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February 2012
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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“New Frontier 12” at UMOCA, photo by Jared Christensen
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New Frontier 12 . . . from page 1

At the bottom of the stairs, one of the first works encountered, already seen from above, is Hank Willis Thomas’s aptly-titled "Along The Way." Its origin as a public art commission for the Oakland Airport is apparent in its gregarious charm and accessibility, not to mention a loop-like structure that rewards either a quick take or a thorough viewing. Video has learned a lot in a quarter century, during which even its often-short duration has come to challenge the evaporating attention spans of its audience. Like the multiple, theoretical dimensions of Brian Greene and Lisa Randell, much of video has learned to fold in on itself, burying deep content in small spaces rather than elaborate a story over time. "Along The Way" takes its cue from Andy Warhol’s video portraits, wherein subjects were placed in front of a camera without instruction, free to present themselves as anything from faces designed by DNA and sculpted by life to performers of unique improvisational skill. Here many such candid portraits are arranged by computer into a mosaic grid the screen swoops over, diving in and out again to foreground various examples of human diversity and, at once, universal character.

Placed here, "Along The Way" advances a partisan claim that is implicit in the very existence of this show: with New Frontier 12, Sundance makes the argument that video, after all a technical offspring of film, still partakes of its particular blend of multiple media presentation and narrative purpose. That this is true of a significant work like Hank Willis Thomas and Chris Johnson’s "Question Bridge: Black Males," |1| which brings interactive techniques to bear on this nation’s racial chasm, which half a century of civil rights advocacy has clearly failed to close, seems unlikely to generate resistance. Ditto Jeremy Mendes and Leanne Allison’s "Bear ’71,"|2| which despite its stated goal of popularizing some of the ways digital technology is revolutionizing how science both discovers and represents physical reality, relies on a narrative not that far removed from that employed by countless nature programs. It should perhaps be noted that in the past such partisan presentations have failed to convince audiences that there is any fire beneath their smoke-and-mirrors, especially when the future techniques they predicted subsequently failed to materialize. But "Bear ’71," |3| which allows visitors to the gallery to follow it on their cell phones from anywhere in the world they then travel, has its analogue already in use a short distance away. Instead of the controversial-but-popular audio devices that some museums offer in place of docents, as a means to liberate those eager to learn more about the art from schedules and the drawbacks of group tours, the installation of Doctorow Prize-winning painter Kim Schoenstadt upstairs features signs urging viewers to dial a number on their cell-phones to hear elaborations on what they’re seeing. That this serves a useful purpose was demonstrated next door, in the Locals Only Gallery, during the opening night reception, when a clearly well-educated viewer had to ask the gallery staff to shed some light on Joshua Luther’s "Big Bang Genesis," an eloquent meditation on the construction of meaning through language.

Yet not everyone may be as ready to accept the existential connection between video, as the latest metamorphosis of film, and video games: widely denigrated as mere diversion and, in practical terms, so far removed from film that, as U of U’s Eric Brunvand explains, the adaptation of digital technology to narrative animation—Pixar comes immediately to mind—is not just taught in a separate program from game creation, but the two have become specialties of different colleges. Yet there remains a far deeper connection than shared means of production, nor is it necessary to point to elaborate and sophisticated, multi-player, on-line construction of alternate worlds in order to justify the (actually far greater) popularity of video devices that leave far more responsibility for their outcomes to viewers. Nor, strictly speaking, does it require the latest technology, such as that employed by Nonny de la Pena in "Hunger In Los Angeles."|4| Here sensors that detect body movements are combined with a virtual reality headset to project the player into the middle of the subject predicament: an immersion experience that is only hinted at by the large projection apparently used here to suggest the experience to bystanders. Numerically, slightly over half of Frontier 12’s resources, if a small fraction of its square feet of screen space, are allotted to the initially conventional video games that form its truly subversive core.

