metaphorical references to motion pictures, while data.tron consists of computer code creating the illusion of movement and progression. The ever-changing patterning of light and dark feels functional, as if something has been measured and encoded and is being processed or transferred at high speed. After a minute or two, the projection shifts to a different sequence. The segments are of unequal duration, and all feel related.
Some segments are simpler and others more complex, some more slow-paced and others more frenetic. data.tron is mostly devoid of color, though some words are highlighted in red or blue. Overall, the elements are limited to: lines; rectangles by the hundred and diagrams; numbers that either fill the screen by the thousands or appear in countless strings that seem to represent something, and very well may; technical and scientific terms that flash by, though when one does register — such as "secondary structure" or "biopolymer" — it doesn't tell you much; and a soundtrack of electronic hums, clicks, thrums of wavering pitch and sonar-like pings. There is a rhythm and arc to the piece that reflects careful arrangement, with recurring sound and visual themes stitching it together. data.tron is not a rumination on randomness.
Experiencing data.tron, one feels as if everything can be reduced to data, and hovering over the piece — where one might look for a critique of how data is collected and used — there appears to be a reverence for technology. The concluding segment seems the purest manifestation of data, with thousands of numerals uncontextualized by words or spacing that might indicate sequences. The numerals change rapidly and freeze, and then disappear, leaving an unexpected, expanded sense of what's pleasing.
On the opening evening of the exhibit, Ikeda performed "test pattern [live set]" in the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's nearby Pierce Studio. While closely related to some segments of data.tron, this approximately half-hour performance was even more consistent throughout, with the visuals limited only to black, white and gray rectangles. They flickered, fractured into vertical bands — at one point, more than I could count — and moved with endless agitation against a background of electronic sounds, seemingly building toward something that turned out to be a field of static and white noise. Ikeda wordlessly orchestrated the sound and visuals into something spare and elegant that was never dull or monotonous; the music of Morton Feldman came to mind. If you missed "test pattern," an unofficial version of a performance in Barcelona is posted on YouTube.