27.11.2014. - 23.12.2014.

Mercury Retrograde: Animated Realities

Brian Alfred, Aline Bouvy, Cliff Evans, eteam (Franziska Lamprecht, Hajoe Moderegger), Scott Gelber, John Gillis, Jan Nalevka, Karina Aguilera Skvirsky

Curated by Željka Himbele and William Heath

Three or four times a year, the planet Mercury appears to move backward in its orbit when seen from Earth. This optical illusion is referred to as Mercury retrograde. In popular astrology, Mercury retrograde marks intense periods when things go awry, signaling the need for reflection and revision of our lives. This is a time for veering away from the past and taking cautious steps forward. Mercury’s cycle has been speculated as the cause of major course corrections for society; it gives us a chance to grow as humans, to raise critical awareness, and possibly make a movement towards radical change.

The exhibition Mercury Retrograde: Animated Realities features an international selection of artists making animated videos that focus on uncertain future. Appropriating popular culture images from television, film, web, newspaper, tabloid, and fashion magazines, the artists manipulate source materials with a variety of aesthetic approaches and montage techniques that offer reflections upon our mass media-saturated cultures. The materiality of animation allows for flattening, collaging, reduction and abstraction of the appropriated material that at once allows the absurdity of contemporary life to stand more singularly and clearly. The works collectively vibrate with an omnipresent feeling of anxiety, a kind of anxious energy that demands we consider the current paths and policies we have allowed to be chosen for us. The animations grapple with complex topics surrounding the culture of spectacle, excesses of consumption, economy and power relations in the era of globalization and interconnectedness, and reveal the artists’ simultaneous fascination with and critique of our culture, society, and politics.

In the empty desk-scapes of Brian Alfred’s Conspiracy (2005), an unknown centralized intelligence control center collects and transmits coordinates in spite of their absent human counterparts. Streaming data marches on through airwaves while headsets make announcements in an air traffic control tower, but what precisely is the business at hand in this automated vigil? Surveillance is the shot heard around the world today; it is quite literally a ubiquitous matrix of corporate and government efforts that encircle the globe as recent WikiLeaks documents have proven. Panning past an endless succession of monitors, the pivot and spin of an office chair moves us unknown distances as urban skylines and aerial shots of rural landscapes come into monitor frame. Alfred’s flatly rendered depictions of places assert an uncanny feeling; everything seems familiar, allowing viewers just enough space to find their own déjà vu. Occasionally, we are given precise narrative moments when maps come into focus, shaky footage of nuclear signage suggests ecological danger, or the American flag comes into frame to contextualize a large group of protest signs that mechanically rise and fall. This psychological video portrait of the USA, produced nine years ago, seems almost prophetic considering how quickly Alfred pinpoints current American national preoccupations by simply removing the human figure and laying bare the activities that keep us awake at night.

Venusia (2007), named after the ancient Greek city dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite, is a video animation- investigation of the cult of beauty, composed almost entirely of body parts cleanly scalped from the pages of fashion magazines, opulent metal-tone dangles, and encrusted jeweled broaches from the velvet cases of advertising campaigns. Pressing the pages of fashion up against expansive milky galaxy cosmos sublime, Bouvy and Gillis montage a rapid-fire series of modelesque female profiles (each face simply occupying one cell in this stop motion movement) in which they consume a string of glowing pearls that drop from the celestial heavens. A peculiar repetitive soundtrack underscores the rising robotic femme idol that dominates the strange gravity defying enigmatic dance performed by the fractured figures. Top-coat manicured hands bow at the feet of the space-noir idol as a pantheon of jeweled insect broaches, flowering plants and adornment offerings are laid at the feet of the temple of beauty. Bouvy and Gillis are fascinated with representations of the body and concepts of beauty deeply steeped in today’s popular culture. The video is influenced by French stylist and photographer Serge Lutens, probably best known for his 1980s art direction and photography for Japanese cosmetics company Shiseido, but it also recalls futuristic and macabre surrealist imagery.

Eteam’s Prim Limit (2009) is a poetic meditation created from the materials collected during eteam’s year- long project in Second Life- the online, three-dimensional virtual social network. There, the artist collective gained a piece of land and opened a public plein-air dumpster in which Second Life players could discard their trash. Eteam’s project focused on what is discarded in Second Life, what happens with these items when no longer wanted, and the players’ attitudes towards the debris. Throughout a year, the artists observed the dumpster, its continual changes, and the experiences and interaction of avatars within it. The video, with its slow and repetitive rhythm, traces avatars who manage the dumpster and record activities in it, as well as the occasional visitors. The work is accompanied by narration from one of the avatars, music samples, as well as quotations from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, television and movies like Twin Peaks, Sin City and Lord of the Rings, creating the atmosphere of emptiness, entrapment and decay, while also capturing human aspects and intimate interactions in this curious world, which instead of an ideal utopian model, turns out to be just another reiteration of a life dictated by consume-and-discard.

