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Dark Matters: Artists See The Impossible

Through a Glass, Very Darkly

New technology always generates new art forms, mediums, and modes of exhibition. The rapid digitization of our globe -- with its accompanying technologies of hyper-communication, intimate surveillance and documentation -- stands as no exception. “Dark Matters” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts addresses the information-technology drenched society we reside in head-on, uniting a range of artists, each one using a dramatically different medium to reveal the invisible and the shrouded.

Though the artwork is not intended, exclusively anyway, to leave us with a sinking, paranoid feeling, much of it does -- and beautifully so. There are the blurry-by-necessity photographs, for instance, of camera-wielding, self-described “cyberspace researcher” Trevor Paglen that target the governmental use of secrecy we’ve become accustomed to if not before then certainly during the eight year reign of Bush II and his Junta.

Taken 18-20 miles out from Tonopah Test Range (a classified U.S. military base in Nevada) because civilians are prohibited from getting any closer, Paglen’s hefty photographs shimmer before our eyes, huge, stark reminders of how little we’re allowed to see of the inner-workings of our own government and military. They are, reads the description on the wall beside the photographs “minimalist statements about what we can know” –- images of faint, almost unseeable things that “threaten to disappear from sight.”

Paglen’s service to the public and it’s right to know continues with a wall-to-wall list of code names used by the U.S. for secret operations from 2001-2007. Etched into the white walls glare hundreds of bizarre, double-speak-laden handles like Black Demon, Bent Pipe, Eastern Reasoner, Hairy Buffalo, Salty Script, and Wiley, monikers for who-knows-what. Paglen’s bone-chilling installation prods us to wonder: what else will we find out (maybe) long after the fact? What else is Big Brother up to?

Those questions, however, punch at us in precisely the way these artists want them to -- thrusting us in front of the sort of “dark matter” we rarely come face-to-face with, let alone to terms with. The curator’s exhibit statement, for example, decries a “culture of secrecy” at all levels of government, as well as “a concern that we are losing touch with reality [as] the digitization of most content...produces a situation where information loses a sense of relative importance.” Surrounded by “digital white noise,” reads the statement, we must turn to art – and this exhibit specifically -- to “reveal the hidden and obscured.”

Paglen’s work only marks the beginning of this exhibit’s disarming array of hair-raising artwork. Tucked in corners and hallways around the gallery, for instance, wait black phones on black tables. The brainchild of artist Kambui Olujmi these pieces simulate eavesdropping. Each phone bears a sign inviting a person to pick it up. Though the conversations are in (sometimes obscure) foreign languages, they are each discussions of traumatic events, filled with emotional hooks that allow us to know –- even across languages –- that we are peeping in on something painful and private. Again, our spines tingle as we come face-to-face -– or ear-to-ear, as it were -- with the technologies and practices the information-age has unleashed.

The exhibit continues with music, video, and other multimedia. The pieces touch on only some of the dark matters swirling just beneath our lives, exposed here for brief, chilling moments in this show. Installed and exhibited with meticulous attention to space and light and color, the exhibit grabs and shakes gorgeously, and leaves us looking over our shoulders for hours.

Dark Matters: Artists See The Impossible
at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
$7 regular/$5 seniors, students & teachers
FREE for YBCA Members