Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

New Frontier 12


ONE of the things that was wrong at the Salt Lake Art Center, aside from its misleading name and the lack of clear mission it revealed, was the failure to capitalize on a unique physical layout. Oddly retro exhibition choices, dictating labyrinthine layouts of wall-mounted art in traditional formats, wasted the spectacular panoramic views over the gallery space offered by a mezzanine-like corridor that instead served to redundantly connect the museum-style galleries, theater, and infrastructure occupying the main floor. New Frontier 12, an extension of the state-of-video-art extravaganza that has become a significant part of the Sundance Film Festival, which will occupy most of the newly-rechristened Utah Museum of Contemporary Art until May 19, rectifies that omission even as it marks a literally spectacular debut for the museum’s new, welcome, and arguably first sense of purpose.

There is a risk in descending the familiar steel stairway, from the wide-open mix of installations lying just beyond the entry into the array of billboard-sized, dancing patterns of colored light below, among which furniture-sized devices, each with its own smaller display of visual jazz, beckon like arcade games. It’s neither the possibility that a devoted digital native could lose himself here for hours of carpal-tunnel-stressing fun, nor even that habitués of more traditional artistic fare—like the woman I overheard commenting that she’d never actually played a video game—might find reason to despair for the future of our venerable culture. The fact, welcome or otherwise, is that video has become one of the fastest-growing, characteristic technologies of our time, in variety of applications and numbers of consumers, of course, but also in the number and caliber of artists and artisans who are training to produce it. It’s not true that all the smartest young people become stockbrokers or investment bankers; a lot of them go into digital systems, including scientific and artistic breakthroughs that can be sampled here. No, the danger is that after even a short visit, the whole world may begin to feel like, and even come to resemble, an enormous video game.

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.

“Question Bridge: Black Males” by Hank Willis Thomas and Chris Johnson, photo by Jared Christensen

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,” 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,” 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,” 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.

“Bear 71” by Jeremy Mendes and Leanne Allison, photo by Jared Christensen

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.” 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.

“Hunger In Los Angeles” by Nonny de la Pena (U.S.A.), User Interface Designer, Thai Phan 2011, Immersive Game Environment, photo by Jared Christensen

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,” 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.

“Radical Games Against the Tyranny of Entertainment: Unmanned” by Paulo Pedercini, photo by Jared Christensen

“Freedom” by Eva and Franco Mattes

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” and “My Generation.” 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.

“My Generation” by Eva and Franco Mattes, photo by Jared Christensen


“My Generation” by Eva and Franco Mattes, photo by Jared Christensen

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.

“New Frontier 12” at UMOCA, photo by Jared Christensen

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