Plugged-in art

Interactive exhibit explores the use of electronics to make art

On Derek G. Larson’s “Summer of Hate,” projected moving images are designed to fit his laser-cut metal screens.

On Derek G. Larson’s “Summer of Hate,” projected moving images are designed to fit his laser-cut metal screens.

Photo by Robert Speer

Art + Tech shows through Feb. 27 at the University Art Gallery.
Trinity Hall 100
Chico State

It’s only natural that, in this era of proliferating electronic gizmos, artists with a technological bent would want to see what they could do with these new toys and tools. Four such artists are featured in an interactive exhibit, Art + Tech, at Chico State that’s as perplexing as it is intriguing and, at times, even moving.

None of the artists are from Chico. One, Hye Yeon Nam, is from South Korea, though she has lived in this country for five years, most recently in Baton Rouge, where she teaches at Louisiana State University. Derek G. Larson teaches at Georgia Southern University, and Stephen Lawrence Clark and Sonya Belakhlef are from New York City, where they are members of the 12-person artistic collective known as Babycastles. All of the artists have exhibited widely.

This is a complex show and, with all of its electronic equipment, expensive to transport and mount. It’s here because Chico State’s Nanhee Kim, who teaches communication design and was the lead curator for the exhibit, obtained a National Endowment for the Arts grant to underwrite it. It’s the first NEA exhibition grant Chico State has received in a decade, Cameron Kelly, interim curator of the UAG, told me.

The most accessible of the pieces is Nam’s “Self Portrait” (2006), a set of four short videos projected simultaneously that show her doing everyday things—pouring orange juice, walking, eating a meal and eating a plate of cherry tomatoes. In each, though, she faces obstacles—her cup has a hole in it, her shoes have long metal plates attached; her chair is tipped forward; and her spoon is oddly shaped, making it hard to eat the tomatoes.

She is seeking, she writes on her website, “to portray the difficulty of living in this ‘room’ that is America. ‘Self-Portrait’ is an attempt to literally represent my psychological and bodily displacement as a means of representing the experience of immigration to non-immigrants.”

Another of Nam’s pieces, “Please Smile” (2011), is similarly engaging. It’s a set of five robotic arms in a horizontal row on the wall that, as she writes, “change their gestures depending on a viewer’s facial expressions.” The piece incorporates a microcontroller, a camera, a computer, five external power supplies and five plastic skeleton arms, each with four motors. When someone steps in front of the arms, the fingers point at him or her. If the person smiles, the five arms lift up and wave their hands.

My first reaction was that the hands were kinda creepy. But when I smiled and they lifted and waved, I felt mildly joyful, such is the nature of friendly waves, even from a machine.

Clark and Belakhlef’s “Automatiñata,” like most of Babycastles’ work, is an artistic play on video games. This particular game is an interactive race whose players (up to three) tap on handmade piñata-like forms containing accelerometers connected electronically to racing figures on a large monitor. I liked the playfulness of the piece and its juxtaposition of piñatas, which ask to be violently broken, and the sedentary violence associated with video games. Unfortunately, the game didn’t work well. I couldn’t control the racers by tapping the piñata, and neither could Kelly. Of course, I’m no good at video games, either.

Larson is in some ways the most traditional of this group of artists, if only because he creates colorful painterly images. But he does so using technology: laser cutters to create jigsawed metal screens on which he projects moving images, some objective, most not, and bright colors created with a computer. What’s interesting is the way he’s designed the projections to fit on the screens, which are anything but regular in shape.

In one piece, “Summer of Hate,” the screen is mounted on a wall but about a half-foot away from it. The projections are designed to fill the screen but also to spill over onto the wall, creating a 3-D effect that is mesmerizing.

Viewers will enjoy trying to decide what they find most intriguing about Larson’s work, the complexity of the technology or the images he has produced. The same can be said of all the pieces in this remarkable exhibit.