A queasy blend of Phillip K. Dick and Paul Sharits, Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist is the latest from art-game designer Mark Essen, a.k.a Messhof. Filled with strobing rainbow colors, overblown psychedelic explosions, giant bouncing baby-heads and a skull-pounding soundtrack of electronic noise beats, Randy Balma's audio-visual complexity reflects Messhof's experimental media background (a recent Bard grad, he studied filmmaking under the likes of Peggy Ahwesh and Les Leveque). But it also continues a strain of sadistically difficult yet tantalizingly ingenious game mechanics that has already made Essen's work notorious in indie gaming circles. For example, one level requires the player to drive a truck from one end of a straight-line highway to another. Easy, except for the fact that Balma is supposed to be "drugged up on drugs," thus the screen is constantly rotating and the games left-right controllers keep switching valences without warning. The more visually-minimal titles in the Messhof back catalog are even thornier. The abstracted Flywrench necessitates navigating a mere flapping line through neon-piped geometric environments using a maddeningly arbitrary array of button-combo protocols, while Punishment and its sequel Punishment: The Punishing are two seemingly simple platforms that become very difficult, very quickly. In his work, Essen combines the essence of old 2D arcade games-- misleadingly cute single-player titles that did everything they could to make you choke on that twenty-five cents-- with the viewer-challenging puzzle-logic of avant-garde cinema. He's currently working on a suite of new works that include a western-themed side-scroller, a bow-and-arrow shooter, and a stenography simulator, tentatively titled Stenography Hero. - Ed Halter
Image: Mark Essen/Messhof, Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist, 2008
The latest in Dia Art Foundation's series of web-based Artists' Projects, Ezra Johnson's Wrestling with the Blob Beast (2008) comprises sixteen screensavers made using his uncommon method of animation. Johnson builds his work by painting and repainting canvases with a loose, gestural flair, producing densely textured sequences that somehow also manage to feel buoyant. What Visions Burn (2006), Johnson's acclaimed, twenty-two minute opus, adopts the language of a heist flick to recount the theft of paintings from a museum, producing a reflexivity between the artist's production process and the trajectory of the story itself. Johnson's current crop of screensavers forgoes such explicit narrative, yet offers sixteen vignettes that collectively continue the artist's meditation on his process. Screensaver Wrestling the Blue Blob (2008) is the most apparent example of this, depicting an unruly mass of blue and red brushstrokes in the corner of a room, which sprouts canine fangs and menacing eyes each time a pair of hands attempts to grasp it. A similar story unfolds in Shapes Shifter (2008): a transmogrifying, geometric form wavers between representational and abstract states, as if staging the artist's own anxieties about painting's historically separate practices. By bringing his animations into the realm of the screensaver, Johnson challenges the cinematic conditions through which his work has been previously viewed. As Sara Tucker notes, in her introduction to the project, "The screensaver is a paradoxical medium, present when the computer isn't in active use, so presumably not the object of one's focus, yet often running at such lengths that its image becomes indelibly etched in one's visual memory." Slow, indirect absorption may provide the perfect route for viewers to explore the questions and themes lying beneath Johnson's tactile sequences. - Tyler Coburn
Ezra Johnson, Wrestling ...
Probing the uncertain grounds between information, misinformation and disinformation, the artworks collected for Hamburger Eyes' exhibit Psymulation: Reenactments of the Present posit a society haunted by the wartime logic of both PsyOps and BlackOps, in which fact and fiction have become increasingly indistinguishable, and power exerts itself through a thick fog of unknowing. The show explores such themes through a cluster of photos, videos, physical artifacts and audio works, at once menacing and absurd, including an interview about psychic spy techniques with a real-life retired US Army Major and, at the show's opening, a live performance of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" on tuba (referencing the use of that same song in Guantanamo interrogations). Elsewhere in the exhibit, Kent Lambert's masterful remixed-video series-- consisting of Security Anthem (2003), Hymn of Reckoning (2006), and the recent Sunset Coda (2006)-- provides a pitch-perfect nightmare fugue on our age of terrors (complete with a vocal solo by John Ashcroft), while Brendan Threadgill's Partially Reconstructed Fragment (SKU# 3059778) (2007) drags into the gallery a refinished but otherwise unrepaired fragment of an automobile-- allegedly detritus from a car bomb, but under the glowering menace of what the curators call the "conspiratorial imagination and sci-fi feedback" of our uncertain era, who can really know for sure? - Ed Halter
Image: Brendan Threadgill, Partially Reconstructed Fragment (SKU# 3059778), 2007
Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) Technical Coordinator