Art(ists) on the Verge, 2010: The Inside and the Outside


by Ann Klefstad

Art(ists) on the Verge is the second iteration of a fellowship program run by Northern with the support of the Jerome Foundation. Five artists who do interesting things with new media technology were chosen by a jury to create new works, four of which then were exhibited side by side with artists chosen to represent the visual side of the Spark Festival of electronic music and arts. Altogether, 15 artists in the show at the Regis Center for Visual Art on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota presented a wide range of new media possibility, from film and video, to algorithm-generated sound routines, to interactive or responsive environments.

At its core, the Spark Festival is an attempt to open the house of music to the much wider surrounding world of sound. The visual manifestations of electronica are harder to describe in relation to some preexisting art world–for one thing, the realm of “visual art” has been for a very long time open to almost anything one could imagine. The house of visual art’s only restrictiveness is its institutionality, and choice of media has little effect on this. The house of art is already more like a ruin: open to the sky, a site where almost anything did happen and can continue to happen. It is the site that defines what occurs on it.

But the matter of this essay is the four AOV Fellows. The four have produced diverse examples of art that uses both temporality and technology.

Tyler Stefanich and Kyle Philips have both created interactive rooms that use the faces and voices of people to generate thought about memory, and about the visible and invisible linkages in human relationship.

Elusive Knowledge

Stefanich’s Re-Presented Narratives is a subtle piece that perhaps needs repeated experiences as well as, maybe, better didactics (Christ, I never thought I’d want that!) to get the point. And there is a point here.

Four chairs face four large screens on four walls of a room. Small car speakers dangle from cords at roughly ear height by each chair. A cord runs from the seat of each chair. Each screen has a moving face on it, a video of someone speaking intently to the camera–or, of course, to you. The speakers contain their voices, pitched just low enough that you have to seize the speaker and bring it to your ear–it’s like someone almost-whispering into your ear, for you only, an utterance in confidence.

Tyler Stefanich, Re-Presented Narratives

Then when you sit on the chair to relax into the story, the image before you flattens into huge distorted pixels and the voice from the speaker blurs and garbles. So you stand, and all is clear. There’s discomfort in the standing, but relaxing into the chair eliminates real communion. Why?

Tyler Stefanich explains:

“Nine months ago I did a performance. I took appropriated video from the internet of family movies and I rerecorded them onto Super 8 film. I showed the films, and when people came to see them I talked to them about growing up in northern Minnesota. Then, for the Art(ists on the Verge) piece, I called them, the people I had talked to. I asked them to let me post videos of them on YouTube, talking about what they remembered of the films. That’s who the people are, on the screens.

Tyler Stefanich, Re-Presented Narratives

“The chairs have monograms written in gold in Garamond type, the person’s initials and their birthday. When people sit on the chairs it inverts visibility, when you sit down the image and sound gets more distorted. Every time someone engages with the piece it creates another copy in a series of copies of the videos, which get more and more distorted with each generation of copy. The only way to hear the narrative is not to be part of the circuit.”

Stefanich notes that his original performance was very confidential and intimate, and that the story changed each time he told it. That process of memory is replicated in the chain of increasingly distorted versions of the videotape evoked in this installation.

What’s the larger import of this pair of performances? It’s a subtle thing, but I think obvious–though not easy to express. This is the kind of thing that actual sensory experience can do–it can quite accurately seize on things we all recognize but have no language for, and can put these things within reach.

Stefanich alludes to the narrow perspectives we each have on our own realities, and how removing oneself from “the circuit” can clarify meanings by broadening one’s perspective. But the resonance of his piece goes beyond this insight, into the elusiveness of relational meaning–as soon as you seize it, it vanishes.

A Room that Remembers

I had the devil of a time finding Indexical Architecture by Kyle Philips; it was in a critique room abutting the gallery. In its solitary room the sounds of other works don’t intrude, which is good. Its sound and visuals are subtle: In a sort of matrix of black and white fabrics twisted into triangular pillar-forms, a box of white fabric holds a projection of the room which is collected by a small camera at its center. Entering, you appear on this screen–and a second later, another face, in a square, moving, speaking, is superimposed on your own, and travels with you as you cross the space.

You can defeat the facial recognition software by shielding your face with a piece of paper. Philips said that people found many ways of playing with the facial recognition software–one guy wearing a T-shirt with Dr Dre’s face on it took off his jacket and started doing a kind of belly dance; others made faces or performed gestures. The camera stored all this up, and projected the memories of past visitors to the space on the mugs of those who had just arrived.

