Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
24 April – 7 September 2015
by INA SOTIROVA
Ever wondered what clouds would sound like if they were made of music? Conceptual artist Robert Watts (1923-88) did in the early 1970s. He also harvested art made by the branches of a tree dancing in the wind, but that's a different story. Inspired by the wind- and water-driven instruments of Polynesia and south-east Asia, Watts envisioned a symphonic landscape, where the “interweaving of slowly shifting, multilayered harmony … lazily parallels the movement of clouds across the sky”.
In exploring the harmonics of nature’s most ephemeral feature, he collaborated with experimental composer David Behrman and video engineer Bob Diamond. It took the trio five years to create Cloud Music (1974-1979), but the result is a sound art installation as timeless as nature itself. In it, the atmosphere conducts an orchestra of hypnotic sounds in a continuously morphing soundscape that rises and falls according to nature’s whims, ebbing and flowing through space, enveloping the listener and resonating throughout the gallery. “Like sailing,” Watts wrote in a letter to his colleagues, “the music is weather-dependent.”
This meditative listening experience is just one of the many gems in Watch This! Revelations in Media Art, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until 7 September 2015. Curated by Michael Mansfield, the exhibition brings together a unique mix of artists whose work encompasses such a wide range of aesthetic styles and approaches to art as to render any attempt at generalisation a futile endeavour. There are interactive and sound art installations, sculptures and animations, film and video art pieces, even video games. What lies at the heart of the exhibition is the playful spirit of experimentation, exchange and interdependence between art, technology and contemporary culture.
“These artists are inventing new experiences in new media and creating new languages for our rapidly evolving world,” Mansfield says. Their art “challenges all previously settled conformities of expression and fearlessly embraces contemporary materials” and technology in innovative ways. Even when not explicitly interactive, the works invite the viewer to engage with, and experience, the underlying creative process. In many cases, understanding this process can be as important to appreciating the work as seeing it on display; sometimes even more so. Where some artists allow technology to shape their creative processes, others invent new tools and practices in order to realise their conceptual and artistic visions.
In Cloud Music, for example, a camera pointed at the sky across the museum brings the environment into the gallery on vintage TVs. Two of them are stacked on top of one another in a composition that already looks like a piece of art in and of itself. The video analyser Diamond engineered converts this visual information into music by way of a synthesizer so that changes in light and colour correspond to changes in the tone, harmonics, pace and cadence of the musical composition. Black marks on the screens, which at quick glance resemble birds in full flight, correspond to the “notes” being played. This ingenious custom-built system may sound relatively simple today, but in the 70s and without the help of a computer, it was a rather different story.
“There has never been a time [beginning in the 60s] when the tools available to artists have changed with such tremendous speed,” Behrman said at a panel discussion on the night the exhibition opened. This boom in technological advancements has created unique opportunities for artists to experiment with and across media, and to reinvent both art and technology.
At the forefront of art’s technological revolution was, of course, Nam June Paik (1932-2006), so it should be no surprise that multiple of his works make an appearance here. A prolific creator and media art pioneer up to his death, Paik “single-handedly transformed technology into an artist’s medium, literally inventing new tools with which to explore, shape and participate in our growing media culture,” Mansfield writes on the museum’s blog, Eye Level.
An excellent example of Paik’s pioneering approach to the creation of new visual experiences is 9/23/69: Experiment with David Atwood, in which he tweaks the available technology in ways that reveal both its potential as an artistic tool and its inherent limitations. The technique manipulates analogue signals in TV electronics and broadcast the way a painter uses his brush, leaving strokes and waves of paint over a moving image on the canvas. Showing a “revelatory shift”, to use Mansfield’s words, in the way art is created, 9/23/69 was broadcast live (on that date) and made in collaboration with engineers, musicians, video technicians and other artists. The piece becomes even more interesting when seen in context and conversation with the surrounding works.
In 1941, Dwinell Grant (1912-91) made Contrathemis – a dynamic sequence of geometric shapes and colours, reminiscent of Kandinsky paintings set in motion. In what could be seen as a very basic stop-motion animation, the more than 4,000 frames shot on 16mm film are pencil drawings and collages backlit with car headlights. Visually captivating to this day, his technique was as avant garde then as Paik’s experiments were in the 60s.
In the work just behind it, Golf, from 1957, Raphael Montañez Ortiz approaches film in a completely different way: “drawing” on the canvas by punching holes in it. Projected, the empty spaces come alive as hoops dancing over a game of golf. Like Paik, the artist is testing his material. More recently, in Monster Movie (2005), Takeshi Murata pokes digital holes in the cult 80s film Caveman, by removing keyframes from the codec. But instead of leaving the artpiece up to error, he manipulates the digital signal – much like Paik did with analogue – into a liquid dance of morphing colours and motion. Just watch out for the monster lurking underneath the surface of this mesmerising artwork …
Nowhere is the monster of modern media more eloquently portrayed than in Paik’s larger-than-life video installation Megatron Matrix, on permanent view at the gallery. An extravagant explosion of image, colour and sound spirals out of 215 video screens, at the heart of which, on the smallest TV set, a soft-porn video plays uninterrupted. Meanwhile, the remaining channels bombard you with information changing so fast that even millennials will find their heads spinning. A human eye, dancing figures, Olympic games, nature films, animations and nationalistic symbols all find their place in this work dubbed by the museum “a spectacle of media culture”. The completion of Megatron Matrix in 1995 actually predates the ubiquity of the internet and digital media. Roughly the size of a billboard, its overwhelming dimensions and complexity stand in stark contrast to Paik’s TV Clock from 1963.
