386 DX, 1998
Technologies: 386 DX processor, 4 Mb RAM, 40Mb hard disk, sound card
Keywords: appropriation, cyberpunk, music, performance, pop
"If you would look at some early Internet art in some future, aesthetically it would be ridiculous, because the net at present has very limited possibilities for self expression, but there is unlimited possibility for communication. But how can you record this communicative element, how can you store it?"
Although the term "cyberpunk" was initially used to describe a genre of network-centric science fiction by such authors as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, the word also applies to the computer music of Moscow-based artist Alexei Shulgin. On his Web site, Shulgin describes his ongoing project 386 DX as "the world's first cyberpunk rock band." Yet instead of a group of musicians, Shulgin's "band" consists of one antiquated computer with an Intel 386 DX processor running text-to-speech and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) software. Shulgin wields the computer keyboard like a rock star would an electric guitar, performing synthesized versions of familiar pop songs ranging from the 1960s hit "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas and the Papas to Nirvana's 1990s grunge anthem, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Shulgin's versions of these songs sound like a robot singing karaoke to early video game soundtracks.
Shulgin's concerts have taken place in a variety of live venues including hip London bars and the San Diego/Tijuana border -- with Shulgin on the U.S. side and the machine on the other. 386 DX has also played autonomously, without Shulgin. On the sidewalks of Graz, Austria, passersby left monetary tips, as if the computer were a street musician. In 2000, Shulgin published The Best of 386 DX as an enhanced CD. In addition to cover tunes from his repertoire, the disk includes the software Shulgin used to produce them (along with a bootleg copy of Windows 3.1, the operating system the software runs on). With this disk, fans can run 386 DX on their personal computers to re-live the experience of a 386 DX performance.
Before 386 DX, Shulgin had made a name for himself as one of the principal early practitioners of Net art. In 1994, he co-founded the Moscow WWWArt Centre, a Web site devoted, in the artist's words, to "the highest possible level of art/life uncertainty." One project hosted at the Centre was the WWWArt Award, a medal given to found Web pages that, according to Shulgin, were "created not as art works but gave us definite 'art' feeling." In this early online art project, one can already see evidence of the distinct Pop art sensibility that emerged fully in 386 DX, an infatuation for mainstream culture tinged with artistic aloofness. Live musical performance was a logical next step for Shulgin, who saw Net art as a performative practice in which making a work, discussing it, and presenting it were all part of the work itself.
Like Cory Arcangel's Super Mario Clouds, 386 DX is simultaneously ironic and nostalgic, taking a humorous and playful approach to New Media art. Both artists use outmoded technologies to poke fun at the international, profit-driven cult of the new that characterizes the information-technology marketplace and consumer culture. Like Paul Miller aka Dj Spooky That Subliminal Kid (p.), Shulgin approaches musical performance as a conceptual art practice, bridging the worlds of fine art and popular entertainment.