Currents: 2013 Santa Fe International New Media Festival – The Future is Here, That Much is Clear

Marina La Palma | THE magazine - July 30, 2013

"While traditional media will not disappear, the artmaking field has expanded in marvelous ways, asking for a more open and tolerant kind of attention than we may be accustomed to paying."

Cesar Meneghetti, I/O, single channel video, 2010

While traditional media will not disappear, the artmaking field has expanded in marvelous ways, asking for a more open and tolerant kind of attention than we may be accustomed to paying.

The Santa Fe International New Media Festival included multimedia performances, panels, workshops, shows at multiple galleries, outdoors, and at the IAIA Digital Dome. I will focus here on works shown at El Museo Cultural’s rambling space, which featured numerous single-channel works by artists, college and high school students, and over thirty installations. For the opening evening, when several performances were in progress, one had many choices: give in, resist, or play with the pull of things pulsing, pinging, wailing, and crackling. I let myself be drawn in by the comehither aspects of some pieces, and watched people interact with the art and, equally important, with one another. Kayla Anderson’s Artifact/Artifice had not engaged me until I asked a stranger what she thought about it, triggering enjoyable, speculative conversation. Many of the artists were present, so I could eavesdrop on their explanations to others or ask questions of my own. Very different was the experience of engaging with individual pieces at some length. Because I had the opportunity to revisit the show multiple times, I was able to receive it in a number of different modes, each of which had its own rewards and limitations. This leads to a prime question this type of art raises. What demands are made on the viewer’s time, attention, and resources? And how does it reward us? This is most germane to claims for immersion and interactivity. In this regard, Michael Allison and Aaron Sherwood’s Firewall was engaging. A sheet of spandex was stretched on a large doorway form. Your touch produced fiery visual zigzags on its surface and how hard you pressed determined the pitch and loudness of the prerecorded but not always predictable piano music emitted. Viewers played with it for a considerable time.

Another question fundamental to reception of these works is their relation to older art forms. Matthew Chase- Daniel’s River, a happy marriage of video and objects, was ideally adapted to the particular circumstances of such a show. An aquarium stand held flowing water and rocks plus a video image and sound of a stream. Approaching the seamless integration of media in Peter Sarkisian’s best pieces, it created a lovely experience that can be as brief as one likes, with no captions necessary. Sculpturally successful in a quite different way was Myriam Tapp’s La Mancha II, which resembled a large fragment of eggshell with a little house perched on its slope. Projected light passed over it, shadows fled, speaking without words about impermanence and change.

Several works evoked experimental cinema of the 1960s. Orlando Liebovitz’s Nine Second Film—a man’s shadow and an ocean wave washing in and out under it—was an elegant little self-portrait about the passage of time that has the virtue of being timeless. Max Almy and Teri Yarbrow’s Portals, which combined video projection with cut-out metal templates creating kinetic mandalas, harks back to the blossoming of abstract or non-representational cinema in the 1960s, as does Flame Schon’s Dissolve My Tongue, with its sonorous soundtrack. Like science, a lot of good art, through the products of engineering, makes tangible what is not available to us; it can reveal the world at a scale that is unavailable to our limited range of senses (size, wavelengths), our inability to be in certain environments (the tree canopy, underwater, underground, in orbit), the length of our individual lifespans (geological and astral processes), or the human metabolic cycle (too slow or fast to perceive traffic patterns, plant growth, or urban changes). Catherine Chalmers’ impeccable photography brought us up close to bugs, frogs, spiders, and ants relentlessly carrying impossibly large loads.

Catherine Chalmers, We Rule, single channel video, 2012

Jonathan Brainin’s Pendulum Video brought to mind Steve Reich’s piece by that name, which in fact was a catalyst for this work. It is very much in the video-art tradition that followed upon and diverged from experimental cinema (and is closely linked with the experimental music tradition). Brainin attempted a reformulation of the relationship between image and environment, between viewer and screen. An intervention was needed to make the monitors swing, which causes variation in whether viewers experience the piece as kinetic sculpture or video display. Another pertinent issue raised by complex artworks is the human need for narrative. Cesar Meneghetti’s I/O showed interviews with people in the Sant’Egidio community of Rome who have physical or mental disabilities. Four people were pictured at once, with one of their voices heard at a time, speaking about life, love, death, work, the self, and ideas about normalcy. The cumulative yield is the blooming of each speaker as a fascinating individual.

