Artists consider 'Getting Closer' on the Web

Kurt Shaw
| Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011

The art of long-distance communication is as old as the letter. But, since the dawn of the Internet, many web-based technologies have brought new ways to initiate and enrich intimacy. And though they may sometimes be as cold as a keyboard, these developments are often perceived simultaneously as creating and bridging distance.

An exhibit at Fe Arts Gallery in Lawrenceville explores these ever-evolving forms of intimacy in the Internet age. Titled "Getting Closer," it proves that cyberspace is not just a technical device, but a phenomenon which has reduced the world to a proverbial global village, fostering relationships both real and virtual.

The exhibit includes works by a dozen artists, each chosen by New York City-based independent curator Lindsay Howard, who previously organized a chat room in which artists exchanged images. Now, the curator has taken up the challenge of taking the virtual into a real space.

"I stumbled upon an Internet art community creating these works that were intended to viewed on the Web," Howard says. "I was surprised that I had never seen them in a gallery. And I was very interested in the challenge of translating that conceptual work to a gallery space.

"All of these artists are using technology as a medium to explore and consider what intimacy means now in this digital age, with all of this information and media that we have at our fingertips."

In putting together this show, Howard says it was important to her that the artists involved use digital tools as their primary medium, ranging from video to Web-based art. "I looked for artists who use technology to explore the possibilities of connection across distance, both physical and metaphorical," she says.

"To be clear, this show is not about Internet dating or hook-ups on Craigslist," Howard says. "I'm not interested in sex for sex's sake or how the Internet can be a launching pad for 'real life' relationships. We already know that. What I see in the work of these artists is a desire to connect through media."

Nevertheless, the real standouts in this exhibit are the works that are most closely aligned with romantic relationships. Take for example "The Re-Gift" by Liz Rywelski, a first-year graduate student in the visual studies/emerging practices concentration at the University at Buffalo.

The piece is a performance of sorts that takes the form of about half a dozen pre-paid cell phones available for the public to take. Each pre-paid phone is paid for one month, and during that month the holder of each phone will receive a few SMS text messages every day sent by the artist.

However, the texts weren't written by her. They were written by a former boyfriend with whom she had a brief relationship lasting about one month. According to Rywelski, this former boyfriend had quite a gift for texting.

"These SMS are the same ones my lover once sent me," Rywelski says. "The text on the phone asks the viewer to respond to the SMS if they are inclined to. It also says it's OK to share this phone or leave it places. And the text on the phone asks the holder of the phone to return the phone after a specified date, though this is not mandatory."

Though the mere act may seem like the work itself, Rywelski says, "The final work is a compilation of all the original SMS and varied responses received. It answers the question of, if I were a different person, if I had responded to these original texts differently during our relationship, would we still be together?

"I know that's a bit 'crazy girlfriend' talk but that's how I felt at the time, like who do I have to be for you to love me?" Rywelski says. "These responses also render an answer to how 'crazy girlfriend' that question is, but (it's) also totally a relatable question. Sometimes, we find brilliant insightful answers to the most ridiculous questions. I like the idea that this work looks to the public to render answers to this question without using anything but a cell phone."

Also responding to a brief, though still ongoing, relationship, is the work "Headquarters" by Sara Ludy and Nicolas Sassoon. Though the two live far apart -- she in L.A. and he in Vancouver -- the pair met in Computers Club ( www.computersclub.org ), an online art collective of which both are members.

In the club, artists use computer technology as an essential tool for the creation and diffusion of their work. The notion of collective emanates mostly from the Computers Club website, where each artist displays artworks.

"The 'Headquarters' project is a proposal to build a physical meeting point," Sassoon says. "It's a center of operations for every member of the collective."

But, he says, it's a "dream house" of sorts, which the couple imagine building in Santa Fe. "An exciting aspect of this work for me was to collaborate with my girlfriend, Sara, on the idea of a place where we could live in the future, along with other artists that we appreciate.

"The project, at this stage, is just meant to be utopic," Sassoon says. "It is a reflection of what we would consider an ideal setting to establish our idea of the collective."

Less direct is the work of Dutch artist Rosa Menkman. Her piece "To Smell and Taste Black Matter" may look like the kind of a video image that you see when your TV isn't picking up a channel. But, in reality, it's an "artifact," according to the artist, of a Skype conversation with her boyfriend.

Other works explore the notion of the real self verses the virtual self. For example, in Riley Harmon's video works "Passenger 4 (Laurel Canyon)" and "Passenger 5 (Collateral)," the artist, who lives in Lawrenceville and i an art student at Carnegie Mellon University, inserts himself in car scenes in movies, as if he was actually in them.

"A lot of the things I make often have to do with simulation, virtuality and network culture," Harmon says. "These pieces are experiments in using my visual-effects skills to see if it was possible to replace actors in film scenes."

What is most amazing is that each scene looks believably real, but they are quite humorous. Harmon shows skill not only technically, but as an actor because in each, not a word is spoken. Only expressions are exchanged between the actresses in the scene and himself. That makes it seem very real, but funny when you realize he is a virtual stand-in.

The remaining works are as engaging, each in their own way. And, seen together, they prove that, from a psychological perspective, the Internet has become a major vehicle for interpersonal communication that can significantly affect people's decisions, behaviors, attitudes and emotions.

Moreover, its existence has created a virtual social environment in which people can meet, negotiate, collaborate and exchange goods and information. And of course, make and display art.

Additional Information:

'Getting Closer'

When: Through March 1. Noon-3 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; noon-4 p.m. Saturdays

Admission: Free

Where: Fe Arts Gallery, 4102 Butler St., Lawrenceville

Details: 412-860-6028

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