A new group exhibition at Signal Gallery Surface Support started out with the question, “How does video exist outside itself?” Curator Amanda Schmitt has worked with video artists since about the dawn of Postinternet thinking. It’s almost as if now that thinking too heavily about the internet as a thing (and just accepting it as an inherent part of aesthetics, social interaction, and sadly even existence) we can get back to thinking about video in new ways again. “Video and of course screens changed the way we think,” Amanda explained. “We’re always on our phones now, so sometimes we take it for granted.”
As part of Surface Support on view in East Williamsburg until August 9th, Schmitt has included work by artists where the physical manifestation of video art beyond the two-dimensional form is an essential element of the work rather than an awkward reality. As she described it, “video art that is specific to the apparatus” and that wouldn’t exist without the machine that it’s paired with.
Though this is 100 percent video art we’re talking here, the exhibition’s title indicates a nod to a nod to the French painting movement, Supports/ Surfaces, though with a sort of software customer service ring to it. A group of French painters who called themselves Supports/ Surfaces and went against the grain of both the art establishment and the avant-garde of the ’60s and ’70s in their rejection of both the purported death of painting but a challenge to abstract painting. These artists felt that the highest task of art was to uncover what was “hidden, to deconstruct and individualize each of its elements.”
“They wanted to bring painting off the canvas,” Schmitt explained. “To show that painting can be on the floors, on the walls. It’s all about exploring surfaces beyond the four-cornered, two-dimensional thing on a canvas.”
Surface/ Support is taking that same ethos and applying it to video. “Work in this show expands beyond the screen, outside of the file,” Schmitt elaborated. But most importantly, as a curator she’s hoping to challenge assumptions about video that come with a postinternet existence, namely that a video is so much more than embed codes and MP4s. “I didn’t want this to be a tech free-for-all, I wanted it to have a human component,” Schmitt explained.
Some of the exhibition does this by taking the familiar and rendering it ultra-familiar. Take Philip Vanderhyden‘s Head and Shoulders Pattern 2; it’s slick, three-dimensional animation depicting glossy, metallic spinning tops, woven ropes, and rotating rings displayed across six, high quality flat screen TVs. The screens work together to display larger images and patterns, but they also work independently.
Because this piece shows probably the most familiar use of screens and the style of animation is seamless, but so common as to be banal, unless you’re meditating on the actual technology you might not guess what Schmitt was thinking when she included it in the show. However, the tangle of cables underneath the screens hints that you should really be paying attention to the surface of things.
“Pretty much you can only buy really nice flat screen TVs now, and they’re actually really cheap compared to what they used to cost,” Schmitt explained. The fact that screens are so readily available, she said, “almost makes me think about where paintings is going.”
From that observation I immediately learned to regard everything as hyper-intentional at this show, something that’s essential to seeing beyond the thing itself and measuring your own expectations and assumptions against your first impression. There’s a ton of work here that’s messing with our expectations. Consider Antoine Catala‘s video sculpture of sorts. The piece incorporates what Schmitt called a “fucking machine,” an apparatus that’s intended to pump a dildo back and forth (yes, for real), a cast of the artist’s hand, and a projector. The result is a rhythmically but smoothly jabbing hand that pushes the projector dangling from the ceiling back-and-forth, hypnotically in space, and as a result the anxiety-inducing blue default screen also moves left-right-left-right.
At first, I was all, “What the hell? Can someone please get that blue screen out of here? Where’s the video?” But eventually, I caught on and felt like a total dummy for not catching the drift at the outset. But wait, isn’t that the best thing that can happen when you look at art?
“It kind of looks like a dumb piece,” Schmitt laughed. “But you can read a lot into it. To me, it’s like a surrealist joke.”
While some of the work meditates on the screen as it exists in our minds, Luca Dellaverson‘s piece, which takes several screens and stacks them on top of one another against a wall so as to block out the visual component almost completely, turns the purpose of a screen on its head. “It negates the images completely,” Schmitt said.
Jurassic Park/ Independence Day/ Home Alone 2: Lost in New York/ 10 Things I Hate About You is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a loop of late ’90s Hollywood movies, but instead of seeing the images, all we’re getting is strangely familiar soundbites.
“If you’re a millennial, you know these movies just from hearing it,” Schmitt explained. “It’s an amalgamation of memories shared by an entire generation just based on the sensory environment.”
It’s weirdly, awesomely stressful and gives the entire room the feel of an arcade, right at that moment when you walk in to the darkness, just before your eyes and ears adapt, when all you can feel is you’re a barrage of muted, vaguely action movie noises.
And despite Schmitt’s reticence towards tipping the scales in favor of “techy,” there are some pieces that reference an immediately recognizable net aesthetic. While Jessie Stead‘s piece (pictured at the top) could totally be some CGI rendering for a net artist’s website, it’s not exactly that. The chess board-screen, the acrylic shapes, and chess pieces on top are actually translucent three-dimensional objects, IRL things that reflect and refract the digital projections of static and hyper-saturated pieces of fruit morphing and moving beneath them.
Everything about this piece– the fact that it’s a game, the implied “temptation” of fruit, the two chairs set aside the table– invites you to touch it. There’s even a soundtrack playing that can only be described as tense and game-like, as if someone’s waiting for you to make your next move.
But, hey, you’re not actually supposed to touch the piece. Is the artist toying with our assumption that digital stuff is usually there for us to play with? In this case, the objects aren’t actually malleable. The experience of gazing at this piece is what it would feel like to look over someone’s shoulder as they play Candy Crush, but everything looks CRAZY because you’re on DMT or something.
There’s one more piece in Surface / Support that struck me as decidedly hands-off and museum-like (though I wasn’t really drawn to touching the thing, the gallery cat was all up in its materials). Will Stewart’s To build castles in the sky and trashcans on the moon– a mixed-media sculpture in which the artist has taken an LCD flat screen TV and deconstructed it to its essential elements to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable– is maybe the most surprising use of a screen.
Something about the piece looks almost organic, as if the artist used natural fibers to construct a zen-like living room (Schmitt described it as “Feng shui”) complete with a potted plant. The guts of TV are neatly arranged, and fabric bits folded up like blankets and floor pillows may or may not have anything to do with the LCD insides, but something about the room-like installation encourages you to imagine them that way.
The only thing that hints toward a screen as we know it is the glass plate held up by a frame with an image of a spaceship launch, frozen in time. “There’s nothing for the photons to bounce off of,” Schmitt explained. “So the screen relies on natural light.”
Like with Chris Ofili‘s dark paintings (at the New Museum earlier this year) I found myself have moving around Stewart’s piece, bobbing and twisting my head like an ostrich to match my eyes up with the limited light rays bouncing off the surface, in order to perceive the spaceship image. Because you spend so much time moving about, as opposed to picking one vantage point and sticking with it, you’re tricked into experiencing the work in multiple ways and inspecting it from a variety of angles.
That movement is indicative of Surface Support as a whole, where most of Schmitt’s selections ask to be looked at not once (and briefly, at that) and individually, but considered and mulled over as if in conversation with one another.
Tonight, Friday July 31st at 8 pm, check out a special event as part of the exhibition, a performance by installation and performance artist, Lea Cetera. Schmitt says “OBE (Out Body Experience)” will deal with the idea “astral-projection.” Cetera will utilize a pre-recorded image of herself and perform alongside her digital double. “It’s about how far can we push outside of our physical apparatus,” Schmitt explained.
Surface Support is on view from now until Sunday August 9th. Visit Signal Gallery at 260 Johnson Avenue in East Williamsburg, Saturday and Sunday from 1 pm to 6 pm.