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NEAT @ Contemporary Jewish Museum

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Installation view: Camille Utterback, “Entangled,” 2015, custom software, computer, video cameras, projectors, scrims, Lighting, two 81 x 144” projections
 
When it was first installed in New Delhi, the digital/physical hybrid sculpture known as Naag XY had no title.  To find one, the artists, Gabriel Dunne and Vishal K. Dar, asked local children for ideas.  The kids likened it to “a sea serpent,” and so it was named for the nagas, the divine snakes that, in Hindu lore, guard treasure but can also bring disaster.  It’s a bulbous cast foam mass with bulging coils that double back onto themselves, suggesting an ouroboros, a dragon swallowing its tail.  On its surface, a black-and-white fractal pattern, technically a “quasicrystal,” is projected and animated by a non-repeating computer algorithm.  Periodically the pattern is overwritten by black-and-white stripes that “grow” along the contours of the piece like shedding skin. The piece is 14 feet wide and suspended above visitors’ heads like a slumbering Cthulhuian beast whose behavior exemplifies the tech industry’s threat to artists and the cultural institutions that support them.  Situated at the center of the gallery, it serves as an apt focal point for NEAT: New Experiments in Art and Technology, an exhibition of nine prominent artists and teams from the Bay who each act as fabricators, engineers, programmers, composers, and sound designers for their respective works. 
 
Gabriel L. Dunne & Vishal L. Dar, NAAG XY, 2015, multi-channel video projections, eps foam, plaster, 160 x 102 x 50”

While the exhibition, organized by CJM’s chief curator Renny Pritikin, makes no attempt to weigh in on thorny economic issues, it does strike an optimistic tone, asserting that art and tech can coexist, just as they did in the decades before the current technology boom turned them into unwitting adversaries.  To underscore that point, NEAT takes as its model the groundbreaking collaborations between prominent New York artists (e.g. Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Robert Whitman) and Bell Labs engineers that began in 1966 and operated for several years under the name Experiments in Art and Technology (E. A. T.),  Since then, scaled-down versions of those shows have been mounted in galleries and museums internationally, the most recent in 2008.   

NEAT stands as a uniquely San Francisco response to those events and to Zero 1, the sprawling multi-venue biennial based in San Jose.  In it, Pritikin samples the top-tier of Bay Area media artists.  They include, in addition to Dunne and Dar, Jim Campbell, Camille Utterback, Alan Rath, Paolo Salvagione, Paul DeMarinis, Micah Elizabeth Scott, Mary Franck and Scott Snibbe. Unlike past shows where CJM curators attempted to tie whatever was on view to Hebrew Scripture, NEAT links art’s embrace of technology (and technology’s embrace of art) to that part of Jewish culture that has always valued secular humanism and knowledge for its own sake.  It’s an admirable stance, but it doesn’t meaningfully engage any particular line of Jewish thought.  Which is no flaw.  The real point of NEAT, as visitors quickly discover, is serious fun – experienced through works that are intellectually and physically engaging, and most of all, interactive.  
 
Alan Rath, Soon, 2015, aluminum, steel, fiberglass, motors, custom electronics, feather 138 x 220 x 220”
 
A fine example is Paolo Salvagione’s Rope Fountain, a twisting and flopping kinetic sculpture composed of four “fountains,” made of motors and thick nylon rope that greets you at the gallery’s entrance.  Employing mechanisms not much different than a power drill’s, but controlled by custom software, the machines suck in the rope and then toss it into the air, creating dervish-like shapes that whirl and collapse in ways that feel mildly threatening.   
 
Alan Rath, the MIT-educated engineer-turned-artist gives his robotic sculptures an anthropomorphic twist.  His largest contribution to the show, Soon, is a 10-foot mechanical arm tipped with a giant pink ostrich feather that whirs about inside a circular track.  It pauses at random points, bends, and “tickles” an empty spot in the air with seductive charm.  Forever, a mechanical/kinetic sculpture shaped like a vagina with feather-tipped “arms,” opens and closes, offering to embrace viewers before quickly retracting its “limbs.”  It summons the prospect of intrusive intimacy, echoing, in spirit, the works that first brought Rath to wide attention in the mid-1980s, those being CRT screens that displayed wagging tongues and shifty eyeballs.  They were seen as prescient critiques of the virtual life.  Unfortunately, the remakes on view here evince none of the menace that made the originals memorable.
 
