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There is Always a Machine Between Us

Communications and Inspirations in the Modern Age

Unless you live in the rural countryside, chances are that you use email and/or a cell phone to stay in touch with people and to keep up-to-date with goings on in the world. Instant messaging programs and text messaging have morphed communication today into an often context-less space with lack of intonation and increased probability of mixed messages and miscommunication. SF Camerawork’s current exhibition, "There is Always a Machine Between Us", explores these new modes of communication propelled by the advent of the Internet, in methods and mediums that promise an intriguing visit and provide ample fodder for discussion in the aftermath.

With this exhibit positioned as an “interactive exhibit sounded from and inspired by the Internet”, SF Camerawork aims to transform its gallery space into a global gathering place, research lab and an ongoing experiment in visual communication. The framework is certainly in place to meet these aims and the results are thought provoking. Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted by a Chat room. Equipped with a computer for iChat and Skype, the intent is for visitors to chat with artists from around the globe.

A thoughtfully assembled dossier includes a detailed “evolving schedule” with biographies of artists that are scheduled to appear. For each day there is one artist scheduled in one hour-plus windows, as well as “unscheduled appearances” by numerous artists from places such as Amsterdam, Israel, Berlin, Greece, Cape Town and Oslo. Unfortunately, the artist scheduled for my visit -- German electro pop artist Torsten Kretchzmar -- was missing from the online portal and my attempts to initiate conversations with other artists that appeared to be online were met with silence. This left the promise of a global gathering place disappointingly empty.

Next in queue was a space labeled “Interact”. Here, a portal to YouTube is projected onto a blank wall. But with no keyboard, the only activity here seems to be to watch videos and browse SF Camerawork’s group page. To be sure, the “favorites” on the group page are amusing (check out Devendra Banhart’s “Save the Album” and the “Matthew Looking for Friends” video). But without the ability to add favorites or comment on other people’s videos the “interaction” element feels absent.

The “Research” room presents a fascinating look into the inspirations and influences artists find in online materials. Here, volumes of YouTube videos have been compiled by artists into DVD compilations for visitor perusal. Each DVD is labeled with the artist’s name as well as some insight into their reasons for selecting these particular works. Takeaways from this portion of the exhibit are at least two-fold: discover new videos to get inspired by and share these videos with your cronies for reactions and discussion.

Artist Anne-Marie Schleiner argues that “…YouTubing also is erasing this gap between megaproduced and DIY, and low tech vs. high tech become irrelevant. YouTubers remake DIY videos made by other YouTubers, remakes that are neither that much better nor worse than the original, an endless string of permutations.” Take her DVD for a whirl and see if her selections support her argument.

If you haven’t seen the rendition of Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" reenacted by a massive yard of Philippine prisoners, you can find it on Christine Won Yep's DVD -- it is truly something to behold. Yep poses inviting questions to visitors: “[this video] exemplifies the lack of context for internet videos: who initiated it? Who picked the songs? How were roles assigned? Beyond entertainment value, can Western audiences possibly comprehend this as a sincere expressive act?”

Because the videos are extremely compressed for YouTube, the image and sound quality is delightfully horrible and projecting, thus enlarging the image does no favors. If anything, it makes a point: we suffer through poor quality YouTube videos for the entertainment and content.

"Flat Land" is a poignant and at turns humorous four-channel video installation projected onto each of the four walls of a room. For this installation Jeanne C. Finley and John Muse compiled publicly available images of “Flat Daddies” (life-size cut-outs of soldiers that are carried through daily activities by families and friends back home), and “Flat Stanleys” (small cut-outs of a cartoon boy, sent by American school children on adventures around the world, sometimes to war-zones). The focus here is obviously on men and women at war. A soundtrack of birds chirping lends a peaceful but eerie feel to the exhibit.

During my visit, "Lick" -- a video clip less than two minutes long is running on loop -- and the animal screams echo through the dark gallery, fashioning a haunting atmosphere. Here Mary Magsamen and Stephen Hillerbrand paired video clips of a male mouth licking a female hand with sounds of creatures screaming taken from internet web sites that advertise “Free Sound Effects”. "Lick" is no longer showing; as this exhibit is “generative”, the works rotate and evolve. Visit SF Camerawork’s web site to see what is currently showing.

If anything, "There is Always a Machine Between Us" serves as a reminder that successful communication requires a sender, conduit and an audience. Without an active recipient, a sender’s message floats unheeded. Even though computing devices and the internet have in many respects made it easier for us to communicate with one another, these same instruments can also magnify our loneliness and disconnection when we receive no response.

"There is Always a Machine Between Us" runs through November 17th at SF Camerawork and the very affordable $5 admittance fee also grants you access to the Cartoon Museum next door.