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Balance and POWER

By Anya Bergman

Section: Arts

October 13, 2006

As visitors approach the entrance to the exhibit, the tinkling of water from the fountain in the outer hall begins to die away. Instead, deep male voices resonate from far inside the exhibit, issuing propaganda relics from the times of Nixon and Johnson, among others. The voices beckon one to the exhibit Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art, currently featured at the Rose Art Museum.

The entire exhibit, with its various films asymmetrically placed throughout the room allows visitors the opportunity to leave the natural world. One is entitled to gaze at the strange motions of the television screens, mostly portraying people, and contemplate what it means to observe others, and conversely, how it feels to be observed.

What is Video Art?
The genre of video art developed as early as the 1960s as a new medium that allowed artists the gratification of instantly seeing their work. It signified an enormous change as an art genre because it was the first time artists could immediately see what they had produced, and then, if desired, alter it in ways that redefined space and time.

Artists also liked the idea of being able to make statements about politics and popular culture through their work, which, to many viewers, resembled the television. In this way, the art had the feel, if not reality, of speaking directly to the observer. The videos can be a reflective experience for the audience, as well, in instances where the viewer is captured on the film, where the viewer is being viewed.

Collecting information
Many of the films featured in this exhibit were created in the 1960s and 70s, in an era when the government was eager to furtively collect information about its citizens for various purposes. This helped spur the new genre, which focused on the ways in which humans are constantly being put on display, examined and scrutinized. This is the case in Martha Roslers 1977, Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained, in which the artists submits herself to a full body examination in order to explain the obsession with the measuring and scrutiny of others and ourselves.

This genre fits easily and is quite relevant in todays society, as people struggle to understand the uneasy alliance between posing and surveillance, performing and being spied upon, according to Michael Rush, Director of the Rose Art Museum, in his essay explaining the exhibition.

In a time when we are constantly being pushed through security screening systems and observed by surveillance cameras, when we worship reality shows centered around observing others, the concept of video art fits exactly into our preoccupations. Caught up in these two worlds, we are all acting for the camera. Sometimes voluntarily, often involuntarily, Rush explained by e-mail.

Seeing oneself on screen
One video captures the exhibit-goers on a video camera, and then projects them onto a screen that they can watch in the gallery. Kevin Hamilton and Tiffany Holmes illuminated the involuntary aspect through the two screens, showing their film, Mirror Site. On the screen the viewers interact with people who were knowingly filmed in a location in New York. Here, viewers experience what it means to be unsuspectingly inspected and monitored. It gives them the opportunity to realize that being captured on film, mostly by store video cameras, is actually an everyday occurrence.
Subodh Gupta represents the other side of this familiar equation, which is humans burning desire to have their own image captured and put on the screen. In Pure, Gupta uses his own body to reflect on his own image and what influences him. This and other films in the exhibit portray the appeal of watching oneself as an outsider to themselves, and also the attraction of being able to identify pieces of oneself in the actions of others.

Traveling to the upper floor of the museum to view the exhibit and all of its components at once from above, one creates an interesting and moving contrast. From this vantage point, it is possible to combine the innocence of unintentionally being viewed, the quality of being extroverted driving us toward the camera, and the force with which we are compelled to believe and take as truth what we see broadcast in front of us. Rush summarized the feeling of viewing the exhibit in its entirety, saying, I want [viewers] to be seduced by the beauty and fun of the exhibit and then think seriously about the questions raised about how surveillance has become such a big part of our lives.

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