Phase One: Screen Test is the first exhibition/”phase” of an ambitious three part series entitled Is This Thing On? at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. According to the press release, Phase One: Screen Test “traces the history of performance video, showcasing the changing role of technology and new media trends”. The exhibition consists of several components: one enormous and immersive projection of a variety of video works on the main wall of the second floor of the CAC (the entire exhibition takes place on this level) that greets the viewer when coming in; a smaller scale projection of two videos in the back room; and a computer monitor, that contains all video works shown, with a bench and headphones in between the two front room and back room projections.

Phase One: Screen Test allows for a democratic selection of how to experience these works, either through the immersive experience of the main projection or on a small screen with headphones, i.e. the imposing vs. the informal. Since the notion of “performance video,” for the most part in this exhibition deals with how the idea is being presented in the works to the audience, with examples such as Constant Dullart’s human DVD screensaver or Cheryl Donegan’s portrait and gender deconstruction Practisse (1994), one can infer that the presentation of the pieces share an equal place of importance with the works. In this way the reception of how the performance is perceived or experienced can vary based on its presentation.

For the sake of this review I’ll mainly focus on the “imposing” point of view, that is, the immersive and gigantic scale of the main projection, which gives the viewer the option of greater scrutiny for what is being presented.

With the idea of enhanced reception in mind, one particularly interesting example is Lyota Yagi’s Portamento (2006), in which a record spinning on a phonograph surrogates a pottery wheel, with a miniature clay pot being delicately crafted by a pair of (the artist’s?) hands. Each push and pull of the clay puts force on the record, prompting the sound being emitted (I would describe it as ambient music) to warp and rupture. The overall effect from the work comes off as either a kind of chance composition or a sentiment on art hierarchies- i.e. using a conventional form of art-making to present something new (a theme that easily mirrors the intent of the exhibition itself). The immersive nature of this particular piece’s presentation in this exhibition works well, in that it presents a kind of multi-sensory experience by allowing the viewing and hearing of something through a process of creating (as the clay pot evolves, the record’s pitch bends, both changing with duration).

Another video that benefits from this mode of presentation is Greg Stimac’s Peeling Out (2007), which showcases a variety of different cars, trucks, and motorcycles doing that lowbrow, manly rite of passage of “peeling out.” The action of “peeling out” can be construed as a kind of compensatory masculine act, and in this case, whoever leaves the longest tire tread or whose exhaust emits the most smoke is the victor. Throughout Peeling Out, there are a variety of successes and failures in this department (sometimes a lot of smoke, sometimes very little). Therefore, the issue of “size” is brought up both in the video and its presentation, leading to a nice meta-commentary on the exhibition presentation itself – why are these videos so big, and does size really matter?

Jeremey Bailey’s Public Sculpture (2009) is one of the few that directly address the viewer, bringing the kind of implied fourth wall breaking of Portamento and Peeling Out, to its natural conclusion. Bailey delivers his McLuhanist meta-dialogue on public sculpture – by recognizing that, in this case, he is one, echoing Marshall McLuhan’s notion of technology being an extension of the human nervous system, and even going so far as to turn his physical (but in this case digital) features into a combination of rendered shapes. In short, Bailey’s deprecating humor and optimism is difficult to resist. Taking this idea to its farthest reaches, is Ben Coonley’s Trick or Treat Pony (2002), which addresses the audience in a far more deconstructive way by eschewing any kind of real narrative for tangents and digressions on everything from the history of trick or treating to NFL staple, John Madden. What exactly Coonley’s baffling absurdist jaunt is attempting to convey aside from a kind of postmodern bit of public access inspired jadedness is beyond me, and its ambiguity following Bailey’s more direct approach makes it a less successful endeavor, in the context of this exhibition.

On the other hand, immediately following  (either looping back to the beginning or subsequently appearing, depending on how you view this exhibition) Coonley’s overblown gestural film is William Wegman’s Randy’s Sick (1970-1971). The premise is just as absurd as anything Coonley presented, but it is about eight minutes shorter and infinitely more palatable in its humor: one clamp light looks at the other (Randy) and turns to the camera, its voice (offscreen, assumedly by Wegman) announces to its mother (also offscren) “Oh, mom, I think Randy’s going to be sick.” Randy the clamp light proceeds to tip over, the “talking” clamp light looks at Randy and back at the camera (or the viewer) and: “the end.” In a way, Wegman’s brief exercises in absurdity (there are seven videos in all featured in this exhibition) convey a richer sense of appreciation, perhaps just in their conventionality – i.e. a kind of set up/punch-line format.

This comparison illustrates that perhaps more than the historical mode of change in technology and media that the exhibition is attempting to showcase, as what is really on display is a change in sensibilities. Nearly every video in this exhibition has a historical precedent in something else, be it John Cage indeterminacy, Claude Lelouch’s 1970’s p.o.v.-speeding- Mercedes film, Rendezvous, McLuhan aesthetics, etc. Technology in general has changed, but the ideas are riffs on ones tried and true, a notion that is enforced further by the unintentional presence of the word “loading”  (from the source of where these videos are being projected) that appears before each presented video piece in the exhibition. “Loading” gives the viewer a disruption of the immersive experience that is presented, by reminding them that these videos are indeed coming from somewhere, and that while technology has changed it’s perpetually being figured out. Which is exemplified by the pieces on display in the exhibition: with the exception of perhaps the Wegman pieces, they all seem to grapple with the notion of obsolescence in one-way or another. Thankfully, Is This Thing On? tackles this notion in its title, bringing up a phrase equated with technical difficulties, and therefore acknowledging the difficulty in surveying an art field so varied, large, and perpetually evolving.  Perhaps this is the rationale behind a three-part exhibition and it will be interesting to see what’s below the tip of this digital iceberg.

— Chris Reeves

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