Again, this is a subtle piece, and the startling and visceral effect of the superimposed faces is real–but it would have amplified the piece to have more context.

For instance, the piece incorporates three systems of memory: the facial recognition system, relying on the front-mounted camera; a spatial recognition system using an overhead infrared camera that remembers where visitors stood, and creates a kind of cloud of light at favored spots; and a sound system, with a mike and speakers. The latter two sets of memories were not easy to perceive if one did not know to look for them.

Kyle Phillips, Indexical Architecture

Philips spoke about how his intentions for the piece changed as it developed. He had done a version of it for Art-a-Whirl, using only the facial recognition system. He noted that people were reluctant to enter the room and engage with the space if they could “get” the piece from the doorway. So he wanted to find ways to pull spectators into the room, because the idea of domestic spaces, which witness so much life but which remember almost none of it, was the originary thought for the work:

“I had an interest in the quality of occupying space–there’s usually no proof that you were there. Partway though the project, I saw a house from the 1930s. More than one generation of the same family had grown up in this house, and there was relatively no sign of all of the life that had been there, all the experience. So I wanted to see if a room had the ability to remember all the things that had happened in it, and could tell people about it.”

He started out with the idea of an empathetic living room, a room that could, it seems, feel for its occupants. But, in part due to the non-domestic nature of the space available at the Regis–the bare, hard-surfaced critique room–he decided that an indexical space–a space that archived its occupants–would work better.

“The idea changed into making a room that contains memories, and that creates itself out of the experience of people who spend time in it.”

The pillars of fabric arose from the necessity of creating zones in the room, and the need to modulate the space to entice viewers to enter, and then to exit at a different point.

By the end of the show, the hard drive containing the room’s memories had several hundred thousand images on it–a long memory. One wonders what the room thought of us all.

Where Stefanich’s and Philips’ pieces are inward-turning, looking at the relations of human beings to each other, to memory, to the past, the works of Arlene Birt and tectonic industries (Lars Jerlach and Helen Stringfellow) turn outward, to the social and commercial spaces that constitute the public matrix in which we all swim.

Where It Comes From

Arlene Birt’s Visualizing Grocery Footprints is a data-driven and interactive installation that enables the customers of a (at the present moment) fictional grocery story to see the points of origin of their food purchases by looking at a screen at the checkout that contains a world map with icons of their purchases located at their sources, or by reading their receipt. It’s meant to fit seamlessly into existing systems for scanning food items and seeing the scanned information on screens.

The piece is, as Birt says, “future-focused,” because at the moment there is no way to easily incorporate the data needed into the scanning system used by grocery stores. In the near future, however, she says, information on food origins may well be a required part of the UPC coding stores use, and then her system could be widely implemented.

Arlene Birt, Visualizing Sustainability: Tracing Grocery Purchases (screenshot)

Birt is a specialist in devising ways of visually presenting information. In this case, her solid and simple way of transmitting to store patrons the locations from which their food purchases derived has great rational appeal. We all know, foggily, that our food often comes from a long ways off. Myself, being old and all, used to think of this in romantic terms–just think! This banana was hanging on a tree, upside down, in a hot green jungle just a week ago, and now I’m eating it while looking at a thermometer saying 50 degrees below zero, before wrapping up in 6 layers of wool and tromping off to school. That kind of thing.

Is it Birt’s purpose to get us to swear off mangoes? I try to eat local but I live in northern Minnesota. One reason my ancestors left Norway, I’m guessing, is that they got sick of eating white food.

No, says Birt, she is not a proselytizer, for eating local or for anything else.

“My purpose is to communicate information about sustainability,” she says. “I don’t want to force people into decisions. Sustainability is different in every context. It’s important that people develop an understanding that can feed sustainability for their whole lives.

Someone could use this tool to say, “I’m only going to eat things from halfway around the world!” And this isn’t right and wrong. Birt wants to provide information that people can use, and help people understand the big picture. In a complicated world, her purpose is to provide clear pictures of that complicated world. The biggest part of the work, says Birt, was the coordination involved: “I had to research the existing system of supply, supply-chain databases, cash register software, and write code for all this.”

What she created was the concept of instantly available information on origins of food, as well as the interface that would pull the information and make it useful. Work that moves along the border between what we think of as “art” and what we call design is immensely appealing at a time when systems of information so desperately need creative attention.

