Museum of Modern Art, New York
11 October 2014 – 22 March 2015
by A WILL BROWN
Cut to Swipe at the Museum of Modern Art, New York is comprised largely of works recently acquired by the Department of Media and Performance Art. The exhibition includes works by artists Dara Birnbaum, James Richards, Hito Steyerl, The Otolith Group in collaboration with Chris Marker, Rosetta Brooks, Ken Okiishi, Kevin Beasley, Luther Price and George Woodman that date from the early 1980s to the present. While the works range across a variety of mediums, what unites them is a shared use and interest in appropriated, and at times manipulated, imagery and sound taken from popular media sources including television, film, magazines, the internet and radio. The main conceit behind the exhibition is to present a range of works that respond to the proliferation of images and ideas across digital and social media platforms and the rapidly changing nature of visual culture.
The exhibition opens with what can only be described as a confrontation with Richards’s Rosebud (2013). His single-channel video is a montage, with sound, of once graphic black-and-white images taken from monographs on Robert Mapplethorpe, Wolfgang Tillmans and Man Ray. A Tokyo library censored the monographs due to their graphic nature, which defies a strict Japanese library policy that bars sexually arousing imagery of any kind. Rosebud is presented on a large-scale, flat-panel television monitor, one that seems almost impossibly big and unwieldy yet otherworldly and seductively advanced. Rosebud, though presented on such a looming piece of equipment, is sensuous and overwhelming and opens the exhibition with a meditation on censorship in art and the now nearly obsolete – in the age of digital media – practice of physically redacting images. Richards’s work cleverly complicates the loose narrative, or constellation of ideas, presented by Cut to Swipe.
The Otolith Group’s collaboration with Marker (1921-2012), Inner Time of Television (2007), is a 13-channel video installation presented on 13 black, cathode ray tube (CRT), cube-shaped televisions – the kind so often used in new media exhibitions. The 13 televisions are installed in a circular form, each with an inviting chair and a set of headphones. Inner Time of Television is a reconfigured presentation of Chris Marker’s The Owl’s Legacy(1989) an essayistic television series, which was swiftly cancelled in Greece, about the relationship between ancient and contemporary Greek cultures. As essayists, composers, scholars and philosophers discuss the history of ancient Greece, the Inner Time of Television presents a narrative in multiplicities, voiceovers and testimonials in 13 distinct channels. The work challenges the traditional logic of television as a source of prevalidated, succinct information and presents it as a deeply flawed, perhaps misused, yet incomprehensibly prevalent and influential medium.
Hito Steyerl’s single-channel video How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013) prefaces the importance of examining commonly overlooked systems of surveillance, internet-based media distribution and digital image manipulation, which for a contemporary audience are central, if not the most important, concerns in Cut to Swipe. In a brilliantly self-aware – humorous yet critical – manner, How Not to Be Seen does exactly what the title purports and gives a 14-minute visual essay on how to avoid being seen and tracked in the age of the internet. The video juxtaposes images taken from computer simulations and digital aerial-mapping software with figures – dressed in black and white with matching fabric cubes on their heads that conceal their faces – who act as pixels that are just small enough to avoid being recognised by satellite imagery. According to Steyerl, everything comes down to the unceasing improvement of resolution, and the shrinking size and increasing number of pixels that every image contains. For anyone wanting to avoid detection by machines or tracking on the internet, there is an ever-changing process, such as – suggested by Steyerl in a tongue-in-cheek manner – camouflaging oneself in plain sight, being a woman over 50, living in a gated community (all the time) or wearing specialised costumes and makeup.
As with most exhibitions that feature new and relatively new media, Cut to Swipe includes far too much visible technology and equipment while almost perversely overlooking the importance of space. The exhibition though, presents important artworks, the kind that all museum-goers could benefit from seeing more of. The shifting landscape of visual culture and the changing nature of the image – moving and still –is a challenging and exciting subject. By dealing with a broad array of old and new media forms from artists across generations – a huge challenge – curators Stuart Comer, Erica Papernik and Leora Morinis not only present critical artworks, but highlight the importance of artists’ contributions to the global political and social debates about the nature of the image.
Furthermore, by prefacing the artworks as unique yet distinctly concerned with the media forms each incorporated, the curators gave these artists and their work the ability to transcend their forms. As unique objects, the works are able to speak to one another from a shared space that defies the traditionally straightforward distillation of information that television, radio, magazine, newspaper, film and certain parts of the internet provide. In positioning itself as an exhibition that features works that are both antithetical and generative of their subject matter and presented formats, Cut to Swipe becomes those very qualities in relation to the form of the exhibition itself – an easily missed meta-narrative that plays out in every work included.
There is a sense, though, that art is always, beautifully and somehow tragically, simultaneously ahead of and just behind technology; a kind of sublime paradox in which artists are pointedly and succinctly evaluating the implications of what is happening with the media and technology through artworks that are, almost instantly, technologically outdated.