Just the fax

We are constantly reminded how technology is rapidly developing and changing our world. Apple just announced its new product — the iPad — a handy device that stores books, music, videos and will even make you a sandwich. But while these trendy new products capture our attention, other technological devices are left behind in their wake. Remember the fax machine?

Yes, when some people think of the fax machine, only a scene from office space runs through their mind: people beating the crap out of an unsuspecting machine. But the technology itself has been around for a surprisingly long time, first patented in 1843 by Alexander Bain. In the 1970s the fax machine entered the office universe, transmitting image and text to other machines all over the world.

The fax machine has become an archaic relic in the present utopia that is the paperless office. But one does not need to enter a sci-fi reality to view this technology through new eyes. “FAX,” a current exhibition at the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art is celebrating the fax machine by employing artists, architects, designers, scientists and filmmakers to use this technology to create art.

It might, at first, seem a bit of a stretch to have creative thinkers use the fax machine for artistic purposes. But according to Plug In, the fax machine was an “important part of the history of telecommunications art, nestled between the legacy of mail art and the nascent practices of new media.” Indeed, in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, there were fax art exhibits in Iceland, projects based in Brazil and collaborative events, like Earth Day Impromptu in 1990. Artists from Australia, Austria, Brazil, Israel, Portugal, England, France and Canada all used the fax machine and slow-scan television to send and receive art in real time.

Winnipeg is continuing this tradition by hosting a traveling exhibit titled FAX, co-organized by The Drawing Center in New York and the Independent Curators International. The project began in New York when artists were invited to send faxes to an exhibit, taking into account how the medium would affect their artwork. The initial showing included over 100 faxes from renowned artists like Peter Coffin and Matt Sheridan Smith. Plug In ICA has expanded this base by inviting local artists to submit works for the show.

FAX is also constantly growing and evolving. In real time, artists’ work is spewed through the machine and into a basket on a table in the center of the gallery. There are binders filled with images of faxes on the table. Several walls also host an arrangement of papers.

Some of the faxes are actual junk mail. But, from what I gather, nothing is filtered or thrown away. Other pieces of paper are private treasures, making the viewer feel as if they are spying on someone’s personal documents or rifling through their trash. There are records of plane tickets from Copenhagen, kiss imprints on receipts and documents with hand written notes. There are also humorous charts, like mock eyesight tests in a variety of fonts and characters. One is made up of birds, another Hebrew lettering and a third reads “OMG, WTF, STFU, PWND” with each row gradually decreasing in size. Some artists have used the machine to showcase drawings and photographs, while others have written statements like “the end is near” in funky fonts.

The analog aesthetic of the fax machine provides the primary character of the exhibition. Indeed, several pieces have either too little or too much contrast, photographs become black splotches and drawings are unclear. In all, FAX reads like a visual explanation of Marshall McLuhan’s famous theory that “the medium is the message.” The fax machine ultimately influences the way the artist’s message is received and perceived.

Fax runs until Feb. 21 at the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art (286 McDermot Ave.)