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Command Z: Artists Working With Phenomena and Technology

A UMBC exhibition uses modern technology to make magic

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Ingrid Bachmann’s “Symphony for 54 Shoes” does its dance through late April at UMBC’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture.

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Jocelyn Robert and Émile Morin’s “Piano Lesson”


Command Z: Artists Working With Phenomena and Technology

On display through April 28 at UMBC’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture.

For more information, visit umbc.edu/cadvc.

Popcorn that talks, flames that sing arias, shoes that tap dance all by themselves. It may seem like the stuff of dreams, but these are just a few of the spectacles awaiting the visitor to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture as part of a new exhibition titled Command Z: Artists Working With Phenomena and Technology.

Curated by Lisa Moren, an associate professor of visual art at UMBC, the exhibition highlights a generation of artists who began tinkering with technology and its artistic possibilities way back in the 20th century. “I was talking to grad students here . . . and I realized they were coming up with ideas we’d already done in the 1990s,” Moren says. “But back then, you couldn’t say ‘computer art.’ I realized it was underrepresented when it was new, and I thought the students should see this work.”

The show includes five artists—two of them form a team—who use technology of some form in their work. But while technology animates the pieces, it is always subordinate to more quotidian, ordinary materials, like shoes or popcorn kernels or suitcases. “Command Z” refers to the key command for “undo” on a Macintosh computer, and the exhibition, in more ways than one, takes us back to a time when computer technology was still new enough to seem magical and not simply an end in and of itself. As Moren puts it in the wall text for the show, “The technological processes within the art may appear more mysterious than the rational apparatus that they are, and when they do, they become an opportunity for the audience, or the artist, to project anything from deep-seated trauma to light-hearted speculation, or personal memories into the work.”

In short, the pieces in Command Z are often simply enchanting. The opening reception on March 29 was a cacophonous, festive affair, with odd noises emanating from every corner and children careening from one kinetic, interactive exhibit to another. Nina Katchadourian was surrounded by visitors as she scooped popcorn from her piece, “Talking Popcorn.” The piece is composed of a classic concession-stand popcorn maker with a microphone suspended inside. A computer hidden somewhere in the machine runs a program that interprets the popping sounds as Morse Code. A computer-generated voice then gives a simultaneous translation, effectively making the popcorn “talk.” As Katchadourian handed out popcorn bags, a loud, digitized voice periodically spoke up amid the popping sounds. “Glyennnnd,” it said at one point.

Most of what “Talking Popcorn” says is gibberish, though the voice has an incantatory quality, as if it were reciting a sacred text in a dead language. It does occasionally produce words in English. Its first such word—“we”—was pronounced on Jan. 2, 2001. (The responsible popped kernels have been bronzed and are on display in the gallery in a velvet-lined box.) The longest English word “Talking Popcorn” has thus far produced is “silent.”

“I’ve been working with it for so long, I hear it say all kinds of things,” Katchadourian says. “I thought it asked me once, ‘Do you ski?’” The morning of the opening, as Katchadourian primed it for its first public speaking appearance since an unfortunate self-immolation event in 2008, it said, “Mmomm.”

Katchadourian has had a lifelong fascination with Morse Code. “I had this fantasy that—if you could translate it—anything could be telling you something,” she says. In 2000, she found a computer programmer, Josh Goldberg, capable of creating the popcorn translation program. As one listens to the machine, it’s very hard not to try and understand the sounds it produces as words. “It’s about a fantasy of meaning where we want everything to mean something,” the artist says.

Katchadourian’s other piece in the show, “Indecision on the Moon,” also plays with language and expectations. In creating it, she re-edited the audio from the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. “I edited out all coherent sentences,” she says. To experience the piece, you enter a pitch-black room—you cannot see your hand in front of your face—and are confronted with a confused soundtrack of “ums,” “uhs,” and half-sentences, interspersed with the familiar rasp of NASA’s 1960s communication system. It’s a disorienting experience, just as the moon walk must have been before it was mythologized in the collective mind. One is afraid to move for fear of colliding with someone else in the dark.

