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I was in San Francisco last month. It’s really a little depressing that I’m not still there now. It was beautiful and hot- see?

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Mmmmm… ice cream sherbet…

Anyway, I’m drafting a different post to round up all of the brilliant things I saw while I was there. This post is meant to single out one particular event for special bloggy attention; the 2008 SECA award at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

SECA is an acronym that stands for “Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art”; a local art interest group that bi-annually selects four local artists worthy of special attention and features them in an exhibition at SFMoMA. This year, the recipients were Trevor Paglen, Desiree Holman, Tauba Auerbach and Jordan Kantor.

Charlotte and I were just really lucky that this exhibition was on, as we stumbled into the gallery with no plan and only an hour until closing time (for anyone who can feasibly get there it runs until May 10th). Apart from Trevor Paglen who has achieved relatively substantial web-fame, I didn’t have prior knowledge of any of the exhibited artists; a fact of which I’m now ashamed as this was a thought-provoking and entertaining exhibition, choc-full of great work.

The aforementioned Paglen is probably best known for his photographic project ‘The Other Night Sky‘ where he meticulously locates, ‘captures’ and identifies classified US surveillance satellites as they orbit the earth. The image below exemplifies this series of works, which look like they could’ve been liberated from the pages of an issue of National Geographic.

Without the context supplied by their titles, these images appear to be well-crafted yet essentially innocent time-lapse photographs of celestial bodies. They look like nature photographs, and they evoke the appropriate set of associations and responses as a result (the sense of awe, the sense of one’s own inconsequence, etc) until the works’ titles- which are literal, scientific, flat and factual- impinge upon the reverie.

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Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada

These are not marvels of nature, but man-made machines. Machines with a purpose.Machines constructed here on earth and forcibly blasted into orbit by millions upon millions of $$$ worth of political and military will.

Moreover, they’re machines that you’re not supposed to know about.

The image hanging on the gallery wall is a mute witness to countless hours of investigative effort: contacting amateur ‘spotter’ communities, matching sightings from enthusiasts all over the planet, building mathematical models of prospective orbital paths, eventually identifying a space and time window that might yield a photographic capture.

It is this effort that the art work – that Paglen’s whole practice, in fact- is really concerned with: the surveiling of the surveilors. The fact that the images recall the conventions of nature photography serves to make their tortuous back-story all the more sinister.

Paglen’s other project featured in the SECA exhibition is Symbology, which documents the rich visual language of ‘black operations’ in the US military. Given that the projects, places and departments immortalized in this work do not officially exist, these meticulously collected decorative patches (displayed single-file in one long horizontal frame) are a strangely kitsch physical remnant of an unknowable world.

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They are surprisingly decipherable, demonstrating camaraderie, bravado and no shortage of black humour. They could be doodles on a schoolboy’s notebook.

They are all the realer for it – unexpectedly characterful, human and mundane where they ought to be secretive, obscure and glamorous. It is this supreme recognisability that unsettled me – their surfeit of everyday-ness seemed to crystallize a hard and frightening reality from the realm of playful, enjoyable conspiracy theories and harmless TV drama paranoia. These little objects are powerful- physically and culturally real in a way the sealed manila folder of popular imagination ever could be.

Desiree Holman was only showing one work, The Magic Window. This mixed media installation was a playful (if a little creepy) meditation on the role of Television in creating and fulfilling popular fantasy.

The centrepiece of the work was a video triptych. The centre panel was blank when we first walked in and sat down. The flanking panels each featured a roughly-assembled stage set designed to resemble the living room of a well-loved sitcom family; that of the Connors from  Roseanne on the left, and that of the Huxtables from The Cosby Show on the right.

In each set, actors wearing masks went about enacting typical interactions between these familiar characters: on the right, ‘Cliff’ and ‘Theo’ engaged in horseplay with a basketball, whilst on the left ‘Roseanne’ sat on the sofa, chatting to ‘DJ’ as ‘Darlene’ moved about the room.

What was immediately striking about these films was the deliberation with which Holman drew our attention to the artifice – to the tell-tale exposed edges of her representation. Her sketch of the ‘Roseanne’ mask below, clearly shows its ‘mask-ness’ as well as being recognisable as Roseanne Barr – as others in the gallery noted, the masks are more than a little reminiscent of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The same attention to lack-of detail was true of the sets the action took place in.

Click on the image for a video clip:

themagicwindow

Holman seemed to want us to buy in to the fiction, but at the same time remain always aware of her purpose- her presence in the re-staging of these familiar (yet warped) scenes.

Soon enough, the two families invade each other’s worlds (oddly recalling the Run DMC/Aerosmith ‘walk this way’ video) and wordlessly interact via hand gestures and the domestic ritual offerings of cookies. Subsequently, the central panel of the triptych comes alive- showcasing a bizarre ‘third space’, a sort of space disco where the characters dance together in jerky, awkward rhythms to a pounding electronica track- whilst glowing green.

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It was pretty odd.

At the same time however, it was interesting and entertaining: the blending of these two sitcoms that both dealt with different forms of social prejudice in their different decades seems obvious in hindsight. Also, highlighting the role-play that takes place in family relationships (which also provides the dramatic impetus in sitcoms) via the donning of masks seemed to me to be asking more profound questions than the pantomime performance initially suggested. In its deliberately rough-shod presentation it referenced the DIY video aesthetic of Youtube, an important platform for video art and as prevalent a force in popular culture as each of these sitcoms were in their respective heyday.

Tauba Auerbach seems to be an artist fascinated by systems, whether visual, mathematical or cultural. I thought her work was completely brilliant.

tauba-auerbach

This image shows some pieces from a series dealing with Auerbach’s interest in randomness, particularly the difficulty associated with simulating randomness through algorithms. She has created a whole series of images of Television static – analogue noise that at first glance appears random, but when captured in a photograph…

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…actually contains patterns. Patterns which can be extracted and made into beautiful, decorative works in artistic media like paint…

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…or through printmaking techniques like this aquatint:

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which are the antithesis of randomness – deliberate, precise and authored.

Another series also on display featured her various experiments with language; interrogating the alphabet as a visual system (as in The Whole Alphabet, from Centre Out, Digital V below) or playing with anagrams, letter subtraction games and the physical appearance of letters to highlight the essential ambiguity of these fundamental components of our culture.

wholealphafromcenterl

If you’re interested, the exhibition catalogue is available here, and Tauba Auerbach’s “50/50” book can be ordered here. Trevor Paglen has books to sell on Amazon.

Sadly, my rather lengthy enjoyment of Paglen, Holman and Auerbach’s work meant I had somewhat less than 5 minutes to look at Jordan Kantor’s stuff. I’ve got nothing to say except that he seemed to borrow more than a little from Gerhard Richter – but in an obviously deliberate way.

Anyway; a really great exhibition in a really great gallery. Also, if you are inclined towards podcastery, SF MoMA makes a generous amount of the audio guides to its exhibitions available for downloading, which aside from being edifying, can be used very effectively to transport oneself out of London bendy-bus hell to a calm, white-walled gallery of the imagination.

All images were sourced from the artists’ websites

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me

I work in media as a strategist. I like art, robots, comics, interaction design, karaoke, wildlife photography, indian food, campari, gaming, American TV (teen drama included), reading non-fiction, reading fiction and listening to music. I also have a tenori-on because I'm so rad.

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