The question of how social media, digital images and interactive technology have affected our collective aesthetic and emotional sensibilities has been on many curators' minds for the last decade. Recently, Lauren Cornell followed this line of inquiry straight online for the New Museum's ongoing Free
, where artists engage websites like Flickr, YouTube, Tumblr and so on. Two new exhibitions at MoMA PS1, Feng Mengbo
and The Talent Show
(both through April 4), add essential historical and global perspective to this investigation of the visual culture of new media. The former spans pre-digital conceptual art in the 60s to contemporary modes of self-documentation. Meanwhile Feng Mengbo
's epic classroom-sized video game mashup, "Long March: Restart" (2008), leverages emerging tools of DIY game-making to animate the iconography of Chinese propaganda and classic Cold War-era games like "Street Fighter." Both temper our tendency to think of the present media state as a wholly new phenomenon, locating its roots in crowd-sourced photography, provocative performances and participatory playing.
In The Talent Show
, PS1 curator Peter Eleey traces predecessors of reality television, solipsistic social media and performative self-documentation to artists' conceptual experiments from the 60s onwards. The thematic survey opens with the unflinching face of an Andy Warhol "Screen Test
" and an empty podium marked with inviting footprints by Italian provocateur Piero Manzoni
. In adjacent rooms artists take up this double-edged desire for exhibitionism and voyeurism. A photo from Shizuka Yokomizo
's fascinating "Stranger" series (1998-2000) shows a Japanese woman standing in her living room gazing towards the camera. Yokomizo's project description explains: she left cards for occupants of ground floor apartments in Berlin, London, New York and Tokyo, asking them to stand at their windows, curtains open, lights on, at a certain time on a certain evening, so she could photograph them anonymously. Nearby, a similarly invasive yet consensual project shows images sent to British artist Phil Collins
, who offered to develop people's film for free if they agreed to relinquish all rights to the images. The resulting slideshow, a profound parody of the prototypical suburban vacation presentation, is a work of stunning, often surprising beauty. Other pieces force viewers' participation. Peter Campus's playful "Shadow Projection" (1974) combines a spotlight and closed-circuit video projection to fill visitors' silhouettes with their own image. The resulting exhibitionist feedback loop anticipates the countless laptop videos uploaded daily, like those compiled by Amie Siegel
in the next room. Campus logs The Talent Show
's closest approximation of the interactive installation at the opposite end of PS1's ground floor.
The significance of performance has often remained unaddressed in discussions of the emerging video game art
field, though it's inescapable in Feng Mengbo's massive "Long March: Restart" installation, which sandwiches spectators and one player between two 100-feet-long screens. On a quiet day the wireless controller sits waiting, Excalibur-like, at the center of the room, or perhaps the gallery attendant is having a go. One immediately becomes physically engaged in the game, whose Red Army soldier protagonist battles characters cribbed from militaristic video games in pixelated environments like a Soviet rocket launch site, a Chinese military parade, or a treacherous Temple of Doom-ish
rope bridge. The player paces the length of the gallery alongside the nameless soldier, exploring each massive side-scrolling environment and frantically pushing buttons to hurl exploding Coke cans at communism's enemies. The uncanny collage of familiar characters and intuitive gameplay marks an impressive culmination for Feng's 14-year project to explore notions of censorship, control, violence and national identity through the iconography of vintage video games. One gladly becomes complicit in this quest to destroy symbols of democratic capitalism. Only after being laid out by a giant steel mill worker or zapped by an American astronaut do the game's force and skillful execution become apparent. Like the viewers who step into Campus' video projection loop, Feng's players become willing performers in a game of self-display. The Talent Show
's older artists set the stage for just this type of new media art, and we're its ideal subjects.
(Images courtesy MoMA PS1)