Saturday, July 4, 2009

"Dark Matters: Artists See the Impossible" at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

(note: this exhibition took place in 2007)


                                —George Orwell, 1984

At the heart of "Dark Matters: Artists See the Impossible" is the sinister Big Brother who keeps us all under constant surveillance. 

Artists respond to the current political calamity facing our world, focusing on the Bush regime's nefarious abuses of power. 

Of particular interest are policies and practices of secrecy and surveillance that fly in the face of ideals of freedom, democratic processes, justice and individual human rights.

Trevor Paglen shows photos, shot from great distances, of classified military installations, including "The Salt Pit," a CIA interrogation facility outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. 

A forbidding, remote place ringed with barbed wire, it brings up many questions about our government's War on Terror, the judicial process and respect for human rights. 

Paglen also shows us an entire wall of code names for classified military programs. Many of the code names seem magically esoteric. Names include: Iron Magic, Dreamland, Seven Seekers, Utopian Angel, Prophet I and Epic Goal. 

Paglen is co-author of Torture Taxi—On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights, an account of the U.S. government's detention and imprisonment system for terror suspects around the world.

Kambui Olujimi's "Scaredy Cats" are installations of telephones that simulate the experience of eavesdropping on cell phone conversations. 

It is an irresistible and guilty pleasure that makes us wonder about the privacy of our own conversations, and the frequency at which they are being tapped.

The Internet is an electronic reflection of our collective unconscious becoming conscious. 

Statistician Mark Hansen and sound artist Ben Rubin use the Internet as their medium.  

"Listening Post" is an audio-visual installation that incorporates music, computer voices, a wall of tiny screens, and live content from Internet public forums and chat rooms.

The piece gives us a sense of the volume of activity that is continually happening online. 

It raises questions about our dependence on machines for our daily human interaction.  

Has the use of machines and the Internet de-humanized us, 

or have machines given us greater humanity, 

by allowing more peaceful connections between people 

who would not otherwise have an opportunity to connect?

"Listening Post" is also an experience of disconnection. 

Information broken into tiny individual screens is incoherent. 

Our eyes try to follow and read text, but it is too fast to absorb. 

Computer voices layer atop one another and no single voice has supremacy. 

The experience becomes overwhelming. 

Everything is too fast and fleeting to comprehend. 

Finally, it is letting go of the need to understand which brings relief to the mind. 

We learn to appreciate "Listening Post" as abstract art. 

We see flashes of light across empty dark spaces, just as the computer merely reads 0's and 1's without assigning them meaning.

In "Black Monday," a video by Sergio Prego, a ring of video cameras are set up around an explosion to give us the experience of being everywhere at once. 

We see multiple simultaneous viewpoints in which time sometimes slows down or stops altogether. 

Seen this way, the explosion is mesmerizing and beautiful. 

The multiple cameras enrich our perspective, and we can imagine seeing the way that God might see. 

The piece heightens our awareness of surveillance, of omniscient, unblinking, ever-watchful eyes upon us, witnessing our every action without moral judgment. 

The scenes of our lives can be endlessly re-played and manipulated for our amusement, or to get a closer look.

"Dark Matters" comments on the extent to which we have fused ourselves with technology to access and record information, to watch and listen to others and ourselves, and to wage war.  

Conceal and reveal. 

Obscure, veil, encode. 

An eye is always watching, an ear always listening. 

There are no secrets. 

Information is our medium and our currency. 

The artists of "Dark Matters" show our world to be a shadowy and menacing place, with dangers hidden and apparent.