Deirdre Smith on Dina Kelberman and new media. Dina Kelberman’s solo exhibition, Screencaps, at Nudashank Gallery, July 13 – August 17, 2013. Nudashank – 405 West Franklin Street, 3rd Floor, Baltimore.
In our lives on computers and on the Internet, we simultaneously navigate numerous applications, sites, programs and domains. We divide our mental energy between these various platforms, and through this activity actually divide our existence. The positive and negative aspects of this fact, on the one hand allowing for expanded mental capabilities and social freedoms, and on the other for stress, fragmentation, and distraction have been discussed since the early days of the personal computer. Dina Kelberman’s exhibit Screencaps up through August 17th at Nudashank is in part a reflection of one artist’s negotiation with this state of multiplicity. It also extends further out to encompass nostalgia, pop culture, and the fundamental conditions of how and when and where to make art.
As the title implies, the works in the show were created on a computer, primarily through Kelberman’s snapping content from video files to create still images, gif animations and video collages. Throughout the show, isolated moments of the artist’s experiences on her computer are frozen and extended through monitor displays, wall projections and enlarged prints. Screencaps is a manifestation of Kelberman’s wonderfully idiosyncratic sensibility, with a strong eye for humor, bright colors, reduced compositions, and a fascination with the aesthetics of the mass-produced. Removed from their original context, the images and clips isolated by Kelberman can be appreciated on an abstract, aesthetic level, and open up free associations for viewers.
Take for example, Smoke & Fire (2013) (which also exists as a page on Kelberman’s website and was commissioned for the New Museum’s First Look series earlier this year); this work is a compendium of short clips from popular children’s cartoons selected by the artist and organized in a grid. The clips depict smoke, fire, or other vapors and fumes: steam shooting from an anthropomorphized pipe, smoke pumping from a comically oversized pack of cigarettes, exhaust enveloping a broken down car, and many, many unexplained explosions. At Nudashank, Smoke & Fire is projected onto a wall to create an immersive, hypnotizing experience in which your eyes can shift constantly around the grid, narrowing in on small details, or perhaps recognizing certain scenes and television shows. The sheer quantity of clips, combined with Kelberman’s act of de-contextualization spurs the question: Why do all these images and scenes exist in the first place?
Smoke & Fire is a reminder of the centrality of images of cataclysm in children’s cartoons, and also a study of how these types of events are drawn and depicted. The smoke in these images is puffy, round, mostly opaque, and often occupying a similar tonal range of purple-blue grays. It moves to encircle objects; it billows snakelike from tailpipes. Hours of artistic labor are condensed into a span of minutes. This labor includes the efforts of the illustrators and animators who made the original cartoons, and Kelberman’s time spent browsing, editing, reanimating, and uploading.
All of the works in Screencaps were not only made on the computer, but are also viewable in some form online. For these works to be shown at Nudashank, they had to be translated into prints, projections, and video installations by assigning the physical dimensions and material specifications that are fundamental to more conventional media. In the past, Kelberman has worked in those more traditional formats of painting, collage, and assemblage, as well as video. I asked her via email about her decision to work primarily on the computer these days, and also what it means for her to try and transition these web-based works into physical presences for a gallery exhibit.
Kelberman commented that her choice to work on the computer derives in part from a compulsion toward resourcefulness, “Increasingly my life takes place on my computer, so the resources I find myself staring in the face every day are mainly digital. I’ve also always been one to work very quickly and impulsively, so the opportunity to go from digital media (for example, screencaps of whatever I happen to be watching) to digital manipulation (photoshop or whatever) to digital output (slapped up on my website) is one I latched onto pretty quick.”
This level of ease and fluidity changes when size, format, brightness, borders and other concerns are brought into the equation. The very meaning of the works changes with their change in context, and with any adjustment in format.
So why present these works in a gallery at all? In part, because the very conditions that make the work possible may make it hard to see, or to recognize as art. On our computers, anyone with the time, inclination, and some level of skill could assemble a body of screen captures, gifs, and make a tumblr or a website, and many people do. Moreover, whether or not you are a producer of such content, as an Internet user you are most certainly a consumer of a bombarding and dizzying array of images that can be scrolled through quickly and mentally discarded. In a gallery, however, the conventions of looking are different. In a gallery, in the best cases, the process of looking can slow down. The presence of a physical object in your body space (even if this object is a screen or a projection) keys you in to many nuances that may be easily missed on a computer.
In commenting on how her artwork changes when brought into a gallery context, Kelberman writes, “I don’t have any wants or expectations of how people react, but the work is definitely really different for me in the gallery than on the computer… I think the most significant difference is definitely with Smoke & Fire, which on the computer is a website that a person probably just scrolls through really quickly and gets a sort of overview of the idea, a field of color going by. But in the gallery it’s a video scrolling through at a slow, fixed speed, so you really can see each animation, it’s a lot more meditative…”
Another work she mentions as taking on a different feel in the gallery is Garfield Halloween Special (2011-2013) which is presented on a single monitor as a looping gif clip, and as prints of about the same size below the monitor depicting similar content. The images in Kelberman’s Garfield Halloween Special all come from a single, seconds-long clip from Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, which originally aired in 1985 as an adaptation of the Garfield comic strip.
Garfield and dog-companion Odie’s misadventures in trick-or-treating land them in a creepy mansion where they observe a band of eerily luminous pirate ghosts break-in and remove a long-buried treasure chest from underneath the floorboards. In a manner that could only make sense in a cartoon, the pirate ghosts turn their bodies into jagged triangles that appear to saw through the floors. It is this strange, exhilarating, silly moment that Kelberman chooses to focus on. Her re-presentation of the scene is an opportunity to slow it down and appreciate it for its humor, absurdity, and its representational choices—the tawny, simplified floorboards, the chalky ghosts, the way they move. The results to me are somehow impossibly funny, and strike me as such in the gallery in a manner that I don’t experience in the online version. In the on-line version, they feel more matter-of-fact, a part of the high-speed Internet discourse about the Internet. In the gallery, slightly removed from the Internet, they are more absurd, slower, and more concretely an articulation of human thought and human hands.
Kelberman and Nudashank have taken on a risk and a challenge with Screencaps. The show contradicts one of the seeming fundamentals of digital or web-based practice—that it continue to exist solely on the web and not need take on the burden of objecthood that most other works of art share. With less of an obvious spirit of experimentation and sensitivity to varying formats, the show could have ended up redundant and bland. As it is, Screencaps is full of energy and humor. While many of the works in Screencaps can also be seen online, it’s worth experiencing their in-person corollaries.
Deirdre Smith is an art writer and independent curator based out of Baltimore where she maintains the blog Experiential Surprise as a forum for her writing about contemporary art in Baltimore and Washington D.C. Art Criticism in What Weekly (whatweekly.com/artcrit) is made possible with the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards, www.BakerArtistAwards.org. Marcus Civin edits these art criticism articles for What Weekly. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.