In the video "Passenger 4 (Laurel Canyon)," artist Riley Harmon sits in a cab, trading glances with actress Natascha McElhone. Neither speaks. Their faces tell us the story of their emotions in a few silent seconds. Then Harmon begins again in a different car, with Jada Pinkett Smith.
Pittsburgh artist Harmon's videos are not as overtly tech-driven as many of the pieces in Getting Closer, an exhibit by an international array of artists at Lawrenceville's Fe Gallery. But they do ask guest curator Lindsay Howard's core question: "What is the shape of intimacy in the digital age?" By editing himself into scenes in Hollywood films, Harmon enacts the impossible fanboy dream of our celebritocracy. But by playing out full, silent communications, he also forces us to ask whether shared digital culture has made intimacy and acting inseparable.
In a recent London Review of Books essay, philosopher Slavoj Zizek claims, "We are often told that privacy is disappearing ... the reality is the opposite: what is effectively disappearing is public space, with its attendant dignity." Getting Closer illustrates this with work in which the artists annex the public sphere for their personal, private use. Through digital media, many of these artists create, hone and exhibit their work in ways that straddle the private/public lines -- through blogs, Skype, Vimeo, even Second Life. Getting Closer is the public art of the world Zizek describes, yet it mostly maintains the dignity whose disappearance he laments.
The best pieces in Getting Closer revolve around real communications and relationships. Dutch "glitch-artist" Rosa Menkman's video "To Smell and Taste Black Matter (1)" is a recording of a Skype conversation between the artist and an ex. She runs the video through a series of compressions, resulting in a video marred by digital file breakdowns. Its jarring visuals are mostly unrecognizable as tender human communications. Instead, they resemble the vague Hubble telescope images we can eventually deduce as stars that died eons past.
In "The Re-Gift," Liz Rywelski invites visitors to engage in text-message conversations over a pre-paid cell phone, "gifting" messages she had once received from a brief affair. And Norwegian artist Kaja Cxzy Andersen's "Poemz" consists of simple printouts documenting her communications, including a strangely beautiful conversation with a male masturbater on the infamous Chatroulette. "I don't like anymore girl on girl ... / I need to see some guy / to feel I'm there / or something," he says. "But really I just want to love one person."
These are artists working in media with a quick payoff, many of whom are more used to using micro-blogging and image-sharing sites as their galleries. Sometimes the result is work that feels unfinished. Sara Ludy and Nicolas Sassoon's "Headquarters" is perhaps the most conceptually complete piece in Getting Closer, yet the video itself is one of the show's least aesthetically pleasing. It explores a 3-D rendering of the home this real couple hopes to someday build and inhabit, concocted in the virtual world of Second Life. The images themselves are carelessly simplistic, more of an initial draft than a finished work. But its concept is beautiful: The couple not only shares their most personal dream with us, they've created it in a public realm.
And yet, Ludy and Sassoon's home is less confessional, more like a commitment -- as if the foundation of a relationship spawned in the digital/public sphere must be built of that realm's bricks and mortar. (Like several of Getting Closer's artists, the pair woodshed their work through the online collective The Computers Club, where much more is available to view: www.computersclub.org.)
Getting Closer looks at a set of artists in relatively new and exploding media, where boundaries seem to change on an hourly basis. But it's exciting, and indeed essential, to have this work exhibited in a gallery setting. Not just to slow down and examine the work, but to lend it the human intimacy these pieces reflect.
Getting Closer continues through Tue., March 1. Fe Gallery, 4102 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-254-4038 or www.fegallery.org