The Henry Art Gallery, in Seattle's University District, has recently
reopened to rave reviews by the public and artistic community alike. The
new space, designed by New York architect Charles Gwathmey (famous for
his museum "remodels"), now frames the western edge of the University
campus, and teams with new acquistions, a new look and even an
interesting lecture series (Hal Foster was last week).
What sets the Henry apart from other Seattle museums is its willness to
approach new media. Currently, the Henry is showing "Inside," an
exhibition of installations devoted to issues of interiority. In a
strange inversion of the mini-genre of body art, Mona Hatoum's "Corps
Etranger" creates a haunting audio/visual space using video footage from
what appears to be a micro-sized video camera travelling down the
esophagus and into the stomach. Hatoum's interest in the immersive
environement plays itself twice over: the user is plunged into the
viewing booth, then plunged down into a sickening biological space lit
up only by the techo eye.
The most intriguing piece in the show is Gary Hill's "Tall Ships."
Although the piece was recently aquired by the Henry, many of you may
have already seen it at its debute in Kassel for Documenta IX or at
other engagements in Washington DC and New York City. Tall Ships is a
pitch-black immersive space with dim black-and-white video projections
triggered by the movement of the user. As the user traverses the space,
the people in the videos walk toward the camera until they appear
life-size. The figures stay, with blank stares, looking back at you.
They stay as long as you stay, and when you leave they turn around and
walk away from you.
The presentation is stunning. Although the American engagements have
featured a 60 foot-long hallway, and 12 channel video version, I am told
that the original version was a 90 foot, 16 channel experience.
Hill, a resident of Seattle's Belltown district (whose inhabitants he
has exploited on more than one art-making occasion) gave a sold out
lecture tonight on "Tall Ships" and his other work. The lecture was
interesting. Getting past Hill's self-conscious shyness and amazing
ability to undercut his own words with sarcasm, one gains an interesting
perspective on his somewhat problematic relationship with video and
interactivity. What's nice is that "Tall Ships" is not just a video
piece. It uses video as one component of an environment that is both
interactive and immersive. The user is who makes the piece.
Unfortunately, the interactive nature of this piece is digital too.
Despite Hill's explaination that Tall Ships allows for a broad decision
tree, the user's *experience* is that it's just a two way switch: the
user either trips the switch, causing the charactures in the video to
approach, or the user turns off the switch and the figures walk away.
Coyishly avoiding the label of "interactive art" or even "installation,"
Hill stressed the point that Tall Ships is not about interactivity. In
fact, he gives the impression that the piece could function very easily
outside of the interactive framework. In Hill's words, "Tall Ships" is
about "being a person" with the video projections as mirrors for the
self. As he claims, the term "interactive" has only been used to win
Down the hall from Tall Ships, Bill Viola's "Anthem" plays as part of
the Henry Gallery's video x-travaganza "Between Lantern &Laser."
Although it seems like Viola has been getting slammed recently at
RHIZOME, I admit I wasn't too impressed. It's hard for me to think of
video *historically* – Anthem is from 1983! The piece lingers on the
image of a girl screaming, then cuts to archetypal images of natural
space, industrial space, domestic space, medical space, public space,
etc. I am however currently looking at the section in Critical Art
Ensemble's "The Electronic Disturbance" where they describe the downfall
of documentary. To its credit, "Anthem" avoids many of these
depressingly reactive shortfalls. Perhaps this is what CAE means when
they describe the "associational video."
In the same way that Viola's video seems dated, Hill's installation
seems underdeveloped compared to more recent interactive art. And after
hearing Hill's own non-interest in interactivity as an artistic form,
the work seems poisoned to me.
I have visited the installation twice, and now I begin to see the
cracks. I begin to see how the video is looping, then fading to another
channel to simulate a continuous, living techno-persona. Think of the
difference between a cartoon character and a VR avatar. No matter how
animated you get, you need a real break to achieve interactivity.
The show "Inside" runs at the Henry through June 29th.