The Pittsburgh Biennial at SPACE is a multimedia presentation by artists whose intelligent concepts add to each other's power and resonance. Today's art delves deep into socio-political relations, both those that bind us and those that separate us. In Public Record, nine local artists offer works that go "on record" to explore issues of identity and yet expose a world flooded by information — one that fails to protect privacy, support the poor and disenfranchised, or save innocents caught in intractable conflicts.
As one approaches the gallery from the street, speakers outside broadcast President Eisenhower's iconic farewell speech of 1961. One is struck by the idealism of the speech, which talks of trust and love and world cooperation, but also warns of the burgeoning military-industrial complex, the demise of creative thinking in universities and the waste of material resources. Inside, in an installation by Aljosa Abrahamsberg, Matthew Biederman, Marko Peljhan and Brian Springer, one side of a wall is hung with facsimiles of the speech's 26 pages, with Eisenhower's actual televised speech projected on the other side.
Caroline Record's "She" depicts a woman in business attire singing and typing on video. But she's typing the 614 sentences of Anna Karenina that begin with the word "she." The sentences are projected on a large screen while a printer spits slips of paper bearing the words onto the floor. There is something here about digital and analog languages, but it also comments on the absurdity of our lives, the rat race and the redundancy of our work, all separated from real meaning.
In "Taking Stock," Two Girls Working presents short video portraits of 10 males who are asked: "What do you do that makes you feel valuable?" We learn how important family and community are, that helping others in need is valuable, and about the subtle racism that persists in America. The artists want to explore the meaning of value from a male perspective. These interviewees share the same hopes and dreams and want to do the right thing.
In "Aspirations," by Martha Rial, photos and a video offer "snapshots" of six people with Asperger's syndrome. These people may have trouble showing empathy or intuiting emotions, but they still enjoy socializing. We see how they struggle to be accepted into the social fabric. Being different is a positive thing. As interviewee Elana says: "If everyone was the same, the world would be boring."
A work by Rafael Abreu-Canedo masterfully uses technology to allow us to instantaneously identify with the emotions of others. On a pair of 8-by-8-foot screens are projected faces in slow motion as the subjects are tickled on the ribs by someone unseen. Laughter unites.
Surveillance is another subject explored. Paolo Pedercini's video game "Leaky World" posits political elites connected across the globe who deny people "freedom, autonomy, and self-realization." Tellingly, the game's players must take the role of the elites, using a joystick and button to connect nodes and destroy leaks before the "tide of resistance" reaches a critical point. This sounds like a radical concept, but in light of NSA surveillance and the tracking of personal data by companies like Google, Facebook and Apple, perhaps the paranoia is warranted.
Love also finds its way into Public Record. Inspired by Madeleine de Scudery's 1654 Map of Love, Carolina Loyola-Garcia made short videos of the towns the map identifies. Four videos on the wall, with earphones, relate personal stories that deal with such themes as Sensibility, Exactness and Friendship. Film montage, poetic voice-overs and choreography make these videos very exciting.
Susanne Slavick's skillful prints and paintings decry hunger, poverty and genocide. In her work and her wall plaques, she stands up for the Palestinian cause. Her images of empty and bloodstained tabletops make reference to the Jesus of Cana, who turned water into wine — but also to Qana in Lebanon, where, during operations in 1996 and 2006, Israeli forces killed many innocent civilians.
Says Public Record curator Murray Horne: "If I can plant one seed of empathy and understanding in a single person, that would be a success." But sometimes you can learn more from a fun experience than from a serious one. So it was at nearby 707 Penn Gallery, which hosts a satellite portion of the exhibit. Well Played: Paul's Vinyl Records allows visitors to select, and play on a turntable, tracks from Paul Rosenblatt's massive collection of vintage vinyl.
Along with literalizing "public record," Rosenblatt's interactive installation provides a breath of fresh air. Two tracks from Frampton Comes Alive (let's say) might transport a visitor back to a time when the world seemed much simpler. Despite everything learned at SPACE, you might find empathy (or understanding) in the simple spin of an old LP.