whitehot | October 2012: Michael Bell-Smith @ Foxy Production
Installation View - The White Room on the left, and Magic Hands on the right
by Nickolas Calabrese
Philosopher of technology Don Ihde says in his book Postphenomenology and Technoscience, "Technologies can be the means by which 'consciousness itself' is mediated.” He means that the various technologies that constantly develop have a way of manipulating our intentional states. It’s not that people are losing self-consciousness in favor of some semi-cyber-consciousness, just that our understanding of ourselves in the world has been altered by technology. How does this distinction translate into art? Michael Bell-Smith’s third solo exhibition of new works at Foxy Production, mbs_pf_090712, offers four new videos that isolate the relationship between people and technology.
Bell-Smith’s works have always trod on the line between new media art, and playful manipulations of outdated media, for instance ms paint, which has by now passed into obsolescence. And that’s one of the markers of new technology: that it makes itself obsolete almost immediately. It’s funny – but it’s sort of cruel too. It is definitely clear that Bell-Smith recognizes the humor in passing trends of electronics, while he also engages the morose lifespan of these techno trends. The new videos he has at Foxy Production takes a step further in the direction that he has been headed with previous works; again he deals with standard computer programs either animated or laid over footage that was filmed, he utilizes a body of stock sounds and effects, and he successfully captures the currency of technology inserted into human life.
The first work one sees when entering the gallery is a slick projection titled Magic Hands. As its title suggests, it appears to be the hands (and only the hands) of a magician conjuring up objects and sounds out of nowhere. The objects are as ordinary as can be, lists, sheets of paper, neckties, and so on. But they are necessarily a part of the robust life that incorporates technology. Just as Ihde tells us that technologies mediate consciousness, Bell-Smith’s works show just how new apps or new how-to videos mediate our experience of the world. Programs that are created to give a perfunctory mode of operation are becoming more and more integrated into human communication and task handling.
All of the other videos in mbs_pf_090712 ostensibly serve the same general purpose as Magic Hands. The projection in the back of the gallery, De-Employed, is a video of quick transitions between stock animations that act like a series of non-sequiturs to each other. Done in the same swift animated style as Magic Hands, and probably of similar subject matter, De-Employed‘s dissent is that it employs the use of text at the bottom of the screen. The text is transformative, giving an alternative content to the visual matter – whereas the animation seems indicative of technology, the text is a pseudo poetry that smacks of a maker’s signature. This work is unique to the show in this regard; it is the only one that seems like it could not have been produced by an automated program.
The other two videos fall into the periphery, because of their smaller size and lack of a meretricious, spirited presentation in comparison with the two larger pieces. But this certainly is not an attack on the smaller works. They function as a contemplative denouement, which address the nature of consciousness mediation through technology. Waves Clock is a silent video projected on the wall near the ceiling. At first glance it might operate as an after-thought, and maybe it was, but it is a silently sonorous addressing of the sublime immensity of the techno web (by means of waves and time (or becoming). It has the pacifyingly simple presentation of a disparate trichotomy: nature, time, and technology. The other small work, The White Room, which is again disarmingly simple in its presentation, is video on a screen. It is an animation of familiar objects like CDs, paper bags, wood veneer paneling, etc, floating slowly through the frame. It has the same contemplative attitude as Waves Clock, giving stock textures to the objects gradually throughout the loop. But the really great component of White Room is its audio. Stock bits of audio are peppered throughout, giving it the familiar feel of the other works. And because the audio bits are so common to commercials, department store announcements, ringtones, et al, they allow the viewer to slowly slip from the digital, new media art world back into the real world.
And this is what’s important: Bell-Smith’s work is not simply an exploitation of new technology; he is interested in people, and the ways that they can be made more functional through the prosthesis of technological capabilities. As a new media artist Bell-Smith is doing everything that we should expect him to do. His works do not get bogged down in the novelty of their medium; instead they disallow the viewer from feeling betrayed by not knowing what process he used to make them. The lighthearted technological wow-factor is present and fun, but Bell-Smith’s works point beyond this knowingly – they let us in on the fact that we are living in a technological world where these new mechanizations are a part of our conscious experience of that world. What’s funny about the works is that they are familiar. These projections, which amount to almost no materiality, are so familiar because the are a part of us and how we live.