While both works use a composition of TV sets, they do so in such different ways that they only accentuate the artist’s boundless imagination. Created at a time when Paik was making, in his own words, “intensely minimal” or “minimalistic” art, the piece consists of 11 television sets placed vertically next to one another. A single white line pierces through each screen, like the hand of a clock, showing a time frozen in space. Sublime in its simplicity, Paik’s electronic sculpture seems to contemplate at once the inevitable passing of time and its peculiar ability to stand still.
A later version of TV Clock wasexhibited at New York’s Whitney Museum in 1981. Oddly, it consisted of just 23 pieces. In each rendition, Mansfield explains, instead of showing the full time cycle, the artist kept one TV as a backup. Was he so afraid of something going wrong with his artwork, or was he making a subtle statement about lost time?
Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky also play with the idea of time in an artwork whose name could not be more misleading: Yellow Sound contains neither colour, nor sound. What appears to be a still black-and-white image slowly reveals itself to be a spinning vinyl record so dramatically slowed down as to appear frozen in time. The only indicators of movement are the dust particles and reflections of light that intermittently appear on the canvas. That the piece lasts four minutes and 33 seconds is no coincidence – it alludes to the seminal work of avant-garde composer John Cage, 4’33’’, in which the artist sits at the piano and plays nothing for the duration of his piece.
There are other works here exploring the murky territory between reality and illusion. The abstract geometrical painting that spills from the wall and on to the floor of the gallery takes the shape of a perfect cube when seen on the TV screen beside it. By merely entering the exhibition space, you are literally walking into the artwork of Israeli artist Buky Schwartz (1932-2009), whose 1977 closed-circuit video installation Painted Projection places you inside the cube, at once in front of and behind the camera, and raises an interesting point about the schism between reality and its portrayal in the media.
The cube is also a central element in Hans Breder’s Two Cubes on a Striped Surface (1964). Walking around it turns the simplistic sculpture into a moving image – an optical illusion achieved with the help of mirrors and the active participation of the viewer.
By far the most interactive piece in the show, even more so than the video games, is Text Rain by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv. Made in 1999, the installation conjures a space for movement, discovery and play. To find it, look for the busiest part of the gallery. There, on the wall, you will see yourself with letters raining down on you. Reading takes on a physical dimension as words begin to take shape around your body: face, verb, tongue-tied, antonym, syntax … The phrases they form are lines from a poem playfully exploring the physicality of language.
Ironically, although “the piece rewards movement,” Utterback says, “the easiest way to read the poem is actually by standing still”. Not that it matters, because the true beauty and idea of the installation, according the artist herself, is that it uses technology “to bring us back into the space and in relation with the people around us”. It’s about your experience of interacting with the piece, the space and others, and coming up with your own meanings and conclusions.
Text Rain is far from the only piece here to deconstruct language and semantics. There is a whole section of video artworks from the 70s and 80s that do so, most notably Gary Hill’s Why Do Things Get in the Muddle? (Come on Petunia) – a peculiar film edited in reverse, in which the actors perform both physically and phonetically backwards. The problem with this part of the exhibition is the cacophony of sounds mixing from all sides, making the space feel so loud, chaotic and crowded that hearing and appreciating the individual works becomes nearly impossible.
When it comes to experimental filmmaking, Eve Sussman’s digital cinema installation whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir takesthe genre to another level by placing the visual and narrative progression of the movie in the hands of a custom-built computer system. The non-narrative film noir has no beginning or end and its story changes unpredictably at every turn, for the Serendipity Machine is continuously editing and re-editing it based on a stream of keywords and actions made visible to the audience on an adjacent screen.
A large part of the editing process is in finding unexpected combinations and juxtapositions, Sussman explains, and the Serendipity Machine does this very efficiently. With a vast library of audio/visual material to pull from, the movie can go on indefinitely, taking the viewer on a journey through moody landscapes and mindscapes. Completely open to interpretation, the story becomes secondary, even irrelevant. The tool, Sussman admits, has taken on a life of its own.
Watch This! Revelations in Media Art celebrates precisely this creative exchange between art and technology that pushes the boundaries of both. It shows art getting geeky and technology turning aesthetic. But unless you take the time to linger and play with the ideas presented here, you will miss the point. So instead of merely watching, plunge into the show and let its magic be revealed.