The qualities of games that makes them unlike stories begin with the very different way they employ the elements of a story. In a game, the original narrative is buried so deeply, and the resulting action so abstracted, that players experience them not as characters and predicaments, but instead as mere rules. The Indian and Persian potentates of two millennia ago whose conflicts are ritualized in the game of chess are neither part of our history nor our cultural mythology. What survives from their story to engage us has been abstracted into universal principles embodied in rules: Kings must not move too much and must at all times be protected; horsemen are more agile than the more numerous foot soldiers; the Queen is as vulnerable as any pawn, but can strike from afar those who ignore her powers. These narrative truths become the framework for our own stories: the ones we try to tell, and the often more powerful stories our opponents press against ours. Now consider "Radical Games Against The Tyranny of Entertainment,"|5| Paolo Pedercinin’s console video games that seek to update board games not just mechanically, but ideologically as well, introducing topics as varied as Big Oil, fast food, pornography, cell phones, the military, and the fate of free ideas in a supposedly free market. In one, the push of a button drops an oil well on land or a drilling rig at sea. With the right timing, the player taps a reservoir and receives a payoff. Play ends when wells and funds run dry. Suddenly, the environmental pirates so desperate to despoil pristine wilderness and frack the nation’s bedrock to splinters aren’t quite so inexplicable. In another game, land can be planted with crops and filled with livestock, not unlike those addictive online farming games. But a click of a button reveals another side: a restaurant standing empty for want of processed meat to serve. It’s human nature to assume that the other person’s job is simpler, her choices fewer and easier; it may be only after we ‘walk a mile in their virtual shoes’ that we can begin to comprehend the situation from the perspective of the entrepreneur, the industrialist, the anti-social individualist: in short, society’s enemies. Whether we want to understand them for their own sake, or in order to resist more efficiently, video games like this may provide as quick and sure a route to skill as the military has reputedly found them to be for training soldiers.

Other game-like examples are less amenable to actual play, and paradoxically closer to conventional works of art. Eva and Franco Mattes are represented by two, "Freedom" |6| and "My Generation."|7-8| The former bears a deceptive, tempting resemblance to just such a military training video, or one of its civilian counterparts, wherein a handgun-wielding character interacts with terrorists. Unlike those games, however, the outcome is not so anodyne for players, who may find themselves less immune to the violence than they’ve come to expect. In "My Generation," the failure of technology becomes more than just a universal, yet petty annoyance. Smashed and spread across the floor, this graphic victim of operator frustration-fueled violence constitutes a rare intrusion of the reality that lurks behind consequence-less daily encounters. Lest the lesson be missed, one certain characteristic of digital experience that is unlikely to change is the gap between the seamless illusion of reality provided by our nervous systems and the flawed replica produced by our machines. The mouths of characters in your DVD movie suddenly freeze, while their voices go on talking. Motion breaks a smooth-looking figure into giant, cubical pixels. Or at the worst possible times—just as the winning point is poised to be scored—it quits altogether. At the Gallery Stroll opening, techs were still trying to get some of the works up and running. During the opening reception, a whole room of sophisticated, interactive machines simply broke down.

Let’s go back for just a moment to Joshua Luther, and "Meaning Scale," a nearly conventional work at the center of his exhibition Meaning, in the gallery near the Museum’s entry. In it, a dictionary and its sculpted replica occupy opposite ends of a board balanced like a teeter-totter. Arrows identify the actual book as ‘Meaningful,’ and the replica as ‘Meaningless.’ The implication is that a real object can be useful, do work in the world, while a copy, however skillfully executed, cannot. Yet the copy is clearly weightier than the original, its greater gravity suggesting more substance. It is this juxtaposition of real objects and similar, even identical objects set aside by the label ‘art’ that sets in motion aesthetic contemplation: the comparison and contrast between thing and thing, or idea and idea, or lately thing and idea, that has proven one of the most productive tools in the endless human struggle for understanding. If nothing else, New Frontier 12 proves that video has an important role to play in the arts. It remains to be seen if a moving image can assume the mantle that lately seems to have dropped away from more static media. Or maybe that’s the wrong question: perhaps we should be asking whether, if it could, anyone in its disoriented, perhaps overwhelmed audience would be able to appreciate it.

Event Spotlight
20 Seconds, 20 Slides and a Mic
PechaKucha's creative chit chat

So what’s PechaKucha? It translates roughly from the Japanese to “chit chat” and is a conversation that started at a Tokyo architecture firm in 2003 and has been carried on in some 230 cities around the world. There have been PechaKucha Nights in Singapore, Surabaya and Sydney and several in Salt Lake City. The seventh is on February 24 and you are invited.

What you will find when you get there is fluid, always is at these events. What’s consistent is this: an evening of 20 images in 20 seconds by various presenters on a topic that usually has to do with art, architecture or design but can have to do with anything, really, that the local PKN folks think an audience might enjoy. At the parent group a 69-year-old woman presented her wedding-cake creations while a 5-year-old gave a slideshow on her artwork (smile). You never know. Salt Lake City has featured botanists and inventors along with the usual creative types. They say it’s like a box of chocolates.

