Viewpoints: Sensory Immersion and Subtle Plays of Chance at “WAH: A New Diversity”

In the WAH Center’s (Williamsburg Art and Historical Center) latest show, “WAH: A New Diversity” full sensory immersion is achieved with each piece of the show, as the viewer is stimulated and provoked by each piece in this exhibition. This tripartite exhibit that curator Yuko Nii has aptly titled “A New Diversity,” is the much anticipated opening show of the fall season as the WAH Center reopens its doors to the art-loving public after its summer hiatus. Here, “A New Diversity,” signifies on multiple levels and captures the WAH Center’s mission, while simultaneously carrying it into the future of contemporary art. Certainly, diversity abounds, resonating first perhaps with cultural and ethnic signification, for the show contains work by Rumanian born German artist, Egon Zippel, Japanese born Kenji Kojima, and American artist Oliver Warden. Thus, this is a continuation of the WAH Centers dedication to showing art with substantive multi-cultural depth and breadth. Further, signifying on a more formal level, there is a real range and diversity of approaches to the question of the technological within art and life. Much more to come on this but the three spaces, Kojima’s RGB Series containing Sidewalk Synesthesia and Fukushima 2011,” Zippel’s Bike Carcasses and Broken Horizons, and Oliver Warden’s Untitled Box 2.0, all have a different level of technological sophistication and display a unique awareness of our ever changing perceptions and sensibilities within the post-modern digitalized realm.

Walking up the stairs to enter the main gallery space at the WAH Center, one is met with dissonant and frenetic chords that seem to issue from a mad, experimental pianist. Brief moments of silence occur but then it flares up again, a note, a chord, and a strange series of musical intonations, meeting the viewer before sight can even play a part in the experience. Upon entering the main gallery space, you become aware that there is something sub-human operating these sounds and that they are intricately linked to the overlapping images displayed on the large screen before you. Here, in the main gallery at the WAH Center (Williamsburg Art and Historical Center), the relations and negotiations between technological innovation and people are center stage and become fodder for artistic expression. You stop to consider, in the presence of such an exhibition, how have our collective perceptions and understandings of art, and art as a critique of our social reality, changed due to our now, evermore, digitalized lives?

However, you can only contemplate this point for a moment before you look to your left, attracted by a shriek and simultaneous flash of brilliant light, suddenly, another installation is at work on the senses in this corner of the gallery. You walk over to the seemingly innocuous wooden box standing at just over six feet tall, fronted with a large, reflective, mirrored surface that invites you to succumb to the allure of vanity. Admiring your reflection, you notice a light switch attached to the surface and flick it on, flash, the mirror becomes transparent and you’re confronted with the image of a full grown man, the artist Oliver Warden, attired in suit and tie, leering out at you, mimicking your every gesture. The viewer is confronted with an exchange of power, in which they are transmuted from being the viewer to the viewed, subject to the gaze of the artist; the art looks back at the viewer, reversing the normative structure of viewership.  


unnamed-9   OliverYukoBox

Installation Views of Warden’s Untitled Box 2.0


Artist and tech virtuoso Kenji Kojima produced the combinatory audio-visual piece that occupies the center of the main gallery. Kojima, a Japanese painter became tech whiz, operating out of Manhattan’s upper west-side for the past 30 years, brings several elements of his constantly evolving and experimental style to bear on this single installation piece, part of his RGB Series, the installation contains two audio-visual recordings, Subway Synesthesia and Fukushima 2011. Working with an algorithmic computer program that he personally developed and calls “RGB Music Lab,” Kojima is able to allow the images in combination with overlays of text that he projects to essentially “choose” the musical score. Really this is to take up and continue the Dada movement’s and later Surrealist movement’s and even the Neo-Expressionist play of chance and displacement or augmentation of the creative gesture, the presence of the artist’s hand. As the latest pieces in this “RGB Series,” the combination of images are randomly chosen and sorted by the program, and then as each pixel aligns to create a whole, they signal, through color and brightness, the notes to be played. Thus, the artist simply sets the mechanism into motion, what is produced becomes a function of chance, a perfect metaphor for our daily negotiations with the post-modern, digital age: where do the lines exist between what is produced by the human hand, what is produced by the technological apparatus? And do we always feel ourselves in complete control as tech gadgets, a whole mechanized world becomes intricately woven with our way of being in the world?



Still from Kojima’s Subway Synesthesia, from the RGB Music Series


Moreover, Kojima blurs the lines between artist and technician but most significantly he creates a space for reflection, and calls up the complicated relationship between man and machine. For there is still a real, raw human presence and significance in these audio visual projections and as each note fires off according to its relationship to pixelated configurations and luminescence, what is brought before the viewer are images that can’t be denied. The piece that has the most poignancy for me and I could wager for most others viewing the installation, was Fukushima 2011. As I discussed with the artist the significance for such startling and politically charged imagery, which as the title insists was derived from the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan, he told me how the images and text combinations were from all American news sources and derived from internet media sites. The work, from this perspective becomes charged with socio-political significance, as we see flashed onto the screen government officials in hazmat suits with the New York Times text: “nuclear waste clean-up after massive meltdown,” or even more devastating, images of protestors covered with radioactive waste warning signs, demanding their right to clean land and air and the text “Anti-Nuclear Demonstration in Tokyo” from Spiegel Online. These images are overlaid with binary code, so that we are always reminded that such devastating events are being seen from a distance from across the Pacific. Really this piece can even be read as Kojima’s examination, from a unique Japanese-American perspective, of the western American gaze scrutinizing the Japanese during extreme crisis and social discontent.



