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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Uncertain Spectator at EMPAC

A visit to RPI's Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center is an otherworldly, futuristic experience, and the exhibition Uncertain Spectator fits it to a tee.

Curated by EMPAC's Emily Zimmerman, Uncertain Spectator includes mainly high-tech and video-based art, as you would expect, by 10 artists (or collectives) from all over the world. But does the show meet the expectation created by its theme, which is anxiety? I'm not quite sure.

First, a little about the setting. EMPAC is a gigantic, super-modern building that virtually hovers over Troy, with massive shapes and expensive surfaces that make it truly a work of art in itself. I approached from the most obvious entrance, which, with its big, curving driveway, appears welcoming enough. But a little confusion ensued.

There are lots of doors (which, despite the absence of any visible staff, open readily enough), no apparent elevator, and lots and lots of stairs. I'm fit enough, so I decided to ascend on foot. There, the adventure began, as curious sounds emanated from hidden speakers nearby, immediately alerting me to the fact that my arrival had been detected.

I'm not OCD, but I did count as I climbed - ranked 14 steps at a time between landings, five or six flights of stairs brought me alongside the curving belly of the building's main theater, which occupies its center like a massive, docked spaceship. Slightly out of breath, I arrived at the 5th floor lobby, and the apparent beginning of Uncertain Spectator.

Yet, true to the promise of its title, I was already feeling uncertain. The sound installation that had greeted me at the bottom of the steps continued to emit nifty noises, but was it part of the show? (the answer seems to be "no"); though there was some signage, labeling, and display copies of the show's catalog, along with large take-away posters by Anthony Discenza on a spotlit pedestal (an example of his signage art is shown above at right), much of the lobby space was forbiddingly dark, and still I saw no people (though at times I thought I heard people - live or recorded, it was impossible to say).

Having been directed in a message from EMPAC's PR man to retrieve a copy of that catalog from the 7th-floor box office, I dropped my coat on a bench and resumed my upward trek. After a differently paced flight of steps (I think it went 12-12-20), I summited near a tremendous desk in a cavernous upper lobby, in the center of which I recognized an electronic sculptural installation from the show. Behind the desk was a small, young woman and on top of it was a catalog with my name on it.

And so, the adventure continued. After a perusal of the Marie Sester piece I'd spotted, which hissed and shrieked at me as I moved about its white, shag rug and five colorfully upholstered chairs, a spectral-looking but friendly young man beckoned me to enter one of the dark corners of the space; there, beyond a parted black curtain, a fascinating black-and-white film by Jesper Just was showing. Its soundtrack consisted of a haunting theme harmoniously whistled by a trio of actors. The handsome man and two beautiful women of significantly different ages seemed to be performing a wordless seduction a trois in a lavishly appointed Gothic-style room, explicated by many softly lit closeups of their hands, eyes, and lips.

Worried that I'd never escape the clutches of this siren song before seeing the rest of the show, I stepped back through the black curtains, with a promise to the young man that I'd return to finish viewing the 10-minute cycle (I did). By this point, I was beginning to understand that the show was scattered about these two floors, and that much of it was in the form of projections in various screening studios, as indicated by signage leading to them.

One of the benefits of this design, aside from the obvious necessity of using available studios for such screenings, was that it introduced me to a good number of the (apparently) many theaters of different sizes in this marvelous building. I added to that exposure by checking out the interior of the main theater - it is an awesome piece of architecture, a stunningly beautiful example of acoustic design, and much warmer than you might think it would be, as it is made almost entirely of wood. My footsteps echoed sharply throughout the space - I imagine a concert there would sound terrific.

Back across the gangplank (yeah, the ship metaphor is blatant) onto the lobby floor, I resumed my search for the elements of Uncertain Spectator, and first noticed one of many slick-looking hand-sanitizer dispensers that stood vigil here and there. Were they part of the show? Alas, while there's no doubt they were anxiety-induced, this turned out not to be the case - the young woman behind the desk helpfully informed me that they were merely a vestige of the campus's response to the 2008 swine flu epidemic. Even so, I hazard that any artist who might wish to claim them as a clever installation piece would have a reasonable excuse to boast inclusion in the show.

Another unrelated art installation (made of color-coded light fixtures) guides the path to a screening room where an animated film by Jordan Wolfson features Coke bottles filled with sloshing milk that march relentlessly along dark city streets (image above at left). Anxiety inducing? Nah, just grating.

Somewhat clearer, though scarcely innovative, were two videos showing on monitors in the original lobby. One, by Kate Gilmore, depicts two simultaneous views of the artist as she laboriously squeezes herself through a tight, cobbled-together channel. The other, by Tue Greenfort, presents an overhead view of a trapped couple in a white-cube art installation as they collaborate to make their escape over the wall.

These closely relate to a nearby series of photographs from a 1968 happening by Graciela Carnevale, in which gallery goers are locked into an empty space and eventually break its plate-glass window to get out. These three documented performances essentially form a show within the show that addresses topics of control and entrapment. But how well does it express anxiety?

Also nearby is a meticulously constructed kiosk with an electronically controlled and illuminated graph by Susanna Hertrich that depicts colorful bubbles of hazards such as gun crime and cancer in relation to their corresponding degrees of public outrage. This Reality Checking Device (shown at top of post) works well, but struck me as merely a good start.

Similarly, the French collective Claire Fontaine offers a dozen American quarters that have been modified to conceal curved blades (and which I am describing based on photographs, because the piece was missing due to its container having been vandalized). The connection to the box-cutters used on 9/11 is clear, but one still looks for greater revelations.

Far more effective, in yet another dark theater, is a color film projection of a man performing monologues, by the collective SUPERFLEX. Here, the large, dark, empty projection room, the hugely enlarged, droning, anonymous interlocutor, and the pointedly hypnotic and economic/social/political content of his words conspired to transport me to a place where they may have been cause for concern. At last, this was a work of art that fulfilled both the promise of the show and the elaborate technology behind it.

This film alone, and the stunning EMPAC building, are reason enough to go see Uncertain Spectator before it ends on Jan. 29.

Rating: Recommended

Also of note in Troy is the exhibition titled Daughters of Aspasia by Jeri Eisenberg and Gail Nadeau at the Photography Center of the Capital District. These two well-known regional artists extend the photographic medium well beyond traditional methods, presenting an extremely subtle coordinated effort in this show.

Nadeau's work consists of extensively manipulated and colorfully painted personal images that read almost as a diary of her real or imagined family life; Eisenberg shows four triptychs and one quadruptych of extremely soft-focus images of landscape themes related primarily to atmospheric effects (example below). It's a show well worth seeing.

3 comments:

forgingahead said...

Planning to see this show on Saturday. As you may have figured out, the main entrance is the one upstairs by the desk, easily accessible from the nearby parking garage.

david brickman said...

Thanks for the tip - now we know where to park, too!

PlanetAlbany said...

Your exploration sounded a lot more interesting than coming in from the parking garage.