The idea behind PKN is that there are virtually no public spaces in cities where people can show and share their ideas in a relaxed manner, according to the Tokyo website. “If you have just graduated from college and finished your first project in the real world — where can you show it? It probably won't get into a magazine, you don't have enough photos for a gallery show or a lecture — but PechaKucha 20x20 is the perfect platform . . .” To date PechaKucha Nights have been held in restaurants, homes, universities, prisons (disused), churches, beaches and even a quarry. Spirits seem to be a favored element to the evening. There will be a cash bar at the February event.

And the theory behind the fast presentation format was that architects, well, all of us, talk too much, especially when given a microphone.|0| And when slides forward automatically, you have to talk with them. There’s no “next slide” or “go back one, please” at PKN – it all advances unrelentingly at 20x20 seconds and you had best move along at the same pace.

Architect Tristan Shepherd, 31, thought Salt Lake City was ripe for the concept in 2010, having heard about PKN from Mimi Locher, his professor in graduate school at the U of U, who has spent a considerable amount of time in Japan. “I could sit in a room with other architects and talk for hours about the cool and great things that could and should be happening here but it didn’t really matter because architects aren’t the ones making projects happen,” he says. He wanted to involve designers and architects in “an outlet that’s greater than their network of architect friends.” PechaKucha seemed the answer. “We strive for a really diverse group of people and try to pull from as many creative disciplines and backgrounds as possible for these events,” he says. They also look for a diverse audience, the openness to collaborate and what Shepherd terms the cross-pollination of ideas.|1|

Nathan Webster, 38, an architect who puts his talents into designing modern dance sets as well as buildings (his partner is Charlotte Boye-Christensen of Ririe-Woodbury fame|2|), got involved about a year ago. “This city has a creative juice that not everybody knows about because of the habits we have here. . . . It’s either a house-party culture or a recreation culture or industries stick within their own realms for how they socialize. There are younger families here and people don’t get out as much. And the city itself doesn’t have as many venues or events [as larger cities].” He says PKN “takes me away from liability and big dollars and focuses more on the art side of architecture. And we get to see the links between different fields, which is very exciting.”

Shepherd agrees. “We like to hear about something you’re passionate about. We want you to talk about something that inspires you, something you think will inspire other people. Why we think these events are so well received is that an architect isn’t just talking about how they put together a grocery store, they are talking about something that really gets them excited.”

Webster argues that people sometimes do talk about how they put together a grocery store, though it’s a lower percentage. “But the event is kind of this beautiful hybrid where you can get a kind of dry scientist or an interesting, animated scientist next to a painter or a theoretical artist or whatever. That difference between the two is really part of where the magic comes up in these events.”

At one PK Night they had an engineer who designed robots that scrape the paint off freeways, a designer who makes “impeccable” homes, a photographer, a prop designer and a painter who takes old paintings and puts zombies in them. “So that diversity and the ability to informally talk to those people at intermission or after the event — to sit down over a drink and say I love what you’re doing, here’s what I do, let’s figure out a way to work together — has generally energized the city,” says Shepherd.

And how presenters showcase their work within the strict 20x20 format also keeps things interesting.|3| “You’ve got enough room to think very creatively about how those slides come together,” Shepherd insists. Some presenters use the same image four times in a row so they can talk about it for a longer time – not every image has to be different. Some add music. “We’ve had presenters whose medium is film and so they just take a film composed of 20-second clips and sort of talk while a six minute 40 second film is playing behind them. But in the end, there’s six minutes and 40 seconds and that’s kind of it,” Shepherd says with a smile.

This year's event is going to overlap with the Global PK week and www.pecha-kucha.org will stream this and events from other cities internationally, so PK Salt Lake City asked presenters what it was that should be discovered or known about our town. Presenters will include graphic designer and eco-quester Kinde Nebeker; DJ and graphic artist Jesse Walker; painters Gary Vlasic, Mark Knudsen and Dave Ruhlman; designer, illustrator, artist and marketer Dan Christofferson; architects Bill Arthur, Atlas Architects, Prescott Muir and John Branson; Tim Lee, senior exhibit designer for the Utah Museum of Natural History; Randall Smith, creative director of Modern8; and Angela Brown, editor of SLUG Magazine. Lounge jazz will be presented by the Haywire Outfit. |4-5|

So, how do you get to be a presenter? If you have great architecture, design, graphics, photos, art, sculpture, food, or anything else you want to share and aren’t daunted by the prospect of talking in front of 150 to 300 people you can go to www.pecha-kucha.org/night/salt-lake-city and send a message with a brief description of what you’d like to present. It’s highly recommended that you attend an event first to see what it’s all about.
PechaKucha Nights in Salt Lake City
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