March 29, 2006 - May 19, 2006 : Gigantic Art Space NYC
Object Lessons
Object Lessons

"I was listening to an old Victrola, playing a railroad song. The song was called, "Hobo Bill's Last Ride." And I thought it was the most wonderful, amazing thing that I'd ever seen."

-Johnny Cash

Object Lessons is a show that engages us with a techno-poetic analysis and post-digital critique of media and cognition, born from the Josef Albers axiom "good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers." The work in the show conjures up the conditions and context for the viewer to experience a sense of wonder. This form of wonder is not a reaction to superfluous spectacle or technical novelty, but it is a wonderment that is grounded in our basic nature to question. The artists in Object Lessons use the analysis of media and technology to form a different sense of logic, one that draws us into a personal inquiry, framed by the ambiguity of the mediated experience.

This group of seven artists from the media saturated terrain of Southern California employ new and old technologies, physical objects and manipulated data to remix our historical and predetermined boundaries of categorization and discipline. Their work, which is both diverse and eclectic, has a resonance that reflects in their shared process of investigation. The evidence of their working strategies can be seen through their unconventional approaches to knowledge and a healthy disregard and rejection of any fixed rules of illation. Through the use of paradox they generate encounters that cause us to reevaluate the common relationship between the object and the viewer, subverting the status quo of our established assumptions of power, knowledge and structures for belief. By their actions and analysis they expose our cultural matrix not as something solid, but as fundamentally liquid.

Peter Cho creates a new electronic system for writing with his project Takeluma. Takeluma uses phonetics and sound to investigate the modern linguistic assumptions of language and meaning. The work bears a relationship to Robert Smithson and his text-based drawings from the early 1960s. Unlike Smithson's drawings, Cho's cursive script is not a static form. Takeluma takes standard speech sounds as it's input and then transforms the speech into free flowing real time animation. The output visualization takes on the characteristics of a kinetic and continuously streaming line that at times resembles a graceful wave or ribbon. The work functions as an output representation of the sound input, however it also functions as a visual conundrum that critiques the complex relationships between words, images and objects.

Like Peter Cho, Patrick Vaillancourt's Celebrating a Rediscovery of the Intentionally Erased also manipulates input data. Vaillancourt takes early pop tunes from the late twentieth century and filters their frequency content down to a single drone. The drones, as Vaillancourt states are "the harmonic totality of their sources." Vaillancourt's drones are reminiscent of the single note compositions of trombonist/composer Jim Fulkerson. Both Fulkerson and Vaillancourt reveal a hidden or invisible complexity within the minimalist context of their sound. Vaillancourt's work however takes us beyond the initial experience of the manipulated sound data. The work assumes a suggestive quality, which allows us to engage the work as a mnemonic device. Since the commercial tunes that Vaillancourt chooses to manipulate are well known pop hits, they retain their original essence in the form of a ghost or shadow residing within the manipulated data. The memory of the original exposes the differences and contradictions between the drone output and the pop tune input source. The analyzed drones function as computer manipulated sound compositions and simultaneously as aural portraits of their respective decades.

Sean Dockray also deals with the invisible in his piece, Cabinet. In Dockray's work we are provoked into a paradoxical action by looking into the drawers of his cabinet and finding sound, something that does not have a visual quality. The captured sounds that reside in the drawers are derived from Dockray's collection of applause recordings. The applause remains audible as long as the drawer remains open. Cabinet with its filed sound contents becomes a physical metaphor for the digital database. Similar to a digital database, different applause recordings are stored in each of Cabinet's drawers and can be randomly accessed.

Dockray's piece jukes us however, by introducing another layer to the work in the form of an interactive component. After the user opens a drawer, Cabinet takes on a life of its own when the other drawers open and close under their own apparent volition. Dockray refers to "new forms of collectivity" when the resultant mixing of sounds are played back in shifting unison. The work ultimately acts as a contemporary media based cabinet of wonder or "wundarkammern." Dockray's cabinet of wonder and curiosity is an active physical container or dynamic archive, not only of individual sounds, but also as an historical record that comments both on the privilege of connectivity and the ambiguity of presence.

