Step through one of the doors to your left and you'll find yourself in the museum's main gallery, darkened except for the flickering imagery in the dozen or so pieces that make up the bulk of "Plugged In: New and Electronic Media." Light pulses from almost every point in the gallery, in most cases accompanied by music or sound effects. It's a challenging exhibition in many ways and one you certainly don't want to take in when you're heavily caffeinated.
Welcome to curator Samantha Salzinger's latest installment in a series of shows that seem designed to demonstrate that the Art and Culture Center is every bit as capable of being "cutting edge" as its fellow institutions to the north (the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art) and the south (North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art). During her brief tenure at the center, Salzinger has established herself as one of South Florida's most adventurous programmers.
In the past year, for instance, Salzinger has championed a new generation of artists carrying on the tradition of abstract expressionism ("Fat Painting") and showcased art about the process of making art ("Modus Operandi"). She has also celebrated a contemporary artist (Pamela Joseph) captivated by the spirit of the traveling carnival ("The Sideshow of the Absurd") and initiated the Art and Culture Center's biggest, most diverse competitive exhibition ("The Hollywood All-Media Juried Biennial").
"Plugged In," then, is a logical next step. If you were appalled by the museum's recent direction, you're unlikely to be swayed by this new one. If, on the other hand, you've been exhilarated, as I have, by Salzinger's efforts, then by all means check out her latest work.
That said, I also must admit that I think "Plugged In" is a mixed bag. A pair of short movies by Michael Betancourt, shown on two adjacent television screens with their own sets of headphones, strikes me as more annoying than anything else. One, She, My Memory, features loud vaguely ethnic-sounding music and jittery camerawork, while Telemetry (Excerpt) includes something like a color equivalent of white noise as a visual, paired with some music that starts at a low volume and gradually builds to a near-deafening crescendo. It's sort of like a scrambled TV channel you've stumbled upon while channel-surfing.
Then there's Franzen Braut (Frazzled Bride), described as a "projected video and organza installation." It includes a video of a bride moving slowly, almost imperceptibly, on the wall at one end of the museum's middle gallery, a long and narrow space that has been completely draped in white material. It's atmospheric (there's mood music by Billy Paul) but not much more.
Nor was I quite sure what to make of CC, Siebren Versteeg's installation of a TV set mounted near the ceiling in a corner of the museum's smallest gallery. The set broadcasts what appears to be a live Internet feed of CNN, with a vertical crawl at the bottom of the screen as a variation on the network's infamously busy format. As I watched, the juxtaposition featured Anderson Cooper, presumably providing the news (there is no sound), and a sort of survey including both questions and someone's responses to them.
Versteeg is also represented by what I think is a much more effective work, Dynamic Ribbon Device. The piece uses a computer with an Internet connection to produce a digital output from a live Associated Press news feed. The content is formatted so that the horizontal scroll, displayed on a plasma TV screen, plays off the instantly recognizable logo of Coca-Cola. The news becomes a homogenized product for oblivious consumption.
As Salzinger notes in the show's posted introduction, reproduced in the exhibition brochure, video-based art "creates difficulties for the viewer because it is a time-based medium." Well put. As you make your way through a show such as "Plugged In," it's impossible to know at what point you're picking up on a piece. (Salzinger -- intentionally, I suspect -- complicates things by not posting running times for the works on display.)
I was about to move on from one of the previously mentioned Michael Betancourt pieces, for example, when both the audio and visual content abruptly shifted. And even as I sat a few feet away looking at and listening to the other Betancourt, I found myself occasionally glancing back at the previous one to see what I might have missed.
Indeed, all of the works in the main gallery compete with one another, to some extent, for the viewer's attention, with serendipitous results. The soundtrack from one piece inadvertently attaches itself to another piece. Your eyes wander from one screen to another, creating an unintended link between the two.
A work by Jacek J. Kolasinski capitalizes on this effect by running seven videos back to back, with no on-screen titles or other information to distinguish one from another. The titles posted on a nearby wall aren't much help: Gevurah, Lacrimas, Portae Lucis, Hokhmah, Metamorphosis XXIII, Metamorphosis XXVII, and Metamorphosis XXXII. Nor is the imagery, which is mostly abstract.
The show's most elaborate work, which takes up the entire last gallery, is P.I.U. Pump It Up (Motivational Tapes for Artists), an installation that re-creates a conference room, complete with sofa, coffee table, lamp, miniblinds, paintings, and houseplants. The focal point of the piece is a long table surrounded by eight chairs and strewn with the leftovers of a meeting: a coffee carafe and mugs, empty Starbucks cups, napkins, folders, pens and papers, a staple remover.
Above the table is a TV playing a loop of eight people talking about art and a mysterious company called MSG, which also turns out to be the name of the anonymous group of people who collaborated on the piece. On the walls are color photographs of the eight featured in the video.
My two favorite works achieve a hypnotic effect, although they arrive at it from opposite ends of the spectrum. Kevin Arrow's Untitled (Hell) is a monochromatic projection of some vintage audiovisual equipment from the 1950s. But this simple, even bland image is rendered hyperkinetic by another projector that throws constantly (and rapidly) shifting patterns. Paradoxically, staring at the piece for any length of time induces an almost eerie calmness.
The other work, also projected onto a wall, is Wet (Dream), by Dimitry Saïd Chamy. It's a roughly three-minute video of nothing more than three adjacent pale-blue pillows that seem to hang in space, superimposed with drops of water that flicker fleetingly across the pillows from left to right. Put on one of two available sets of headphones and you'll hear the aural counterpart to the imagery -- softly gurgling water. It's a piece I returned to more than once and easily one of the works that make "Plugged In" well worth a visit. Even though there are misses among the hits here, Salzinger has expanded the Art and Culture Center's horizons once again.