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Provocative, political… and very funny

There’s a lot of work being shown at the Creative Capital workshop at Williams College that’s political and provocative, but not much that’s laugh-out-loud funny. Thank god for Golan Levin.

Levin is a Pittsburgh-based artist and a professor at Carnegie Mellon. He’s interested in the phenomenon of interactivity, and currently interested investigating vision tracking as a way of producing artwork that looks back at you. There’s been great work done that’s sensitive to the position of the viewer – the beautiful video installations of my friend Camille Utterback, the lovely, meditative “healing pools” that Brian Knep showed today. Levin’s work is built around an even more complex technical hack – it tracks your eye movement to figure out where you’re looking and responds to that movement. “Reface” overlays different pieces of viewers faces onto each other, creating a mashup of the viewers in a gallery, an ongoing “exquisite corpse” of facial gesture. “Opto-Isolator” takes vision tracking to its simplest form – it’s a robotic eyeball against a black background that follows a viewer around the gallery, responding to your eye movements and blinking. (It’s very odd, and a little disturbing.)

And then there’s Double-Taker. Mounted on the roof of a campus building, it’s an eight-foot long robot arm with a one-foot googly eye on top. Based on vision tracking software, it follows viewers around a space. It “communicates its own sense of surprise at having visitors,” in an extremely life-like fashion. It’s an amazing technical hack – Levin makes it clear that eye tracking is really hard to do – but has a wonderful sense of humor as well, and grabs the attention of everyone in the room here.

Sutton Beres Culler, a trio of Seattle artists, aren’t short on humor either. Their projects tend to intrude into everyday urban life… occasionally in ways that get them into trouble.

Above is a piece called The Island. It was twenty-feet in diameter, featured a palm tree and was inhabited by the three artists wearing tattered suits. The plan was for the island to float near the 520 bridge – that proved a major distraction and traffic problem… until the wind picked up, the anchor cable broke, and the artists had to be rescued. Now that’s an art piece.

These guys have also locked themselves in a 32 foot square crate within a gallery space – when the crate was finally opened, Sutton Beres Culler had built a full-sized and functional Chinese restaurant in the gallery, called Three Dragon Restaurant. Their “trailer park” is a small city park, complete with bench, grass and water feature, but towed behind a car on a small trailer.

Their latest work is something of a hybrid of all these ideas – Mini Mart City Park is a project designed to turn a defunct convenience store into a city park. They’ve had a tough time finding the right space – ultimately, they’ve settled on a former gas station in the Georgetown neighborhood, a business that opened as “TW Pumps” in 1924. Now more or less an abandoned lot, they plan to turn both interior and exterior into a greenspace, repurposing refrigerated cases into planters. The project is a “recontextualizing”, and is designed as a possible “eco-arts franchise”, replicable in other disused spaces. (Amusingly, because the building isn’t big enough to contain their imagination, they’re having to build a mini-mart extension to turn into a repurposed mini-mart. I think this may constitute cheating, but all’s fair in love and art.)

Matthew Moore is a man who understands the transformation of landscapes. A fourth-generation farmer, he’s keenly aware that he’ll be the last farmer in his family, as the city of Phoenix slowly swallows farmland, turning it into suburban homes and big box stores.

In 2003, Moore rented a barley field and hoed out the floorplan for a house, producing the piece above: “Rotations: Single Family Residence“. A later piece portrays a 250 house subdivision in sorghum and wheat, visible as a nest of cul-de-sacs from the air.

Recognizing that his current farm isn’t economically viable in the face of encroaching development, Moore has become a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farmer, producing a small crop of vegetables delivered to local families. This is a radical change from his previous practice – “I harvest 100,000 pounds of carrots, but I’ve never seen them in a grocery store.” To address this disconnection – and perhaps as a commentary on the ways CSAs address it – he’s building a new piece that places audio and video in grocery stores, talking about the work and time that goes into producing agricultural crops. He’s planning a web component that would allow you to “download your grocery list to your ipod” and listen to a narrative of the food you’re purchasing. It’s easy to imagine this being done in a cheesy fashion, but not by Moore, who’s got a lovely, simple vision executed on a very grand scale.

There’s a lot of very, very good art being shown here – far too much, as each artists gets to speak for exactly seven minutes and there’s no time for questions. On the other hand, I’m supposed to have 20 minute conferences with seven artists tomorrow and offer something helpful and insightful, which could be a real stretch as I know nothing about art or the economics that surround it. But that’s tomorrow’s problem. Today’s is digesting 37 presentations given in a single day, stretching from 9am to 10:30pm (not continuously, thank god.)

In other words, it’s beyond me to summarize everyone who’s speaking. I’ll give you quick notes on people and pieces that caught my eye:

Daniel Sousa’s work may be the most visually striking thing I’ve seen today – surreal, painterly, ethereal images combined into striking animations. His film Minatour focuses on the childlike rage of the mythical figure. Fable is a tale of a man and a woman who can’t be together, except when they’re animals, in which case they’re mortal enemies – an image of human footsteps coming from a pool of stag’s blood is one of the lasting impressions of the day. His new film, Kaspar Hauser, explores the story of a child locked in a basement without human contact through his childhood through the lens of the artist’s own childhood and imaginary worlds.

Eddo Stern is an artist who’s played way, way too much World of Warcraft and other massively multiplayer online games. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for a piece that involves building – in the real world – a giant portal like the ones that appear within the game world. His new project, Dark Game, works through some familiar territory – it’s a game designed to allow the blind, deaf and sighted to play together, by denying different senses at different times. For a sighted player, most of the interaction comes via voice updates and tactile stimulation, through a sinister-looking headpiece. The narration, delivered by a preternaturally calm female voice includes passages like, “”You’re facing Southeast. Your blood is spilling.” Sounds like a good time to me.

Luke Savisky projects film and video onto things – sides of buildings, passing freight trains, clouds of vapor suspended in a tree, the walls of venues where the minimalist band Stars of the Lid plays. His latest project involves taking video of eyes, watching the city of Austin, and projecting the image of that eye on a water tower. The effect – a human eye watching over the city in a beautiful and disturbing way.

Susie Brandt and Kristin Woods make rope, and they’d like you to make some too. Their project, the Rag and Bone project, invites people to donate old fabrics and participate in a “ropewalk”, the traditional method of making rope by twisting and plying fibers. It’s a particularly beautiful form of recycling, a meditation on disposability and consumerism, and a useful reminder about the history of one of humanity’s oldest and most important technologies.

Julie Wyman’s documentary, “Strong!”, may be the feelgood seven minutes of today. The documentary focuses on Cheryl Hayworth, an extraordinary US weightlifter, a woman who began breaking international records at 15 years old. As Hayworth prepares for the 2008 olympics, where she’s likely to do very well, Wyman looks at other aspects of her life, wrestling with the challenge of being both the world’s strongest woman, and a young woman who weighs over 300 pounds. It looks like a truly fascinating documentary, one I’m looking forward to seeing.