Criticality and the Media Machine
BY LAURA ADDISON
Artist Peter Sarkisian has said that he is more interested in questions than answers. The questions he poses through his work constellate around the tensions of paradox. Is it real, or is it illusion? Is it image, or is it object? Is it surface, or is it interior? In posing these questions, he seeks to redefine spectatorship as an active and critical, rather than a passive, endeavor. A piece such as Extruded Video Engine (2007), which was recently gifted to the New Mexico Museum of Art’s permanent collection, exemplifies how Peter Sarkisian perennially pushes the limits of video art and challenges the dynamic between viewer and object. His hybrid form of installation comments on the ubiquity of the moving image in contemporary society, whether in television, movies, or video games. It also critiques the passivity with which we as viewers absorb the images projected onto a flat screen.
Sarkisian refers to Extruded Video Engine as a “parody of media.” The parody is apparent in the visual and auditory cacophony of an imaginary engine whose colorful gears and pistons produce a text ribbon much like the tickertape of information we are accustomed to on twenty-four-hour news channels. The texts that the machine churns out are transcribed from recordings Sarkisian made of friends and colleagues telling stories and sharing memories. Reduced to snippets, the narratives are ambiguous and, therefore, at least partially emptied of meaning. They move through the engine with such speed that they are difficult to read, let alone glean any meaning from.
Extruded Video Engine is one of sixteen works, spanning eighteen years of the artist’s career, on view at the New Mexico Museum of Art as part of the exhibition Peter Sarkisian: Video Works, 1994–2011. The exhibition was curated by Susan Moldenhauer of the University of Wyoming Art Museum, which opened the show in January 2010. It has since traveled to various venues and concludes its tour at the New Mexico Museum of Art, Sarkisian’s hometown museum. The museum’s presentation of the exhibition has been expanded to include pieces from local collections as well as some of the artist’s most recent works.
Technology itself is one of the recurrent threads that run through Sarkisian’s video installations. In a 2005 interview for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sarkisian stated, “I’m trying to essentially climb inside the medium and steer it back toward some sort of physical dynamic with the viewer.”
He accomplishes this in several ways: by projecting video onto a flat screen embedded in a three-dimensional object that shares the viewer’s space; by creating a spatial illusion of interiority rather than mere surface; and, as in the case of Extruded Video Engine, by making the screen itself sculptural and contoured.
The image of Extruded Video Engine is rear-projected onto a vacuum-formed plastic sculptural surface through a process that took the artist five years to develop. To create the imagery, Sarkisian photographed Cold War–era gears and other mechanical parts from Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the first atomic bomb was created. On some level, to image an antiquated technology (gears) by way of state-of-the-art technology (video) comments on the inevitable obsolescence of all technologies. Even the most current technology is almost defunct as soon as it is introduced.
In one of his newest video vignettes, Book 1 (2011), Sarkisian literally “climb[s] inside the medium” by making himself the protagonist in a humorous, ironic narrative. An open dictionary rests on a pedestal, and we see the projected image of a man, in miniature, crawling over the surface of the pages and scribbling corrections. At times, he slips into the binding of the book and re-emerges on the facing page to continue his editing project. Sarkisian’s manipulation of scale provides an amusing fantasy of a Lilliputian world while at the same time questioning how we acquire and codify knowledge. What happens, the artist makes us ponder, when the authoritative sources we rely on for knowledge prove to be inaccurate?
Through his artwork, Sarkisian suggests that we can never arrive at truth or determine what is real. The works toy with perception and question the viewer’s ability to distinguish between surface and depth, image and object, reality and illusion. In viewing Sarkisian’s work, we are never quite sure what is tangible and what will disappear when the projectors are turned off. This is what Sarkisian refers to as “a perceptual trap.” These traps appear as manipulations of time, space, scale, and content. They require viewers to interrogate their own perceptions and to attempt to reconcile what is actual and what is perceived.
In many cases, this perceptual trap manifests as a confusion of surface and interior. The liquid surface of works such as Blue Boiling in Pail (2003) or Green Puddle (2000) appears to be “breached,” as the artist calls it, and the rolling boil of the water or the tessellating ripples of a drip give us the impression that this movement is coming from within. We are tempted to ascertain the “truth” of this visual experience by touching it. (Please don’t!) By now we are well versed in the idea that seeing is not necessarily believing, that photography and related “truth-telling” mediums (such as video) that are rooted in realism are often turned against themselves by their makers in order to disrupt the medium’s perceived legitimacy as a “truthful” representational strategy. This is precisely what Sarkisian’s liquid installations accomplish: the confusion of surface and interior calls attention to video’s questionable authority on matters of truth and the real.
Sarkisian’s perceptual traps can also be seen in a work such as 12 Minutes Flat (1998), in which the confusion of surface and image is explored. The viewer stands before an actual table, whose top is in effect a rectangular screen upon which the narrative unfolds. First we see the image of dead leaves that are swept away by hands jutting into the frame. From under this layer of leaves appear lush green grass and an occasional daisy that are then trimmed by the same disembodied hands. Next a layer of dirt is uncovered. Eventually, after digging deeper and deeper through the layers of dirt with a spade and then a shovel, the “actor” reveals a wood top—like the table-object itself. The hands then spread a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth and set the table for one, as if for dining al fresco. During the course of this twelve-minute narrative, an image that is incongruous with the tabletop gradually morphs into an image that melds with the table itself. This converging of image and object again confounds the notion that seeing is believing, but it also disintegrates the frame, transforming a representational space into an experiential space. We are, literally, invited to the table to attend an imminent feast. Physical object and illusionistic image merge to create an experience that broaches the participatory as well as the visual.
Coming from a background in film, where the frame is always present and contains the visual narrative in the fixed boundaries of a rectangle, Sarkisian recognized early on that video installation offered the possibility of eliminating that frame by creating “video in the round.” That is, he takes the moving image and integrates it into a three-dimensional form that physically occupies the viewer’s space. With Extruded Video Engine, we saw how he radically altered the flat, planar frame. In either case, the artist negates the traditional screen and opens the door to a new dynamic of looking. Always aware of the viewer’s experience, he seeks “to reintroduce experience to watching.” He wants a more active looking to take place by the viewer of his video works—an active looking that is characterized not just as a purely visual experience, but an intellectual, physical, sensorial, or even affective experience.
Pounding Study (2004) illustrates Sarkisian’s appeal to an affective experience of video. This piece was the artist’s response to the First Gulf War. He conceived of a blue illuminated rectangle with a pristine surface as a frame whose surface was a metaphor for the boundary between antagonists and conflicting points of view. The pristine surface and the peaceful calm of the blue frame are marred by an occasional pounding that dents the surface from behind. The impressions of a mallet’s head accumulate on the surface. The loud and unpredictable sound is startling and visceral. This is a piece that is intended to create an unsettling experience that shakes the viewer from passivity and moves him or her to an active and engaged looking that corresponds to critical thinking.
Criticality is what transforms the viewer experience from the visual to the experiential. Like Extruded Video Engine, all of Sarkisian’s works are self-searching engagements with the machinery of media. That is, he requires of his works and his viewers a degree of criticality in considering these perceptual traps, even if (and especially if) they constitute unresolvable tensions.
Laura Addison is curator of contemporary art at the New Mexico Museum of Art.