Ingrid Bachmann’s two pieces in the show have, at first glance, a more nostalgic, Old World feel. Her “Symphony for 54 Shoes” consists of a line of shoes elevated on a long narrow stand. Periodically a shoe, or several, will tap, triggered by hidden solenoids activated by a switch controlled by software. The shoes are all vintage, and lived-in: well-worn work boots, patent leather dance shoes adorned with bows, lady’s boots with buttons up the sides. Each is equipped with steel heel and toe taps, so they click when they descend. The effect of the piece is both eerie and charming, leading one to wonder who wore these shoes when they were animated by more human means.

On her web site, Bachmann writes, “I am interested in the idea of tender, even pathetic, technology, to use technology for ends that are not necessarily productive in the usual sense of the word.” “The Portable Sublime,” her other piece in the show, is another illustration of this pursuit. Here the visitor is invited to open up seven vintage suitcases—a few inscribed with Bachmann’s father’s name—that rest on wooden tables. Upon opening the lid, each suitcase takes you to a wholly unexpected place, like travel itself. In one, a continuous waterfall descends down a translucent yellow plastic sheet until the lid is closed. Another is a small turquoise case with a wooden handle one can turn. A short illustrated story, titled “how to get to the sublime,” scrolls past. (One line reads: “The sublime should not feel like work.” It never does in this exhibition.) A third battered suitcase, seemingly the luggage of a travel-weary immigrant, bursts into nostalgic song as one opens it. Within, several small speakers float in a pool of water. “What you take with you . . . You also need to take the imagination with you,” Bachmann says.

“Piano Lesson,” by Jocelyn Robert and Émile Morin, is also musical in nature. (For the remainder of the show, some of the louder works will be turned on in rotation, so the visitor can experience each one without the distraction of the others.) It employs a Disklavier, a piano invented in the 1980s that uses solenoids and other technology to reproduce all the subtleties of a piano performance. Here, the artists have subverted its original intent. Phrases (and sometimes numbers and colors) are projected on the piano keys from above, one letter or numeral or color bar to a key, and a split second afterward, the key is depressed and a note sounds. Once more, technology is the animating force, but the letters appear to drop from above and depress the keys independently.

The phrases are disconnected and evocative, and the letters do not necessarily appear in the order in which the words are written. “Four blank walls,” reads one. “A confession of weakness,” intones another. “Boom,” and the lowest keys on the piano agree resoundingly. The piece makes one think of synesthesia, the neurological condition in which one sense is activated by the experience of another. “The idea was to have three different languages—the music, the phrase, and the colors,” Robert says. “Sometimes they complement each other and sometimes not.”

Paul DeMarinis’ “One Bird” references a little-known bit of antiquated technology, and it’s all the more amazing for it. A yellow birdcage sits on a pedestal. Several thin metal “perches” sit within, and a hand-cranked music box faces the visitor. When the viewer turns the crank, a flame is ignited within the birdcage. And slowly, as the perches heat up and begin to glow, the voice of 19th-century Italian diva Adelina Patti emanates from within. Incredibly, the piece includes no speaker.

DeMarinis discovered the sound-conducting possibilities of flame one evening sitting around a gas fireplace with friends; they suddenly heard AM radio coming from the flames. The technology actually goes back to 1906, when inventor Lee De Forest believed his gas chandelier was a receiver for radio waves and began writing patents for it. It turns out that a common propane gas with potassium generates a vibration strong enough to produce a sound source. For his piece, DeMarinis used oxyacetylene gas, potassium ions, and a Bunsen burner. The singing flame that results retains all the magic of alchemy despite—or perhaps because of—the extent to which we are steeped in technology as a culture.

Go see this exhibition. Take the kids. It’s a unique opportunity, in part because “Talking Popcorn” is the only piece that has previously been shown in the United States. It’s a show that reawakens one’s sense of wonder, that thing that bloomed when you first opened your favorite children’s book, or learned there were such things as shooting stars.

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