Still from Kojima’s Fukushima 2011, from the RGB Music Series


Within this tripartite exhibition display, the third installation space continues the conversation on chance, and works in harmonious dialogue with Kojima’s RGB Series. Egon Zippel’s two part projection installation contains the works he’s titled, Bike Carcasses and Broken Horizons, these are perfect companion pieces to Kojima’s work in the way they use a lower tech. approach that deals directly with artist input and randomized machine output. Here, what Kojima has achieved on a more complex level, Zippel lays bare for the viewer to grasp at a more analog level. Zippel’s Broken Horizons piece is most pertinent, this is a work that Zippel has been building on and developing for years now and functions on similar principles to Kojima’s work, using chance combinations to create, outside of the artist’s direct control, amazing visual collages. Within Broken Horizons, we see three distinct images align to create one level plain, all distorted visions of a distant and illusive horizon line, sometimes all three make one horizon and sometimes they become disjointed as if to call up a failed utopic harmony and the tenuousness of chance. Significantly this display operates on a slide projection system, three reels going with over 80 slides on each reel, without synchronization but rather as if taking turns, each firing off on its own schedule, this creates over 510,000 different possible combinations.


Egon Zippel, Broken Horizons

Still from Zippel’s Broken Horizons


Thus, we have another mechanism for art production, where the artist plays the technician’s role. Inputting these various scenes, the artist chooses the raw material but leaves it up to the mechanism to choose the final result. From this we get the Dadaist and Surrealist legacy, this process recalls a kind of mechanized version of psychic automatism or Hans Arp’s wooden collages designed by chance. Just as Arp once dropped his biomorphic, carved wooden abstractions onto a painted surface, allowing chance to create the positions and relationships between forms, Zippel similarly inputs his slides and allows them to arrange according to the projectors selection. Breton, as the head of the Surrealist collective from its origin to later developments, conceived of a spontaneous art creation wherein the artist became vitalized as a recording machine, taking down notations from the fertile zone of the unconscious. In many ways, Zippel has achieved Breton’s call for a properly Surrealist art of the unconscious for he uses found images, old discarded negatives, these are the raw materials for his works. As the artist explains, “the slides are the leftovers from 35mm slide film developing (that’s why once in a while a “ghost image” shows up). Usually these leftovers got thrown away, but I always liked and kept them till I might have an idea how to use them – which became eventually the “BROKEN HORIZON” projection.” In this way, the mechanism he sets into motion, becomes a shifting revolution through the collected memories and images discarded over generations from time and place, now found, re-issued into the projected-collective-dream-image witnessed at the WAH Center. As the artist states, “I’m interested in what’s left behind, the remains…the detritus of the city,” in this way he also creates his phenomenal Bike Carcasses, also on display, the remains of bikes on the city streets, twisted and distorted, showing temporal effects but also playing out a seemingly human tragedy.


Egon Zippel, Bike Carcasses (2)

View of Zippel’s Bike Carcasses


Ultimately, at the “New Diversity” show the artists and their works attempt to mitigate and negotiate with an ever changing social landscape that becomes transformed, clarified and sometimes distorted through constant technological advent. As ever new advancements are made, certain mechanisms and apparati become outmoded, they slip away into the collective unconscious as nostalgic remembrances and are stripped of their use value. As ever new advancements are made, there is the instant proliferation of new mechanisms that radically supplant the old and are normalized overnight. What the task then becomes for dedicated artists working with a technological medium, is to constantly interrogate the purpose and place that these mechanisms and apparati have within our lived realities: how do certain technological innovations become outmoded and slip away? What is the nature of the new and how has it been seamlessly woven into our lives through an ever prolific and omnipresent global capitalist market? For the true risk that we run as a society is to slip into the brutal excesses of an ethos of innovation for innovations sake, innovation, especially technological, must always be born out of a real social need and work towards an end goal of greater equality and greater standards of living. When Oliver Warden strips down the tech. interface to literally two individuals with a screen between them, in his Untitled Box 2.0, and creates that interactive component with the viewer, having them flip back and forth from extrovert to voyeur, watcher and watched, he does it with the flip of a switch. And here we are given the rare opportunity to consider humble beginnings to a now exploding world-wide trajectory that views C.G.I, robotics, and drones as the next step to realizing A.I. 


Jonathan Judd, Contributing Writer to the WAH Center Blog

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