Friday, August 17, 2012

Installation Review: Outside In / Inside Out: The Inner Life of Jack (by Ellen Sollod and Johanna Melamed); Jack Straw Studios, Seattle

Upon entering the gallery room, I became aware of a dim image on the wall. Though I had read what the image was, I could not make it out for a minute or two as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I felt around, looking for a chair or bench to sit on; finding none, I was content to stand for a few minutes.

The image came into focus. Or rather, almost into focus; it remained fuzzy, soft-edged, dreamlike. It was, of course, of the street in front of the Jack Straw gallery, projected upside down and backwards onto the wall by the camera obscura – merely a hole in the wall with a lens. Such “darkened chambers” (translation of “camera obscura”) were mentioned in both Chinese and Greek sources from the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. (without the lens), so they probably existed prior to that. They are the ancestor of all of our cameras today. Usually they have been used for amusement, as an aid to drawing, or to prove scientific ideas such as that light travels in a straight line. Here, together with a stream-of-consciousness soundtrack, one was used to create a surreal, meditative atmosphere.

When my eyes had fully adjusted, I could see a bench, which I sat down on. I could also see that the image was not only on the wall. That delicate pattern of dark and light trapezoids on the floor was the image of the windows of a building across the street. The sparkle of diamonds arrayed across the ceiling was refractions from a light bouncing off of a mirror from a parked car next door. The angular blurred lines across the far wall were continuations of the same image, but distorted due to the angle of the lens. Every so often, a car or pedestrian passed by; seen upside down and unrelated to the soundtrack that was going on, they created a surreal but not disquieting atmosphere.

According to the promo material, “’Outside In/ Inside Out: the inner life of Jack’ is an installation that employs a camera obscura and sound score to create an immersive experience, evoking the essence of Jack Straw Productions on its 50th anniversary.” This experience is of course created partially with the moving images, but also with the score. This is a varied soundscape derived from a “compilation of found sounds, field recordings made in situ, archival material from KRAB (the 1970’s and 1980’s experimental radio station run by the same organization), and contemporary recordings made at Jack Straw.” Clips ranged from the profound to the silly and included discussions on blindness, trees, how to survive an atomic bomb, and whether bagels were defiled by peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. There were also bits of music, including some jazz and (contemporary) classical, an experimental harpsichord piece under a discussion (“I’m not photographing, I’m recording – is that the same thing?”) and three different African selections: one “pop”, one somewhere between “pop” and traditional, and one balafon solo that was traditional at least in style, but emerged from an austere free-jazz scatter of clarinets. The totality of the experience was what counted here; the sounds and images (and sound filtering in from outside the gallery) were all dreamlike and disconnected, but somehow at the same time connected and profoundly nostalgic. I can’t really explain how. It was, however, a fitting tribute to 50 years of an organization for experimental music and media.

One topic is left to discuss. I thought, after I left, that the pedestrians and people in the cars I had seen go by (upside down) probably were not aware of the dreamworld unfolding only a few feet from them. This discussion could go several ways; we are all, of course, not usually aware of what is happening behind any given wall at any particular time. But also, it could be a metaphor for experimental music and media itself: such art is a complex, beautiful, and infinitely interesting world, yet (due to “blockage” by the mass media) a lot of people are simply unaware of it. Jack Straw Studios is doing what they can to rectify that situation.

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