I had originally planned to write a review of the new issue of Aspect: The Chronicle of New Media for issue #71 of Big RED & Shiny, however now that I'm spending time with the disc it seems more appropriate to write about the pieces as I experience them, rather than try to consider all 9 works and their commentary tracks in a single text. Having been raised in a rural part of western New York state, the "rural" theme that ties the various works on Aspect 10 together has a strong appeal for me. Thus, I will be posting a series of pieces here over the next few days, discussing one or two pieces at a time.
The artists are presented in alphabetical order, and today I watched the first two pieces: Sam Easterson's "Bird-Cams" and Eric Freeman's "Stethy."
"Bird-Cams" is one of those video works that is both visually appealing and conceputally frustrating. This piece is a selection of footage made by attaching tiny cameras to the backs of different birds; first a pheasant, then a baby chicken, hawk, and turkey. Some shots feature the bird prominently, while others give no hint of the bird. The cute, fuzzy yellow hatchling, for example, occupies nearly half of the screen, while the barnyard looms over it. Similarly, the head of the turkey (& its flapping neck) are very present. The hawk, however, is not seen at all, only its view of the world below that appears earily like aerial footage from the first Gulf War, or photographs by Sophie Ristelhueber.
The commentary track, provided by Daniel Incandela and Despi Mays, both of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is only occasionally enlightening. They talk about Easterson's process for much of the 7 minutes, offering personal insights and tidbits about how the cameras and techology work, when Easterson had certain troubles (the duck apparently destroyed his first camera attachment within minutes) and similar information.
When they finally arrive at the whole "is it art?" question, I felt they missed a real opportunity to address what is most interesting about the piece (which is consisently referred to as "Sam's footage"). Most of the discussion defers to either the art world establishment or to the audience, simultaneously saying that since others have declared it art, it must be art (the Arthur C. Danto defense) while equally claiming that it is up to the viewers to decide for themselves. Here, while I don't necessarily disagree with either answer, it seems to me that this footage does exactly what we expect of art: it puts its viewer in the role of someone/thing else, and asks for both wonder and empathy. It does not preach, but it does offer a view of the world that requires some feeling of connection with the animals wearing the cameras, and asks that we walk a mile in someone else's shoes (or webbed feet).
The second piece on the disc is "Stethy" by Eric Freeman. This piece is a semi-narrative that follows a stethoscope as it travels over a mossy landscape, moves to the beach and eventually retires to bed. As Stethy moves, it quickly becomes apparent that the footage is being played in reverse, and the squeaky, scratchy soundtrack is derived from the stethoscope passing over the diverse surfaces.
There are a lot of great moments in this piece, particularly some of the early shots of Stethy in various mosses, but a few parts don't match up. A shot of the stethoscope dangling into a puddle of water, which produces a fantastic sound, looks the most contrived and haphazard. Commentator Corey Michael Smithson also mentions this one shot as problematic, both for how it breaks the aura of Stethy as a living creature, and for its being the only shot in which the artist is visibly present. Ultimately, "Stethy" is a video about its soundtrack, and a funny exploration of how we perceive the world through sound, narrative and time.