Biff! Bam! Pow?
Artworks Explore the Often Diffuse Relationship Between Seen and Heard
Epileptics beware. What Sound Does a Color Make?, the new show at UMBC’s Center for Art and Visual Culture, is not easy on the neurons. Intended to connect the dots between the earliest electronic art and the newest generation of digital artists, as well as explore the synesthetic connection between aural and visual information, this collection of 14 works aims high but ends up shouting for room in a too-crowded space.
Fourteen pieces of art may not seem like enough to overwhelm an exhibition, but there’s nothing in this show that doesn’t hiss, beep, flash, thump, flicker, or glow. Typical of this approach is Atau Tanaka’s room-dominating “Bondage,” a billboard-sized rice-paper screen projected with Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s portraits of hemp-bound young women. The lights and darks of the photo are scanned by a computer, transforming the image into musical tones further manipulated by gallery visitors whose warm bodies (identified and digitized by a video camera mounted above) project negative silhouettes onto the image and further alter the audible response.
Some of the works have wisely been sequestered in darkened side chambers, not only for their protection but ours. It’d be near impossible to share the wall with the likes of “LUX,” a video projection by the collaborative Granular-Synthesis. Upon stepping into the darkened room, you’re overwhelmed by a seizure-inducing cascade of alternating red and blue light, strobing in response to the apocalyptic static thumping on the soundtrack. The effect is frightening and overwhelming, the final third of 2001: A Space Odyssey morphed into a very, very bad trip. Daring yourself to sit through one cycle without looking away, however, does induce a fire-hose-in-the-face kind of pleasure.
Jim Campbell’s paradoxically titled “Self Portrait of Paul (DeMarinis)” is one of the most conceptually clever pieces in the show. Campbell recorded electronic media artist DeMarinis’ voice speaking a spectrum of musical tones. The frequency of each note corresponds to a level of brightness assigned to white LEDs arranged in a grid behind frosted glass. As DeMarinis’ recorded voice sounds off each tone, a microphone picks up the sound and lights up the LEDs in appropriate sequence and magnitude. When complete, seen a few steps away and squinting, the lights form a hazy, pixilated daguerreotype portrait of the face behind the voice.
This work succeeds on many levels—technological, conceptual, aesthetic—but was only comprehensible once this reviewer tracked down a lone gallery guide at the front table (do not remove, warned the sticker pasted on the mysteriously valuable clutch of photocopied pages) and waited until the opening-night crowd dispersed enough to give the other works a chance to stop beeping, buzzing, and droning in response to their presence. Granted, a gallery experience should stand on its own without required reading, but it is a mistake to assume these works can be grasped intuitively. Trying to get a complete experience out of any one piece without sufficient quiet or a few explanatory sentences is like being on a frustrating blind date in a noisy nightclub.
It doesn’t say much for the new generation of electronic artists that the strongest works in the show are the oldest. Four monitors, installed with relative obeisance on pedestals against a relatively quiet wall, show late 1960s/early-’70s work by video pioneers Nam June Paik, Gary Hill, and Steina and Woody Vasulka. Shot before video became a home appliance, these raw, home-brewed works are alive and flush with pre-idiomatic promise. (The fact that each monitor is equipped with noise-cutting headphones helps.) “Beatles Electroniques,” Paik’s collaboration with Jud Yalkut, warps, twists, and shimmies (perhaps with the use of an electromagnet against the TV screen) concert footage of the Fab Four, all accompanied by hiccupy looped hurdy-gurdy sounds and edited with a snap and vibrancy that’s fresher than anything else in the show—except, maybe, what’s playing one monitor over.
In “Violin Power,” Steina Vasulka, a violinist turned video artist, draws her bow across the instrument’s strings. The sounds she’s making affect the picture, warping the cathode-ray image into shivering undulations with each resonation, the white line of her bow dissolving into sloppy sine waves at the strongest vibrations. This simple exploration of the parallel between seen and heard offers the purest ideation of the show’s synergistic theme. The video is in black and white, proving you don’t need color, or a computer, or a convoluted thesis, to see what picture a sound makes. Take note, 21st century.
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