Time and Time Again

Creative Machines reminds us there are new ways to look at life.

Americans are intoxicated with reality TV. Whether it's watching a surgeon making an incision down a man's chest, the police giving chase on the interstate or a "Survivor" charring a rat on a spit, viewers want to watch it. Fascination, adrenaline, voyeurism--reality TV's the next best thing to living someone else's life.

Watching a computer show of an artist working in his studio is tame compared to prime time, even if the sparks are flying as the artist grinds the chest and arm of a crucified Christ onto a car hood. What's different with this scene is that the audience gets to do more than watch. Joseph O'Connell and Damon Anderson of Creative Machines, Inc. have brought the artist's reality into the Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery in their exhibition Creative People and Creative Machines.

O'Connell started Creative Machines as a one-person enterprise in 1995. It is now a small company that produces exhibits for art, science and children's museums. That is what turns up in the seven works at Dinnerware: art, science and the circus show. All are accomplished via video, laser beams, mirrors, solar cells, computers and other technological media.

In "Experiment #6: High Resolution Time Analysis" O'Connell and Anderson used a digital still camera to record their friend and artist Jay Titus as he worked on his art in the space next to their former studio in St. Petersburg, Fla. Their camera was connected to a laptop computer programmed to shoot still photographs every 15 seconds over the course of two days. O'Connell and Anderson then assembled all of the images, about 1,000, into a stop-action film.

Their installation at Dinnerware allows you to use a wheel to advance and reverse the sequence as quickly or as slowly as you want. Spin the wheel quickly, and in two minutes or so Titus jerkily converts his two pristine white car hoods into an expressionistic vision of Christ's crucified chest and arm. Slow the wheel down and the artist seems to magically pop up in one place in his studio and then another. After Titus leaves, the light in the room slowly changes as time passes and the hands of the clock on the wall move. Turn the wheel backwards and you can reverse time, one frame at a time. If this sounds like using the reverse button on a DVD movie, it's not. Take the time to turn the wheel slowly and watch the art being created. Then watch the art disappear.

According to O'Connell, "High Resolution Time Analysis" is a prototype for a piece they're designing for an interactive gallery in a college art museum. The final work will further illustrate an artist's life and process by including his voice explaining his techniques and intentions at specific moments in the painting when viewers stop the wheel. "We're just trying to add new dimensions for people to understand and appreciate art," O'Connell says. The final work sounds like a promising educational tool, but will there still be an ephemeral sense of connection between the passage of the time and the creation of art? Probably not.

At ATMs, department stores, apartment buildings and traffic intersections, our faces are being photographed everywhere. If you've stood around spinning the wheel at "High Resolution Time Analysis," when you turn around, you may see yourself on another computer screen. You may have become part of "Experiment #3: Captain of Time," an O'Connell work that uses a live video camera pointed at the gallery.

On this installation, individual video images are captured every five seconds by a computer, so that what you see on the computer screen is a bit jerkier than regular TV, but not too far off. Again you can spin a wheel forward and backward to control the images, but this time the camera keeps shooting. Every five seconds one image is chopped off the end of a 20-minute sequence and another is added to the front. A counter on the screen counts down the minutes and seconds, and each image keeps slipping backwards through time until it finally disappears from the sequence and the screen within 20 minutes.

If you've been videotaped, you can go over and roll the wheel back and find yourself. Who else will be there? Who knows? A child making a face at the camera or someone hurrying past. You will all be replaced by new images and disappear completely in 20 minutes (or less). Moments of spontaneous laughter, obscure fame and lost anonymity that were preserved for a short while will be gone.

Videotaping viewers in an art gallery (for reasons other than security) is a technique that has been used by many artists. Combining the time counter with the video-capture technique is an important part of the content of "Captain of Time," namely the idea that, as O'Connell puts it, "the recent past always follows you through time." Yet what makes the piece a bit unusual as a video installation is the hands-on approach that gives viewers some control over the images of themselves.

Several of the other works in the exhibition use sophisticated technology mostly for fun. "Computer Controlled Mirror" uses a flexible reflective surface and exposed computer chips to create a fun-house style mirror. Stand in front of the mirror, and watch your legs wave, your stomach bulge and your face stretch. "The Sound of a Rubber Band" lets viewers create their own guitar sounds by twanging rubber bands (and other things) through a laser beam. "Eight Radiometers That Sound Like Airplanes" uses light bulb-like radiometers to create a shooting gallery that sounds like a World War II aerial dogfight.

Most of the installations are hands-on, and O'Connoll sees fun and interaction as essential parts of the experience. So if you're coming, bring the kids. They'll enjoy it all. They can just spin the wheels without thinking about why Americans are addicted to reality TV or about how we are all leaving traces of ourselves everywhere without knowing when they will disappear.

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