Cliff Evans’ Citizen: The Wolf and The Nanny (2009), features a universe in which visions of present, past and future intertwine through a looping narrative. The video starts and ends with the depiction of the nuclear family unit in a sublimely utopic fertile valley, confronted with a futuristic, almost a messianic vision. Evans voraciously sifts the Internet, sampling an astonishing amount of timely visual culture and cues, organizing environments inhabited by still images of people evacuated from the original moment they were photographed, their gestures frozen in time and space. The animation is full of poignant metaphors; the wolf is a motif repeated several times, and can be seen as a primitive free agent, as well as provocateur of danger, darkness and violence, while the figure of the nanny suggests domestication, safety, and order. Missiles fly overhead the athletic jogging nanny figures as if in some apocalyptic vision, while policemen, soldiers and cheerleaders inhabit a curious, sanitized and self-contained space station. Corporate logos spinning like glowing mandalas and advertisement slogans contribute to the hysterical appearance of this frozen spectacle procession. If Alfred distills a kind of clarity in removing all of the figures from his narrative, Evans looks to the other side of the coin, casting an overpopulated world that is uncomfortably accurate as a result of the dense aggressive juxtapositions.

In Evans’ video Camping at Home (2011), a constant sweeping diagonal pan follows the insect-like construction cranes that hang in the sky like scorpion tails, and earth moving excavators that carve deep gradations into the soil. The artist peels back a deeply complicated allegorical portrait of a post-bust economy in the United States, and globally, as the housing market crisis carries on. Homeowners continue to fight foreclosures while complicated regularity hearings surrounding predatory home lending practices, and the LIBOR interest rates scandals uncover systemic corruption that has shaken the grip on our most basic human needs. Housing construction sites rapidly sprawl and swallow pastoral hillsides, the occasional cluster of tent camps punctuating the growing divide in economic disparity. In 2012 the tent became deeply politicized as an important activist symbol during Occupy Wall Street’s activities, complicating the otherwise architectural form of vacation and leisure. Impossibly long military convoys and 1950’s era family sedans towing campers crisscross windy road panoramas tie together the multiplicity of motifs that rest in between stability and instability.

Jan Nalevka’s animation Final Countdown (2004) simply and plainly highlights an examination of consumer commodities. Taken from grocery store advertising leaflets collected by the artist, the list of products with prices scrolls past a black background like film credits. The currency context of the British Pound to Croatian Kuna conversion requires a little mental math to verify a relative value comparison, but the products remain curiously familiar with their conventional language already inscribed in our minds through a constant mass media advertising presence that has become nearly universal. In addition to that, the video provokes thinking about how in the last decade, inflation and rising cost of food become an index of concern surrounding the food supply chain. The sober soundtrack adjoins this abundance of textual data- a classical composition of a cinematic feeling, which can be read as a requiem to our society of hyper-consumerism.

L.A. Gear or: Improbable Waste (2012) by Scott Gelber is a hermetic digital space, a vault of objects pulled from the realm of video games and CGI special effects. Set against the animated equivalent of a seamless photographic backdrop, gravity limply exerts itself in this vacuous space of consumer culture props whirling in a post-human dance of death. The inventory of images seems chaotically unrelated, but collectively they function like a tableau of modern day tokens of worship. Clichéd palm trees frame a horizonless nowhere as Red Bull cans spill from an impossibly long Hummer, everything depicted in a Lisa Frank colorful palette. A Porsche sport car recalls American prosperity of the late 1980’s while sports gear emphasizes endurance and athletic masculinity. The artist gestures towards a context outside of the past and the future of the human race, with the inclusion of a dinosaur head and alien figures. In the second part of the video, a much more aggressive and abrasive soundtrack underscores a violent imagery of guns and a coffin. In a few moments of the video, Gelber inserts spiritual imagery like light flashes or a crucifix; however, these motifs point more to the worship of objects in our contemporary commodity culture than offering any kind of contemplation and salvation.

Karina Aguilera Skvirsky borrows excerpted footage of celebrity trials and daytime talk shows, arranging them in a bizarre and cacophonous marching parade compositions in her animation El Espectáculo (2007). Through the artist’s animation techniques, figures like Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, O. J. Simpson and Winona Ryder are duplicated to the size of small battalions. They are removed from their original context and gain marionette-like postures and repetitive synchronized gestures, which, in Skvirsky’s words, “echo the choreography of military marches while referencing Busby Berkeley’s film extravaganzas.” In her animated tableaus, Skvirsky draws out interconnections between the entertainment/news media complex, prison complex, and the military industrial complex- three of the strongest industries in America today. The logos of the news franchises Fox, CNN and MSNBC are reduced to bit pixel games of Pong and Asteroids, further collapsing the divide between entertainment and news. The animation’s soundtrack to which Skvirsky’s parade of personas is choreographed ranges from the Broadway musicals, marching band movements, tabloid commentary, sounds of fireworks and semiautomatic gunfire. They all conflate the spectacle of the entertainment and space between entertainment and war. (Željka Himbele, William Heath)