Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 21, 2014
Matthew McLendon, Anne Collins Goodyear, Dan Cameron, and Matthew Ritchie R. Luke DuBois—Now Exh. cat. New York and Sarasota: Scala Arts Publishers in association with John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 2013. 144 pp.; 100 color ills. Paper (9781857598773)
Exhibition schedule: John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida, January 31–May 4, 2014
R. Luke DuBois. Circus Sarasota: Gena Shvartsman Cristiani (2014). High definition single-channel generative video with sound, film still. Commissioned by The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Twenty-first-century media is marked by the rise of social networks and the concomitant tools to analyze and manipulate the data produced and transmitted through those networks. The work of R. Luke DuBois has emerged within this milieu, and his explorations of mass media and popular culture amid a world of unprecedented shared cultural production and exponentially proliferating data have provided a rich body of work over a relatively short period of time. In a span of just over a decade, DuBois has produced an abundant and varied oeuvre, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art has gathered that work into the artist’s first retrospective exhibition. The exhibition encompasses DuBois’s activities as musical composer, film director, and software composer, with many of these roles overlapping in individual works. One should add to that list the role of social observer and commentator, for arguably it is in his capacity to scrutinize contemporary culture through the array of tools he so deftly wields that best defines his work as a whole. In the exhibition catalogue, Anne Collins Goodyear writes: “Rather than analyzing workflows or assessing troop movements, thereby transforming the human into abstract, seemingly objective trends, DuBois instead trains these tools upon the subjective: human relationships, personal feeling, and the very question of individual identity” (25). The interplay between the human and the analytical, the quantifiable and the irreducibly particular, is evident throughout the exhibition.

The Ringling has devoted four large galleries to R. Luke DuBois—Now, two of which have been divided into smaller spaces. As visitors enter the first gallery, their attention is drawn to the opposing wall, which features projections of a pair of high-definition videos, Moments of Inertia (2010) and Kiss (2010), in a looping sequence. This juxtaposition may, initially at least, lead visitors to undervalue the sonic dimension of Moments of Inertia, which is integral to the composition of the entire work. DuBois created it as a twelve-part series in which a violin performance and dynamically produced video are programmed electronically to interact with one another. On the wall to the left of the projected videos hang five monitors in elaborate handmade wooden frames, each playing a series of six dynamically generated videos of performers from Circus Sarasota. The high-definition video collages, produced during DuBois’s year-long residency at the Ringling, evoke vintage promotional posters for the circus as acrobats, a juggler, a rope specialist, an aerialist, and a ringmaster perform and pose.

A large number of framed prints lining the walls of the second gallery offer a strong visual contrast to the preponderance of moving images in the other galleries. The static images provide a sense of equilibrium through repetition of form and theme, and the arrangement encourages visitors to meander among them. The gallery is divided into two rooms of roughly equal size. The first displays Hindsight is Always 20/20 (2008), which comprises forty-three letterpress prints originally commissioned by the Democratic National Committee. Each print represents a State of the Union address delivered by a U.S. president, and its design follows that of an optometrist’s eye chart. On three of the walls of the second room hang maps of U.S. cities and states created as part of A More Perfect Union (2010–11), a project that replaces the typical demographic information found in visualizations of U.S. census data with measures of the nation’s attitudes toward romance. On the fourth wall, in contrast to the relative stillness of other works in the gallery, is Acceptance (2012), a dual projection of generative videos featuring presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama accepting their respective parties’ nominations.

Installations in the third gallery are arranged primarily around themes of mass media, entertainment, and celebrity, and they include the oldest work included in the exhibition as well as some of the most recent. The room contains eight pieces, but it is dominated visually by Sergey Brin and Larry Page (2013), an algorithmically generated portrait of Google’s founders commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery. On a much smaller scale, two wall installations, Play (2005) and Pop Icon: Britney (2010), explore notions of celebrity, glamour, and beauty as they unfold through time. Across the gallery from Pop Icon, visitors encounter Missed Connections (2012), a web-based project that randomly pairs personal advertisements on Craigslist, and Hard Data (2009), a website and related musical composition in which a stream of data on casualties from six years of war in Iraq is transformed into six audio movements. Although markedly different in tone from most of the other installations in the gallery, Hard Data nonetheless shares an exploration of data’s function as cultural index. In the case of Hard Data, however, the abstractions of visual and aural data streams are redeemed through an insistent iteration of the personal as names, places, and events of those killed in the Iraqi conflict appear and disappear from the video monitor. The gallery also hosts Plant (2002), in which a plant-like simulation “grows” across a small video screen in response to music; Billboard (2005), an iPod that plays algorithmically extracted sonic indices of the year’s top 100 pop songs; and a year in mp3s (2009–10), a seventy-two-hour compilation of compositions that DuBois created over the course of a year and posted online.

The fourth gallery is divided into viewing spaces for three longer videos: Academy (2006), Fashionably Late for the Relationship (2007–8), and Vertical Music (2012). All three pieces experiment with rates of recording and playback, and they invite viewers to reflect on relationships between performance and temporality, the whole and its parts. Academy plays seventy-five films awarded Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from start to finish, but each is run through a frame-matching algorithm and accelerated in its playback so that it lasts exactly one minute. Vertical Music presents viewers with a grid of twelve videos, each capturing the performance of an individual musician during a four-and-one-half-minute chamber piece. Recorded at three hundred frames per second but played back at a tempo of approximately one-tenth that of the original performance, Vertical Music explores the temporality of gesture and documentation. Fashionably Late, meanwhile, utilizes a tension between the movement of performance artist Lián Amaris Sifuentes, DuBois’s collaborator on the project, and that of the traffic swirling around her in New York City’s Union Square. Sifuentes stretched the pace of the quotidian rituals she performed—brushing her hair, chatting on the phone, sipping wine—to an hour for every minute, while DuBois’s crew documented the three-day event at high speed. The resulting feature-length motion picture is a disorienting experience of time, one in which the performer drifts through her preparatory tasks at a leisurely pace amid the jarring flashes of cars streaking past.

Considered as a whole, R. Luke DuBois—Now challenges expectations of time and attention associated with more traditional museum experiences. Installations such as Missed Connections that draw on live data necessarily preclude an exhaustive viewing while the extended length of a year in mp3s renders it impossible to experience completely in a museum setting. Even if one were to commit several days to viewing the exhibition, the fact that some of the content is mutable and some accessible only at random intervals frustrates efforts at mastery. The experience thus differs from exhibitions of time-based media of long duration, such as Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), which have a finite, though extended, viewing time. In essence, visitors to R. Luke DuBois—Now must employ strategies of sampling similar to those operating within the artist’s individual installations. Although DuBois is among several new-media artists who have experimented with work of variable duration, his thematic preoccupation with elongation, condensation, and sampling explicitly demands an updated orientation toward the cultural artifact, be it the Hollywood movie, the top-forty pop song, or media coverage of the war in Iraq. Distilling such objects through their data points offers unique ways to make sense of them, yet sense can never be synonymous with comprehension; something always resists inclusion in the representation. To approach this retrospective of DuBois’s work through the lens of the artist’s own critical and technical methodologies would be to embrace the richness of its opacities as much as the clarity of its insights. It also would require one to regard the unseen and unheard as meaningful constituents of the whole. The long decade of work featured in this retrospective aptly reflects the decade experienced by many of us who live in societies influenced by rapidly changing technologies, one in which we have grown to recognize ourselves in the myriad data points displayed on screen, yet human, still, we remain.

Stephanie Tripp
Associate Professor, Department of Communication, University of Tampa

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