Smithsonian Watch This!
by George Fifield
Copyright © 2015 George Fifield
The Smithsonian American Art Museum recently opened an extensive cross section of media art from the last six decades. Watch This! Revelations in Media Art, open until September 7th is comprised of only 44 objects, yet feels like a massive anthology of American exploration of new technologies at the service of art. Massive because it contains four physically large installations, a small movie theater, even a motion picture set. But also each object in the show has a distinct different significance to the history of new media. This is not an exhibition of like-minded objects. The challenge for the exhibition organizer, Michael Mansfield, Smithsonian curator of film and media arts, is to put these disparate objects together in such a way that the ensuing conversations they enjoy between themselves, illuminates all. At this Mansfield mostly succeeds, hence, I believe, the “Revelations” in the title. Just one example, as you first walk into the large space, Mansfield placed three of Sadie Benning’s diaristic Pixel Vision videos, shot on a Fisher Price children’s toy camcorder in 1973, opposite Jim Campbell’s highly sophisticated, but low res ghostlike LED based Grand Central Station #2 (2009) creating a strong dialogue about the artistic use of technical limitations and the use of low resolution as a boon to creativity.
In his remarks at the opening, Mansfield noted, “Almost all the works come from our permanent collection, so they all belong to the Smithsonian and hence to the American public.” And while I’m sure glad the Smithsonian owns all this work on my behalf, the sheer size of the collection is daunting. To give but one example, the Nam June Paik Estate donated seven tractor-trailer trucks of papers, TVs and other equipment to the American Art Museum. And what treasures lay within that abundance? The three Paik works Mansfield found, that are on display, include T.V. Clock, (1963/1981) on eleven working vintage Philco TVs; 9/23/69: Experiment with David Atwood, eighty minutes of Paik and WGBH-TV director/editor Atwood playing around like bad boys with every video toy in that holy shrine of public broadcasting television. Finally Etude 1, consisting of a pile of continuous feed paper and a plotter drawing print out of a FORTRAN program Paik apparently wrote while visiting Bell Labs in 1967 – 68. Paik knew FORTRAN, who knew! Apparently Michael Noll, one of the first computer engineers to exhibit their graphic experiments in an art gallery, invited Paik, the originator of video art, into Bell Labs, in one of those thunderclap seminal moments in art history that no one heard of at the time. The printout is a daisy of four overlapping circles each algorithmically derived from a separate word: Love, Hate, God, Dog.
The entire exhibition is like this, one amazing discovery, or at least a thoughtful juxtaposition, after another. The oldest work in the show is Dwinell Grant’s eight minute 1941 animation, Contrathemis, in which each frame is collaged and drawn with crayon on paper. The most recent is Cory Arcangel’s eponymous chromogenic print from 2013, the title of which, when entered into Photoshop, creates the very image itself. And the scale goes from Cloud Music (1974- 1979) by Robert Watts, David Behrman and Bob Diamond, a music producing exhibit, whose room includes the entire sky outside the Museum, to Hans Breder’s Two Cubes on a Striped Surface (1964) a charming little sculpture tableau comprised of little Op Art cubes whose reflective surface changed as you walked around them.
Video art is well represented, from the grand romantic placental splashing of Bill Viola’s The Fall into Paradise (2005) to a slew of wonderful early gems, like the aforementioned Sadie Bennings, John Baldessari’s Teaching a Plant the Alphabet (1972) (exactly what it sounds like,) Martha Rosler’s feminist classic Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) and a Chris Burden compellation of early performances, Documentation of Selected Works (1971-74.) The most speculative is Eve Sussman’s whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir (2010-2011) in the small movie theater. It has two screens. The large one shows a dystopian soviet-looking heck-scape movie, actually shot between Moscow and the Caspian Sea. The ‘story’ followed a sorry, somewhat bewildered protagonist into office building and cafes. But the second screen shows the computer program, appropriately named the Serendipity Machine, which is editing the film in real time as it plays out before your eyes. Key words pluck segments and sound tracks from the whiteonwhite database of 3,000 film clips, 80 voice-overs, and 150 pieces of music and then stitch them together one after another, never playing the same set of sequences twice. However it takes a while watching it for this to sink in as, at first, the connection from one scene to another seems to make sense. How much of this is the Serendipity Machine and how much is the human capacity to infer continuity in our own minds is hard to say.
The movie set, I mentioned, is from the movie. It is a recreation of the office of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey to outer space. The set includes desks papers, a huge map of eastern Russia and two heavy Bakelite phones, one of which was probably a direct connection to the Kremlin.
As this theme of new technologies at the service of art continues through the exhibition, the most playful and hence popular work is Text Rain, (1999) by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv. Already a classic of interactive installation, it presents a life size video mirror of the viewers. And in the mirror world, letters are falling and can be caught on your outstretched arm or hand. We know mirrors are magical. Alice and the Wicked Witch and any toddler can attest to that. Mirrors show us spaces where spaces can’t be and our doubles in them lead lives that may or may not relate to ours. And this world has falling letters, letters which, if enough are caught, spell words and sometime fragments of a sentence. In fact they come from the poem “Talk, You” by Evan Zimroth, each line falling in a different color. And this activity, that broke out of the passive looking and viewing of the rest the exhibit was why a crowd was always in the space in front of Text Rain, playing.
The strangest use of technology in the service of art is Ed Fries’ Halo 2600 (2010) one of two video games in the exhibition. The other is Flower (2007), a very artistic but commercial video game by Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago for PlayStation 3. Fries had a long career as a Microsoft Xbox executive. And Halo, a first person shooter game, was developed by a subsidiary of Microsoft. Fries was a great champion of Halo as the Xbox’s flagship game when Xbox was introduced in 2001. Later Halo2 was the Xbox’s best selling game for years. So in 2010, Fries takes it upon himself to port the game Halo to an original Atari 2600 VCS game console, the great classic game console that lasted from 1976 to 1984. Halo 2600 is akin to remaking a James Cameron movie, like Avatar, as a silent black and white film. It is a beautiful object. (Full disclosure: I have a working Atari 2600 on my desk and often relax playing Breakout.) But all the rest of the works in the exhibit, whatever their age, are pushing forward into the future, through ideas and the use of technology. Halo 2600 is the only work in the exhibit that is consciously going back in time to a nostalgic 8 bit past.