Jim Campbell, Broken Move, 2015, video installation, custom electronics, LEDs
Interactivity in Scott Snibbe’s hands is more cerebral. REWORK_ (Philip Glass Remix), for example,is a concert series on an iPad coupled with software that projects abstract patterns onto walls, allowing you to manipulate them by running your fingers across the screen.  The musical selections are great, but the interactive element is sorely lacking: at most you can distort a few lines here, move a few cubes there with no impact on the audio.  Glass Machine, an audio/video synthesizer, is more fully interactive, with onscreen visuals and dials that allow you to construct early Glass-like compositions. But ultimately, Snibbe’s ensemble fails to make a coherent point, and devolves instead into gimmicks and novelty.
 
Camille Utterback, a true master of interactivity, handles it engagingly with Entangled.  Step inside a lit rectangle on the floor and spidery electric fields of color forming avatars morph across a large hanging scrim. As participants mingle on both sides of the screen and motion sensors pick up their movements, bold primary colors reconfigure, dissolve and animate.  How those movements will affect the big picture is never certain or consistent.  The piece, then, becomes an analog for how changes to one part of a system (biological, political, technological, financial) ripple through every other part of the system, explicating the piece’s title.  It refers to quantum entanglement, the crux of which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” where two or more particles are strangely linked so that one cannot be acted upon, or even observed, without changing every other particle in the system.
 
Paolo Salvagione, Rope Fountain, 2015, nylon rope, 3D printed housings, motors, control electronics, code
 
Jim Campbell, a former engineer who holds patents for high definition television, reverses course as an artist by asking how much information can be removed from a picture before it becomes incomprehensible? Broken Movie demonstrates with a display of found footage of old home movies distributed across LEDs. A typical HD TV has anywhere between 1 million and 2 million LED pixels; Campbell uses less than 600 to create a diffuse images in which objects and figures are distilled to blob-like colors and shadow shapes.  In this case, 500 LEDs are gathered in a rectangular net at the center of the piece, while others are distributed individually across two adjoining walls.  Result: when an object like a car moves through the picture, those lights carry the motion from side-to-side, mimicking the way distant memories are recalled: first, as an unformed blur, then as something almost tangible, and finally, as a incoherent flash, analogous to the process of remembering and forgetting. 
 
Paul DeMarinis, Tympanic Alley, 2015, loudspeakers, electronics

With Tympanic Alley, a sound installation composed of metal clips banging on 60 small pie tins, Paul DeMarinis reminds us that technology needn’t be of a high sort to be effective.  The tins (tart pans, actually) are attached to tiny speakers.  They’re suspended from the ceiling at different elevations and activated, at irregular intervals, by electronic pulses that set off a rousing cacophony reminiscent of rain on a tin roof or a wildly out-of-synch steel drum ensemble.  But, if you stand and listen – or better yet, wend your way through this garden of hanging sound pods — rhythmic and melodic patterns emerge, shifting in and out of phase according to where you stand and which tins are being activated at any given moment.   All very John Cage/Harry Partch.  

If, in touring this show you sense an anything-goes ethos, you’ve read it correctly. But rather than reflecting a lack of focus, it’s more about the wide-open nature of technology-enabled artistic inquiry.  As such, NEAT establishes a template for future exhibitions, one that will hopefully delve  further into what can be had from the intersection of art and technology.  Whether such developments bring about rapprochement between those two forces, now at odds in SF, well, that’s another story. 
 
– MIKKO LAUTAMO and DAVID M. ROTH
 
“NEAT: New Experiments in Art and Technology” @ Contemporary Jewish Museum, through January 17, 2016.
 
About the Authors:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist living and working in Sacramento. His work uses programming to create never-repeating loops of digital animations based on social systems, biological entities and interactions.  He teaches Electronic Art at Sac State and has exhibited work in Sacramento, Melbourne and online. His work can be viewed on Vimeo.  David M. Roth is Squarecylinder’s editor and publisher. 
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