‘Pixilerations’ experiments with new media

Monday, October 6, 2008

Take a tour of the gallery at 191 Westminster St. this week and you’ll find yourself in the midst of robots, holograms, motion sensors and an interactive video projection. A science fair, you ask? Not quite.

The art exhibit “Pixilerations [v .5]: Fragments and (W)holes” opened last Thursday and will run from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. each night through Sunday, Oct. 12. Pieces are displayed in two galleries: 191 Westminster St. and the Rhode Island School of Design’s Sol Koffler Graduate Student Gallery at 169 Weybosset St.

Designed to bring new media to the public, Pixilerations is part of Providence’s FirstWorks Festival. The idea for the exhibit began at RISD, said the school’s provost, Jay Coogan, and has developed through contributions from faculty and students from Brown, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and the University of Michigan. Brown co-sponsors the event, and Ed Osborn, assistant professor of visual art, is part of the steering committee that coordinated the exhibit.

The term “new media” refers to artists’ integration of science and technology into their pieces and encompasses everything from video art to holography to kinetic sculpture. Maya Allison, the exhibition’s director, said that the defining aspect of new media is its ability to engage the viewer, and that the artwork “forces people to interact” and “brings a sense of play to the gallery.”

A sense of play is right. One of the first pieces in the Westminster Street gallery is an arm wrestling arena built by Andrew Ames titled “Mano a Mano.” It forces mere spectators to become active participants and is even equipped with a voice recording to egg players on by yelling phrases like “This ain’t no tug-o-war! Put some muscle in it!”

Jamie Jewett’s “Melt,” a more tranquil work, has pebbles frozen in suspended panels of ice hang over a bronze bowl, a wooden box and taut strings. As the ice melts, the water drips onto the objects below, with an occasional pebble kerplunk-ing together creating a variance in percussion.

Heather Freedman, a RISD junior, said she found “Melt” to be an interesting concept and observed that the entire exhibit is “viewer-friendly.”

Another featured piece is “Protest” by Heidi Kumao, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A pair of robotic legs mounted to the wall are fitted with a pair of girl’s dress shoes and stomp loudly atop a coffee table. In the artists’ panel during the opening reception, Kumao said that she was seeking to defy the conventional portrayal of robots as masculine and productive.

Kumao said that she has been inspired by people who use creativity to survive living in confinement. This influence is evident in her other exhibited piece “Correspondence, ” which consists of animation projected through a bell jar that periodically reveals an inmate as he draws.

Kumao is one of two guest artists that Pixilerations is hosting, along with Gail Wight, a professor at Stanford. This is the first time in its five-year run that the exhibit has had the resources to bring guest artists to Providence.

Wight’s works feature more biological influences, and she said that she is most interested in working with living media. Her palette includes slime mold, mice, flatworms and plants, and she said that often such live media guide the artwork and as the artist she must relinquish control.

Wight has two pieces at this year’s exhibit, one at each gallery, and both feature pinned-down butterflies made of silk paper. One is titled “J’ai des Papillions Noirs Tous Les Jours,” a French idiom for depression. The bodies of the butterflies glow in an alternating pattern, and according to Wight’s Web site, are meant to resemble the stars in a night sky.

The other piece is “Pin Up,” featuring larger butterflies with wings fluttering intermittently as if trying to escape. Wight said that she hopes viewers will take away from her work “an empathy for the fragile and vulnerable aspects of life.”

Both Wight and Allison told The Herald that it can be difficult for the general public to understand the unconventional nature of new media, but that there is definite support for the movement.

“Young people tend to be much more open to looking at new media as art,” Wight said.

Allison pointed out that 80 years ago, movies were considered new media, as was photography half a century before that. She hopes that people will not be scared to see familiar technology used as artwork, and that such new media might portray the technology it utilizes in a new light.

Keeping Allison’s idea in mind is key to enjoying Pixilerations. The exhibit serves as a cross between an art gallery and a science museum, and has the potential to intrigue Brown’s RISD-wannabees and engineering majors alike. Blending the artistic and the technological in one exhibit, however, can make it hard for viewers to fully appreciate the dual dimensions of each work.

“Melt,” for example, seems to retain more elements of traditional art and utilizes less technological media. On the other hand, pieces like Matthew Williamson’s “Video Analyzer,” a machine which determines whether DVDs are boring or not, might fit in better at a science fair.

To the untrained eye, this combination can be intimidating and invite initial disapproval, but it is important to recognize that new media serves as a harbinger of the future direction art will take. As technology becomes more intertwined with our daily lives, it is only logical that artists are beginning to integrate it into their work as well.

On the whole, the Pixilerations exhibit does a great job of presenting experimental new media in an inviting way. Equipped with an interest in art and an open mind, virtually every viewer can find something to enjoy.

And, if this non-traditional art doesn’t pique your interest, you may want to explore the concerts held throughout the week that also incorporate electronic and interactive elements.