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Art Divas

Marielle Allschwang

D.I.V.A.S., an open-house exhibition of Digital Imaging, Visualization and Sound art, spanned 5 floors of the Kenilworth building the night of Wednesday, May 13 to accommodate large-scale interactive screens, performances, surveys, paintings and kinetic sculptures by University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s most recent batch of Junior and Senior Bachelor of Fine Arts students. Don’t let the event title fool you – this work was made not by a group of gilded prima donnas (it’s been known to happen), but by some really devoted and tech savvy individuals. With all their movement and interfaces, a fair share of standout pieces could have been the belated B-sides of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s “Act/React” exhibition.

Khanh Pham’s dreams dot com, a sort of mirror chamber, stuck to analogue mechanics to create a kinetic and interactive performance piece.  One person stands on each side of a rotating sheet of mirror with organically-shaped clear sections that overlap for brief periods in the mirror’s rotation, allowing the two standing subjects to see each other for a fleeting moment before they are again isolated to their own reflection.  Instead of letting a computer do the work, Pham was perched atop a ladder to turn a metal dowel which pulled the mirror upward.  Unfortunately, this method left the project vulnerable to technical difficulties which indeed played out by the night of its unveiling: the dowel would not rotate fluidly and needed consistent shimmying, manual manipulation, and prolonged anticipatory pauses for the viewer.  Pham, however, carried through with serene aplomb.  Her silent and deliberate attempts to get the rig to work as planned transformed what could have been an anticlimactic end into a choreographed, patterned event in itself, captivating onlookers and drawing them into the performance’s developmental space.

Khanh Pham's "dreams dot com" installation view                    
photo by Cat Pham

Siobhan Marie McAlpin’s work presented a digitized response to the viewer’s movement – or lack thereof.  Mazes of color snake through a large black screen to outline the static elements of the environment directly in front of it.  In order to glimpse your own abstracted silhouette in the frame, you must stand absolutely still, waiting, poised for revelation.  As soon as you move, however, you dissipate.  My main critique for this piece regards its execution; the imagery was, for the most part, undefined (most of the shapes were indistinct, lost on the flattened plane) to the point of disengaging the viewer, and it takes quite awhile for one viewer to be rewarded for his/her (in)activity.  Then again, any Buddhist will tell you that stillness needs time to take palpable effect on one’s perceptions.  Had McAlpin been able to hold a more intimate space for her work, as opposed to an open room crowded with other projects, the elements of her piece could have been much more gratifying. A meditation room of sorts – someplace quiet and isolated --may have allowed for the subject to remain at rest long enough for its reflection to be rendered strong, clear, and more awakened to its surroundings.

Siobhan Marie McAlpin’s Installation view                    
photo by Siobhan Marie McAlpin

While McAlpin’s work demands a Zen-like state of stillness and careful attention to fulfill the viewer’s expectations, Bryan Cera’s CTRLR (“Controller”) demands the viewer to keep moving.  It is a performance, a game, the next Wii trend, and a compelling work of digital art, further questioning the conventions of iconography, art-making and viewing. 

Upon approaching the project, one sees a small, all-too-familiar setup: two chairs, a television, and an old Nintendo console.  The television screen shows a figure in an amusingly bulbous, sparkling red helmet stalking in the dark.  In the adjacent room is the “real” controller, who becomes the agent of action as soon as he/she dons a glimmering red helmet and stands before a hidden, color-sensitive computer which reads the “Mariotechno Helmet’s” movements.  This program controls a raccoon-tailed Mario flying through a field of bombs, coins and magic mushrooms, all plucked from original Nintendo scenes and animated by Cera.  The scene is projected onto the opposite wall, a monumental kinetic canvas of gamer iconography. In order to ‘stay alive,’ the ‘controller’ must physically duck, dodge, jump, swerve and contort as gracefully and purposefully as possible.

Bryan Cera's "CTRLR" Installation view                    
photo by Louisa Hogensen

On the television screen outside, the subject looks like a gleeful, red-capped puppet.  Cera sets up the conditions for the game; the game is controlling the agent, the agent watches his/herself controlling Mario, all the while being watched by an audience of impotent ‘controllers,’ now reduced to spectators.  CTRLR begs one to consider the many levels of manipulation, interaction and observation being literally played out, but aside from all the academic “meta”-garble, CTRLR is just…really cool.

This year’s D.I.V.A.S. artists prove that we use much more than our eyes to observe a moment – we are a part of it, free agents pushing pixels and particles of light.

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