Paola Gaetano-Adi, Desiring Machine I, installation and performance, 2010

On opening night there were three ongoing performances in the galleries. Paola Gaetano-Adi’s Desiring Machine I (subtitled and/or the female reincarnation of Sisyphus) brought to mind the paintings of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Dorothea Tanning. A white-sheeted tent held a bucket of milk, while the artist stood at the end of a long camshaft device transporting the milk through a long tube, catching it in the lap of her white dress in a dreamlike machine-mediated action. The Bridge Club, a collaborative of four women, offered Medium. Wearing white dresses, they sat on chairs mounted high on the walls of one gallery; one of them tore pages from bound books, letting them float to the floor below and around her like leaves from a tree. Xristina Penna donned and shed various white garments from hangers in a small space, inviting viewers to draw her image. In following days, one saw the drawings left on the hangers, a cryptic trace of what had happened. White clothing in all three performance gave a unifying feel to the event.

A major question with installation art is what if any behavior is deliberately elicited? Wave Field, Robert Drummond’s immersive interactive sound and light environment, contained a big black surfboard shape and four squares. Ambient sounds—a drone, waves crashing, water rippling—changed by one’s movements, brought to mind Alvin Lucier’s standingwave sound works of the mid-1970s. Much depended on my interpretation of the result of my actions. Offering a freedom like the early new music scores of John Cage and others in his wake, the piece also invoked the arbitrary. Robert Campbell’s Interval Two, part of his Bardo series, is a triptych of slowly changing, abstract, chance-driven, vertical image panels. Sitting on a couch watching it, one hopefully achieved a sort of meditative alertness, akin for me to peak moments of viewing medieval or renaissance painting. 

For Emily Martinez’s Anti-Apocalypse, the interface to a large screen is a sensor attached to the forehead, monitoring in some form the viewer’s brainwaves for “concentration” and “distraction.” This work was composed entirely of downloaded imagery; the artistry is shifted away from the older means of production of footage entirely to the interface design and selection of pathways through the imagery based on your EEG. Several of us watched a sensor-wearing woman in the chair for at least twenty minutes, an interesting amalgam of voyeurism and community. Some early experimental cinema laboriously incorporated found and stock footage, but how stunningly different is today’s access to a nearly infinite pool of diverse imagery.

David Stout and Cory Metcalf worked together in an ongoing collaboration that is about process as much as product. Melt, set on three walls, is ceaseless flux; one sees crags, caverns, rifts, striations, splashes, icebergs, geysers, transformations between states of matter. This slow-motion circus is produced by a generative system oscillating between moments of frozen stasis and swiftly accelerating change. Whether the work truly provides a “glimpse into deep time” each viewer must determine. Karen Niemczyk’s The Evolution of Self—a suspended, three dimensional helix of copper wire with fiber optics intertwine— was intended to “interact with viewers around the work.” It was not clear how or whether this was happening, but it was graceful, and one of few that directly invoked the single human organism. Video Dream Tent X2 by Marion Wasserman and Louis Leray was nice to walk past and glance at. The greater intimacy of putting my body inside and being horizontal was a more coherent and interesting experience. The first sense engaged by Susanna Carlisle and Bruce Hamilton’s Untitled environment of suspended large balloons with scenes of nature and hurrying urbanites projected onto their surfaces was smell (vinyl, latex, rubber?). As the balloons deflated in the course of the show, more coronas of light spilled over the spheres onto the walls behind them. The incidental can sometimes be a viewer’s favorite aspect of a piece. 

Satisfying art mirrors us back to ourselves in some way. In Ant Theater, by Javier Villegas, the video ants “respond” to feedback from a camera pointed at the viewer by re-clustering in forms that mimic the viewer’s outline. Joyce Rudinsky and Victoria Szabo’s Psychasthenia 2, installed in a comfy cubicle with couch, employed the language of psychology tests in a single-user videogame environment. In this, like the Villegas and Niemczyk pieces, a question cropped up that does not come up with traditional media: “is it working properly or is the artist being purposefully cryptic?” 

Many works here engaged the thematics of our problematic relationship with nature and in some way emphasized the cyclic nature of things. Time was an essential factor, both in terms of each piece’s internal rhythm and duration, and how much of one’s own time to dedicate, given all the distraction and interference the world provides. This annual festival, truly a community effort, unfolds citywide in partnership with numerous local galleries and organizations. Next June, plan to dedicate some time to Currents.