Artist, administer synesthesia
Fine-art futzes and others in the smoking-jacket crowd are going to have their socks blown off with the University of Hawaii Art Gallery's great leap into what art schools call "new media." The cavernous space usually adorned with paintings and sculptures has been darkened and sectioned into discrete exhibits that wreak havoc on anyone sensitive to flashing lights and pulsating sound.
'What Sound Does a Color Make?'
» On view: 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays, through April 13
» Place: University of Hawaii Art Gallery
» Admission: Free; parking $3
» Call: 956-6888 or visit www.hawaii.edu/artgallery
The theme of "What Sound Does a Color Make?" is ostensibly synesthesia, a confusion of senses in which one might "hear" colors or "taste" sounds. But the title only attempts to contextualize this digital fun house that reads at first like a catalog of rave paraphernalia: video screens of pulsating light, a half-dozen TVs set to static or mutating silver blobs, or a row of computer stations that invite -- but fail in any way to guide -- interactive viewing of same.
Searching for clues in the exhibit labels is not going to help. The three TVs showing the slow-moving silver blobs, for example, titled "Friction Sticky Rough," are "engineered tactile particle-to-object interactions" in which "the artist animated a fluid simulation of the sound." Whatever that means.
The crackling, color-shifting sun in "Noisefields" -- an earlier piece from 1974 -- "is a visualization of the materiality of the electronic signal and its energy. Colorized video noise is keyed through a circle, producing a rich static sound that is modulated by the energy content of the video."
Such verbiage is tough to digest amid the bleeping, booming, flickering environment, leaving the viewer to plunge into one of the darkened rooms to taste the experience itself. In "Light Turned Down," by Robin Rimbaud and D-Fuse, a screen shows colors flashing through a tunnel of light -- traffic lights videotaped and reprocessed into thumping electronic dance music -- which is likely to awaken in some people an urge to twirl.
In Thom Kubli's "Monochrome Transporter," by contrast, a video screen glows pure blue against a droning sound, both of which apparently change ever-so-subtly in concert with each other. Gazing into the blue light for the five-minute loop in pursuit of the promised shift in awareness could awaken the suggestion that your brain waves are being subtly reprocessed to vote for Barack Obama or drink Mountain Dew.
Through such technological tricks, the artists do succeed, by and large, in "rendering strange" one's senses of sight and sound, partly by taxing their normal range of exertion. In one of the most compelling pieces, "LUX," by Granular-Synthesis (a collaborative group), a large video screen shows color fields that mutate in synch with a rumbling bass soundtrack. The effect is strangely absorbing, seductive and meditative, even though it would appear on the surface to be no more than a giant iTunes visualizer.
In fact, the absorption is a result of the perfect fusion of video and sound, according to Jim Hearon, one of three UH professors drafted to help decipher the exhibition, purchased outright from the Independent Curators International in New York. Hearon, an assistant professor of music technology, provided some much-needed historical context for an exhibit that ends up feeling for all the world like a tour of computer screen-savers.
The idea of "granular synthesis" goes back to 1947, Hearon said, and a physicist's work with granularization -- breaking down sound, for example, into its smallest components, or grains. These could then be recombined according to mathematical patterns of probability, which govern both sound and video in "LUX." If the process is done well, "it's magical," Hearon says; if not, "it becomes something very boring."
Also important is the placement of speakers, or what is called "location modulation -- the spatialization of sound," Hearon explained. Ideally the viewer should be drawn to "the sweet spot," where it all comes together in a seamless multimedia experience, which the creators tend to imagine in fantastic settings such as flooding a plaza at night with thundering subwoofers and a wall-size plasma TV.
Such visions have their roots in the psychedelic 1960s and '70s, represented in the exhibit by early pioneers such as Nam June Paik, the granddaddy of video art. Using analog TV studio equipment, film and audiotape, artists like Paik, Steina Vasulka and even Yoko Ono manipulated recordings in the pursuit of abstraction before the technology really allowed it. Their mission, Hearon said, was to raise a new awareness of sound as a medium beyond music.
Vasulka's "Violin Power" from 1970-78 is one such piece in the gallery. The 10-minute loop shows Vasulka playing a violin connected to devices that alter the image as it's filmed, abstracting it into what the artist calls "a demo tape on how to play video on the violin."
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Abel Coelho views "LUX," by Granular Synthesis, one of the video installations featured in a new art exhibit at UH's Art Gallery titled "What Sound Does a Color Make?"
As leaps in digital technology have made such visions commonplace, the artistic holy grail of "intermedia" has evolved into the "interactivity" hyped by Internet gurus, adding audience participation. Yet, this can all still be understood within the context of a centuries-long quest for the "total work of art," Hearon noted -- what 19th-century opera composer Richard Wagner called Gesamtkunstwerk: sound, color, light and movement working together in the service of drama.
What has changed over the centuries, Hearon said, is that today even his undergraduates, using the media programs Max/MSP and Jitter, can easily manipulate sound and video. "It's a pretty exciting time we live in," enthused Hearon, himself a San Francisco multimedia artist before he came to UH.
What gets lost in all this enchantment with technology, however -- at least in this exhibit -- is the "art." Technology alone does not make an experience, any more than paint makes a painting. Aside from inducing a kind of mental torpor from sensory overload, it's hard to see what meaning can be drawn from pieces such as the manipulated static of Scott Arford's "Static Room."
Curator Kathleen Forde of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy, N.Y., claims in the exhibition catalog that the rapid evolution of audiovisual manipulation has turned today's video artists more toward "the aesthetic and philosophic concerns implicit in the application of recent technology."
Yet the pieces in the exhibit, at least, hardly move beyond a gee-whiz engagement, with a near-total absence of critique.
What the audience realizes, in fact, is less the mind at work than the senses -- and how they block the mind from its work. Not that this is a bad thing. Indeed, what the show ends up providing, ironically, is a meditative respite from the insistently promotional aims of the audiovisual assaults of our time.
Respite, however, is just the potting soil for art. And technology is only the fertilizer.