Though our lives are increasingly media-saturated, few people fully grasp how mediation -- the technologies and agendas that stand between the viewer and what is viewed -- affects us.
In Hollywood films, for instance, the sounds many viewers implicitly accept as live recordings (the dialogue, the explosions) have in fact been as carefully composed as the films' symphonic scores. Even documentarians choose their camera angles (and their editing schemes), and these choices influence our perceptions as much as does the subject matter itself.
The mechanics of mediation are a key theme of Matter and Memory, an exhibition at Wood Street Galleries that marks the U.S. debut of French artist Julien Maire. Of the five installation pieces, the two most interesting in this regard are "Model for the Apocalypse" and "Exploding Camera."
"Apocalypse" (2008) consists of a table where visitors can sit and play with a small but dense mound of gray granules -- tiny pieces of molded steel, made glutinous by an adhesive, like wet sand. The table is surveilled by a video camera, so that when you set down your hand-molded spheroid, an enlarged projection on the nearby screen depicts its crumbling as your own special effect: a slo-mo avalanche, crushing invisible civilizations at its ever-expanding base. Meanwhile, the camera's pre-programmed cuts -- close-ups, wide shots -- confer seeming significance upon what are really unmotivated views of the miniature scene.
The 2007 work "Exploding Camera" is even more explicitly a tabletop movie set. Built around a few scraps of film cryptically depicting warfare, the set consists of a disassembled video camera, a tangle of cables, and jointed arms supporting LED lights. On a monitor, the photographic images succeed each other slideshow-like; meanwhile, flashing colored lights and a sound design evoke an occupying army. The resulting "spectacle" explores what Maire calls "the fatal dialectics of construction and deconstruction in the politics of media representation." Tellingly, the lens of the disassembled camera is pointed away from the action -- which consists merely of recombining existing documentation. So who's watching the watchers?
In wall text, Maire writes that "Camera" was inspired by al-Qaida's Sept. 9, 2001, assassination (via exploding video camera) of an Afghan guerilla commander, and by that killing's connection to 9/11. Ironically, it's a story potentially more interesting than the artwork itself.
Likewise, in "Apocalypse," seeing one's own hands projected 20 times bigger on screen can be nearly as intriguing as watching the monotone lump decay. And in another installation, the elaborate "The Memory Cone" (2009), viewers are instructed to rearrange scraps of light-colored paper on a table-top ... images of which are combined with flea-market photo slides and projected on a screen. The results -- fragmented, mysterious -- are haunting. But, again, they vie for interest with the ghostly flickers of one's hands at work.
Of course, that's part of the point. The interactivity constantly reminds us that media is a combination of choice and happenstance.
Maire takes the onotological play to another level with "Les Instantanes." This deceptively simple installation, occupying the whole of Wood Street's fourth floor, consists of three slide projectors set side by side. Each projects a crude and soundless black-and-white animation: a rapid sequence of nine frames, each depicting what looks like a different stop-motion rendering of a droplet's descent into a pool of water.
Really, however, the images are projections of small glass sculptures, each created to represent a moment in the droplet's descent. Neither photograph, nor film, nor traditional sculpture, "Les Instantanes" poses a quizzical ontological riddle.
Matter and Memory continues through Dec. 31. Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St., Downtown. 412-471-5605