Starting Friday, you don’t have to choose between rotting your brain with TV and video games or expanding your mind with a trip to the museum. You can do both at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new exhibit, “Watch This! Revelations in Media Art.”
The show includes 44 works of art — some of which seem to be merely videos or video games. What makes them special, says exhibit curator Michael Mansfield, is that they were made by individuals, not corporations.
“The artist’s hand is very evident in these pieces,” he says. “It’s almost subversive, the way they take these modes of communication that have been exercised by the powers that be and use them for individual expression.”
For example, visitors can play a game called “Halo 2600,” a version of the popular first-person shooter re-created to run on the Atari 2600 — a video game system released in 1977. Programmer Ed Fries distilled Halo’s lush graphics and complicated plot into a two-dimensional scrolling game, using just 4KB of memory.
With this anachronism, Fries crushes our expectations about the forward march of technology.
“Fries placed ‘Halo’ in communication with this techno-linguistic past — turning that video game back in time,” Mansfield says.
The exhibit also includes art that was actually created in 1977, like Buky Schwartz’s “Painted Projections.” The piece, which consists of a video camera, a closed-circuit TV and precisely-painted lines on the gallery wall and floor, creates the illusion that visitors are walking through a 3-D box.
The idea that someone who may not have that firm a grip on reality is watching you may be more relevant now than ever.
“It’s a whimsical piece,” Mansfield says, “but it’s also unsettling and a little sinister.”
Here are three other “Watch This!” works we’re excited to see.
“Monster Movie,” created by Takeshi Murata in 2005, is a glitchy, looped clip of a B-movie monster rising out of a pool of water. Put to free jazz, fragments of intact video mix with pixelated patches of color for a trippy, lava-lamp effect.
“Cloud Music” is a set of custom electronics that translates the movement of clouds in the sky into music. The piece, created in the ‘70s by Robert Watts, David Behrman and Bob Diamond, consists of a video camera pointed out of a window, which connects to two closed-circuit televisions and wall-mounted speakers.
“Flower,” a 2007 video game by Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago, lets players control a gust of wind that wafts through meadows, propels flower petals and gently turns an already lush world into an even more beautiful place. There are no points, but a subtle narrative and lovely graphics keep players engaged and arouse emotions that are not usually associated with video games, like serenity and happiness.
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