This Exhibition Claims That “All Art Is Virtual” 

Santa Fe, N.Mex – All art is virtual A catch-all title that alerted me even before stepping into the dark and buzzing interior of the Thoma Foundation’s new media space Art Vault. The nonprofit gallery’s website says the exhibit “proposes that all art can be experienced in virtual reality — no special glasses required.”

I, too, don’t like VR headsets (aside from bad ergonomics, their aesthetic is notoriously maintenance-free), but this theme seems like an excuse to feature a lot more in a new media collection. In that context Thomas puts things, in vast archives that span some of the earliest examples of digital art. All art is virtual Two dozen works spanning seven decades (its earliest entry dates back to 1962), but what is the curatorial glue?

Mercifully, a sequence of story-driven acts shapes an exhibition that has the potential to transcend its branding. A downtempo Nina Simone sets the tone playing the piano and moving across 29 television screens in a pyramidal installation by Atlanta-based artist Paul Stephen Benjamin. The title of the work is “Black is the Color” (2015) which is a lyric that resonates as three clips from Simone Anantha Chakra. The singer’s drawn-out voice reaches the ear like tea, slowly.

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Nam June Pike’s 1989 work “Portable God,” a two-channel video installation housed in a 1950s television cabinet, is a psychedelic, calligraphy-covered altar to Allen Ginsberg, Elaine de Kooning, Confucius and other cultural figures. Offerings like rice and candles are poignantly placed in the piece.

An ornately framed flatscreen seamlessly loops Kent Monkman’s 2015 “video painting,” “The Human Zoo,” which features the Cree artist’s drag alter ego as a sideshow performer on the streets of 1850s Berlin. At the end of her frenzied dance to a drumbeat struck by a white male friend, she rejects part of the suggestions.

Paul Stephen Benjamin, “Black is the Color” (2015), three-channel digital video (color, sound) on 30 CRT monitors

These works feel almost cinematic, skillfully exploiting the ephemeral nature of new media; As they blossom, our understanding of them evolves and deepens in a spine-tingling way. In this vein, the exhibition is the piece de resistance “Inverso Mundus” (2015), a deliciously bonkers video opera by Moscow-based collective AES+F. Stay tuned for social power reversals (women lock men in stylized stocks, children wrestle elders to the ground) and the arrival of a mutant caged angel.

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There are other very strong artifacts All art is virtual — Sandra Perry’s interactive rowing machine that drops you onto the deck of a slave ship, Michael Bell-Smith’s vertical scroll of a video game skyline that rivals the splendor of Roku City, a central room filled with strange puzzle boxes by artist-scientists — but the whole sweep is governed by a confused eclecticism. With so many treasures to choose from, why not zero in on a particular theme and edit from there?

This may be harder than it seems in our current cultural landscape. David Salle wrote in a chapter of his 2016 book How to see, we have landed in an age of sensory overload in which “images have no fungible sense of authorship; images of every imaginable object, person, event are merely visual weather.” But, as Salle argues, it is especially important for art to “act differently” than the rest of the imagery we see in the past.

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Universal Everything, “Communion” (2010/2020), single-channel digital video (color, sound) on projector (© Universal Everything)

Problems with curating in the spirit of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” (“The center won’t catch” and all that) is the risk of merely reflecting the moment, with its visual avalanche, channeled but not entirely controlled by algorithms. No one wants more than that – we need to boldly copy something from the masses.

Nam June Paik, “Portable God” (1989), single-channel video (color, silent) with altar offerings on two CRT monitors in an artist-modified wooden cabinet
Michael Bell-Smith, “Up and Away” (2006), single-channel digital video (color, sound) on monitor (© Michael Bell-Smith)
Josh Tonsfeldt, Untitled (2017), single-channel digital video (color, silent) using artist-modified LCD monitor, fiberglass fabric, urethane resin, pigment, and found materials (© Josh Tonsfeldt; photo by Charles Benton)

All art is virtual Continues through April 15 at Art Vault (540 South Guadalupe Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico). The exhibition was curated by Jason Fomberg.

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