We are now in a time when there are vast amounts of raw data available, but very little of it is incorporated into the kind of transparent, usable system that Birt has devised. Between polemic and data there is something like usable information: we need to find ways to create more of it.

America through the Lens of Oprah

tectonic industriesPerhaps this is the only way of knowing if anything was ever important to you is an elegiacally titled text piece that is anything but poetic. It’s a textual account of what will be an entire year of the daytime television talk show “Oprah,” transcribed as best the artists can, and then projected as text into the night, through the curved second-story windows of the Regis Center.

tectonic industries is Danish artist Lars Jerlach and British artist Helen Stringfellow, who have been collaborating now for over a decade on work that “focuses on the artifice inherent within the creation of the modern myths and belief systems of popular culture, with a concentration on our seemingly endless quest for self-improvement” (from the artists’ statement).

Jerlach and Stringfellow are perhaps “strangers in a strange land.” In Denmark, says Jerlach, there are perhaps 2 television channels. In England, there are more, but media is certainly not the infinite carnival of desire that it is here. Their work relies on an implied distinction between pop-culture artifice, or “artificiality,” which seems to them perhaps hysteric or delusional, and the artifice that is part of all artmaking, from the first chthonic myth to the last biennial.

Their work here attempts, through hard and relentless work on their part, watching every episode of the Oprah show (not something they’d ever done before) and transcribing its language, to outline the true content of the Oprah phenomenon with the white light of the written word–almost literally.

This is a cultural difference, says Jerlach, who teaches at UW-Stout. “My students watch the film, I read the book. If they like the film, then perhaps then they will read the book.”

About his and Stringfellow’s experience of the “Oprah” show Jerlach remarks,

“I think that the made-up world the way we are watching it on ‘Oprah,’ it is kind of hysterical, it’s artificial, everyone is addressed the same way, the audience is managed. I think that when we just use the language, then it is an equal playing field, and we can see what is being said more clearly.”

But after viewing many episodes of the show, with the knowledge that 70 million people watch it, Stringfellow and Jerlach have acquired respect for the woman who creates it:

“We had never watched Oprah before this, and we were not aware of her power. Some of the programs are solemn and good, and others are just trivial, but it’s all treated the same. From child abuse to weight loss, it is so diverse.”

About this mix of the fluffy and the deep, Jerlach says,

“We have come to see this, that everything is organized, there is a deep-rooted system, calculated. She is a phenomenal person, a phenomenal actor, she can pretend that everything is as important as everything else. She is America’s mother.”

I am not sure I trust the very European faith in text over spectacle, and the implied assumption that most people’s preference for spectacle makes them easily gulled. To my mind, the lifting of text from its context of affect and emotion, and from its source in the very real physical body of Oprah Winfrey, is something of a betrayal.

Europeans may not understand fully that there are reasons that text is not as trusted here as it may be in Denmark or England. Our culture is finally publicly acknowledging its hybridity, its multicolored and multicultural nature. Oprah is the queen of popular culture along with the bleached Lady Gaga; biracial Obama is our president.

American culture is composed of the gifts of Europe, yes, but also of the gifts of Black culture. Complex ideation here may not be primarily a matter of text; mind and body are less separate and the body does not carry the Cartesian stain (see the Eurovision song contest for proof of this difference!). In Black religious traditions group emotion is traditionally a great source of loving strength, not hysteria. Traditional Black bodily aesthetics don’t reject flesh. Many of the aspects of “Oprah” that have been flensed away by the analytical scalpels of tectonic industries are not mere obfuscation or hysteria; they are containers of meaning.

That said, to read the flow of language in the night, across the clean arched glass of the university art center, is quite wonderful. The alienation of the words–that is, the coolness of their presentation, the relatively slow speed at which one assimilates them–this does make them amenable to thought in ways very different from experiencing them on television.

The idea of meaning itself is, by any reasonable account, artifice–it is constructed. Human beings are the species who can make shit up. That’s who we are. Playing in the same neighborhood is the play “The Oldest Story in the World”–the tale of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and his friend Enkidu. Four thousand years ago people constructed this lie-that-tells-the-truth. “Artifice” is the root word for “art”. To attempt to reveal truth by stripping artifice is, perhaps, naive; truth can only be gotten at tangled up in all the lies
that give it life.

Electronica and virtuality bring us, again, to the root questions of humanness: Can we create our selves? Can we create our own world? Are we at the mercy of our creations? Are they, rather, under our control? What do we want from what we make?

Ann Klefstad is an artist and writer in Duluth.