Kelli Cain's and Brian Crabtree's Almost Certified also explores the role of the ephemeral and the physical. In this case eggs act as the unexpected transmitter of sound in Cain's and Crabtree's digital and political schema. The artists refer to their work as a "mechanical and sound installation and informative publication." The installation is a network of "egg-tapping robots" whose amplified sequences are conducted by an interactive controller using custom software running on old LC3 Macintosh computers. The old LC3s in conjunction with the robotic eggs hatch a "cargo-cult" quality that echo the works of a previous generation of California assemblage artists.

The work however does not stop here. The artists present their installation within the context of their research into the harmful ecological practices of the poultry industry. Pollution of watersheds is the direct result of the practices of large corporate poultry farms in Arkansas; China has recently reported up to sixteen cases of bird flu in humans and dozens of outbreaks in chickens throughout the country. These issues are currently making their way across the global media spectrum and resonate with the artist's intent to "seek and impart knowledge, addressing alarming practices and trends in the egg industry." Their goal is to produce work that promotes a questioning of the practices of the poultry industry while raising our consciousness not through a didactic approach of making political art but through a critical method, as Jean Luc Goddard stated, that embraces art made politically.

Nate Harrison's Seventeen Grand Narratives for a New Grand Canyon is a looping DVD installation that shows us seventeen tourists video taping at the site of the World Trade Center in downtown New York. What they're taping though is the open sky or negative space since the towers no longer exist. Harrison states the tourists "were busy creating their own grand narratives, even as the bureaucratic powers that be continue to haggle over, with no end in sight, the final outcome of this man-made crater." Harrison turns his critical eye on the tourists and finds his narrative not in shots of the crater but in the actions of the tourists. By looking through Harrison's lens we come to identify with the paradox of the gazing tourists in search for the grand narrative. A paradox revealed by all of us possibly looking for something that ultimately isn't really there.

In Can I Get An Amen Harrison analyses something else that's hidden yet ubiquitous. By researching the source of the "Amen Break" (one of the most sampled break beats used in hip-hop and popular commercial music) Harrison exposes the ambiguity of intellectual property and the culturally valued notion of originality.

Harrison records his critique as a monologue onto a vinyl record in the form of a test pressing. He then plays the critique back using a standard off the shelf turntable. Test pressings are used extensively in dance clubs by DJs and Harrison's use of it here displays an ironic statement on the nature of media and copyright.

Test pressings are not designed to last very long. After playing them multiple times they eventually become worn down. The needle will grind away at the grooves and the sound will eventually fade away leaving silence. In Can I Get An Amen, the impermanent nature of the test pressing acts as a metaphor for the illusion of permanent value ascribed to intellectual property. It also speaks to the idea that culture itself is impermanent and will eventually fade away and become buried artifacts that future archeologists will dig. As Harrison states "information wants to be free" and any attempt to contain it and own it is ultimately futile.

Tom Jenning's work Story Teller constructs a narrative using lost, forgotten and discarded technology. He approaches his projects as a computer hardware archeologist and salvager, coming out of the similar tradition of California assemblage as Kelli Cain's and Brian Crabtree's Almost Certified. Jennings builds his assembled systems with his own software and from what he refers to as "obsolete, obscure, hard to find and just plain old" hardware. Jennings uses an old telegram printer (the type used for Western Union telegrams) among other pieces of scavenged hardware to tell the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician and code breaker from World War II. Turing was known as a pioneer in the development of the modern day computer as well as being persecuted for his homosexuality by the British government.

As with the other artists in the show, Jennings engages in the process of analysis and research by constructing Turing's narrative and then outputting it through a unique assembly of hardware, referring to his work as "an ever-expanding system." The result is an installation that reads as a present day embodiment of a Turing "universal machine."

As Jennings states: "logical mechanisms within Story Teller are in fact exactly Turing Machines and through no coincidence, its symbols are stored on data-storage perforated tape of his era; with only 128 possible symbols on the tape (though any number of them, and in any order) Story Teller tells a story of Turing, in text, speech, and time."

Art from Los Angeles has long had a reputation as being on the fringes. Historically it is has been a place that has reveled in it's identity of non-conformity, technical innovation and media infatuation. The artists in Object Lessons share this outsider perspective, emerging from a new media-based "digital-brut" tendency that hovers around the periphery of the current art world. Their work provides us with the lessons that our ideas of authority and tradition are always filled with contradictions and ambiguities and that any new methods of expression will likely involve the synthesis of different disciplines and multiple types of digital and analog media.

Tom Leeser


Director of the Center for Integrated Media at the California Institute of the Arts