Art and soul of the machine






WALKING into David Rokeby's exhibition, I get my first shock of the day: my own ugly mug beamed on to a screen half the size of the room.

The accompanying description says I'm "guarded". Yeah, I probably am, I'm trying to work out what this is about. It's not every day you walk into an exhibition and see yourself.

I take a step forward. Now I'm "resolute". The close-up flickers into rows of mugshots of previous visitors. Then it's me again, "highly critical". What's going on? Am I reading this work of art, or it is reading me?

This is, of course, exactly the effect Rokeby is aiming for. He's interested in how we perceive the world, so he creates works which attempt to do this, too. This particular work is Taken, exploring simultaneously on its two screens the power of labelling and the way people occupy space (the latter is a key Rokeby interest to which he returns in his large Venice Biennale commission Seen). The second screen shows the room in which I'm standing, my stationary form surrounded by the partially transparent ghosts of those who have been here before me.

When Rokeby, a Canadian, started making work using interactive computer technology back in the 1980s, he was right at the forefront of "new media art". Technology has changed beyond all recognition since, demanding that technology-based art follows suit. One thing a retrospective such as this one reminds us is how quickly such work starts to date. Very Nervous System was first shown in 1986. Visitors enter a space where the slightest movement of their body is picked up by a camera and translated into a palette of sounds: no mean feat at a time when most of us were still getting to grips with the ZX-Spectrum.

Though it has been updated in the intervening 20 years, it seems to belong in an earlier period. It responds, but slowly, translating my steps into the rattles of crashes of a lumbering cartoon giant. It was a pioneering work, but now more sophisticated works are produced in the same genre it inevitably stands in their shadow.

Rokeby is interested in the differences between humans and computers, how both process raw information and produce coherent reasoning, though in radically different ways. In The Giver of Names a machine laboriously analyses and identifies an object a viewer selects from a pile - a cuddly toy or a welly boot - producing a mixture of fascination and frustration in the human audience, who can name it instinctively.

Machine for Taking Time is a film which pans across a garden in a slow, continuous sweep. In fact, its footage is stitched together from various films made over the course of three years, mixing the seasons as it sweeps from frost and snow to sparkling, leafy summer. It's suitably disorientating, but for an audience that has watched seasons change in seconds on Planet Earth, the technology doesn't appear particularly new or especially interesting.

There's something inherently interesting, however, about taking a sunbed, putting it in the back of a hearse and driving it across Europe offering a few minutes tan in exchange for a piece-to-camera about your views on heaven. Such is the latest project from Scottish artist Stephen Skrynka, made with Intermedia but on show upstairs at CCA.

As is often the case with works that exist as documentation, you feel that what you're watching can't be as much fun as being there, but the sunbed is here, emitting an eerie violet glow in a room painted black, while six monitors show a pieced-together film of the interviews carried out. While tighter editing is needed, they present an interesting patchwork of world views.

It would have been good to hear from a wider cross-section of ages and backgrounds, but it's no surprise that it's generally youngish arty types who were prepared to climb into the hearse-sunbed. Many are visibly discomforted by their surroundings. One young man proffers that it's a bit like hell. A young woman is prompted to recall, vividly, the tunnel of soft light she saw after taking an overdose.

As to "heaven", there are cliched visions of waterfalls, palm trees and warm light. Some liken it to the company of family and friends, or sex, or good food. It's here in this world, but not quite; it's an idea we create as a panacea; it doesn't exist at all. In the end, the subject of heaven doesn't so much open up the Great Hereafter as it does reveal how people understand their own lives.

Photographer Iain Clark is, like David Rokeby, a pioneer of a technique which has become much more widely available since he first used it. He takes photographs, manipulates them digitally and prints the results on canvas to create an effect that blurs the boundary between photography and painting. Though photoprinting-on-canvas is now widely available on the high street, he uses it in his own way, reducing images to daring blocks of intense colour.

His portrait work is particularly effective, and is in collections such as the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Robert Carlyle, Billy Connolly and Muriel Gray are among his subjects here. His series of portraits of Scottish writers, shown at both the Aberdeen University during the Six Cities Design Festival and Aberdeen Word Festival, is also included.

But this show is a much broader summary of his work, including two series of straight photographs - images from India and portraits of football fans - as well as a selection of non-portrait work. One of the most striking sets of images is a group of large black-and-white portraits, grizzled, old faces and pure, youthful ones, which he has subtly enhanced so they begin to resemble pencil drawings.

There is no doubt that Clark has an eye for an image - a Toreador Spanish football fan sporting a Scottish bunnet, and his alter ego, a woad-faced Scot in a Celtic top and a sombrero. And there is no doubt that colour is his particular passion, his camera seeks it out, the brighter the better, from the glorious pink hair of a New York shop girl to the vivid orange of a sari.

Seeing straight photographs next to those which are highly manipulated poses pertinent questions about what the technology does. If the light is inadequate or the composition poor, it won't transform a dull picture into a good one. It reduces subtlety, but adds intensity, simplifies, even purifies the image down to key features. It's tricky, but the most effective capture an essence of their sitter in an engaging contemporary form of portraiture.

• CCA shows until 15 September, Iain Clark until 29 September.

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