A willing participant at EMPAC’s “Uncertain Spectator”

Ship in a bottle: EMPAC. Photo courtesy of Kris Qua.

No matter how many times I fly, there are several minutes while tons of metal lift dozens or hundreds of bodies into the air that I can’t help but think about death. Taxiing down the runway and watching heat pour from turbines of planes ahead of mine, feeling speed increase as we come closer to take-off and the cabin shake while we lift invokes pictures that I can’t deny. During a recent flight to Albany on a 57-seat plane, I sat just behind the wing and watched it vibrate against the force of frigid air through which it sliced, imagining what that wing would look like if it suddenly buckled and snapped off, the way the plane would lurch and twist downward with a deafening roar of violence.

As the thought continued rolling through my head, it attracted the germs of real anxiety and panic. My palms got clammy and my eyes darted around the cabin. The aisle seat one row up and over from me was filled with a man much farther gone, his hands trying to make themselves one with the armrests, jaw muscles wearing down his teeth. His back was rigid and sweat draped his temples. We’ve seen the same disaster movies, share the same shaky-cam perspectives of what a crash would feel and sound and hurt like.

Approaching Albany, and ultimately Troy, New York, to see an exhibition called Uncertain Spectator at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, my awareness of anxiety was undoubtedly heightened because the catalog for the show told me there would be more to come. “Uncertain Spectator asks individuals to cross a threshold – to place themselves in situations riddled with tension, confront deeply charged emotional content, and grapple with feelings of apprehension.” Sounds fun, right? “The works presented deal with a general mood of uneasiness arising from recent political and economic events that frames a future rife with imminent threats. Uncertain Spectator not only responds to these unsettling situations, but also creates them by challenging individuals to step outside of a place of comfort both physically and emotionally.” In the interest of accepting that challenge, I spent a few hours with Uncertain Spectator and the night in Troy.

Of course, anxiety is with us everywhere. It gets scanned under our clothes at the airport, it sits with us in traffic and stares back at us in the mirror each morning. It accumulates between decimal points in our checking account balance and in the ink of newspaper headlines, in our burst bubbles and human ecology.

Kierkegaard’s definition of anxiety is rooted in choice, “freedom’s disclosure to itself in possibility,” a moment of manifest uncertainty we experience when confronting the choice to act on possibility. In theory, anxiety may be resolved by simply acting – confronting or looking away, saying yes or no, boarding the plane or going back home – though action often leads to more anxiety.

If you’re unfamiliar with EMPAC, you should know that it is a phenomenally striking building. My first thought was that I had happened upon a modern-day ark housed in a sleek glass hangar. Through its window ceiling and walls, what you really see when looking at EMPAC is its state-of-the-art acoustically perfect concert hall, which is encased in a Western Red Cedar-paneled reverse-Herringbone patterned hull, a gorgeous smoothly curving vessel. To even step inside is to allow the potential for transport.

Marie Sester's installation "Fear," 2010. Photo courtesy of Kris Qua.

Yet, crossing the threshold into what is likely rarefied air, what you see humbly sitting before the satin finish of the wooden hull is a low vinyl table surrounded by five variously upholstered chairs, an installation by Marie Sester entitled FEAR. It’s almost homey. Natural inclination is to advance toward this living room of sorts, not necessarily out of a conscious desire to sit but maybe out of an unconscious desire to connect with something human-sized in this space, and as you approach, something unexpected happens. You hear distant waves rolling, a soft rush of sound accompanied by gentle ambient light. But stepping closer still, what was peaceful and welcoming becomes a hiss, louder and louder until you realize the furniture itself is growling at you, baring invisible teeth. The furniture is hissing and growling and the table is flashing red lights and you are presented with a choice. Recoil or advance? Ignore or engage? These are questions constantly and pointedly posed throughout Uncertain Spectator.

Emily Zimmerman, Assistant Curator for EMPAC and curator of Uncertain Spectator, took on the incredibly difficult task of mounting a cohesive exhibition in EMPAC’s public spaces, which spread over three floors, around many corners, and function as flawless vantage-points for visitors to admire the architecture. To pry attention away from the architecture and to ask for active engagement in art dealing with our general daily uneasiness and imminent threat-rich future is as ambitious as EMPAC itself. Zimmerman achieved an elegant balance, however, between white cube and contents by choosing the work of Graciela Carnevale as her lynchpin for the show.

In a modest documentary photo-essay of her 1968 Action for the Experimental Art Cycle in Rosario, Argentina, Carnevale locked an unsuspecting audience inside an empty gallery for over an hour. How the audience responded emotionally and physically to their imprisonment comprised the content of the show they had been invited to see – or participate in – and only when a bystander broke the window to release them were they handed the artist statement (included in Uncertain Spectator) which drew parallels between their captivity and the many civil rights abuses perpetrated by Argentina’ s militarized government under de facto president Juan Carlos Onganía starting in 1966.

Carnevale's images, statement, and press from "Action for the Experimental Art Cycle," 1968. Photo courtesy of Kris Qua.

Thus the tone was set. Echoing from escape and unfolding awareness of the body politic in Carnevale’s work, Kate Gilmore’s video installation Main Squeeze narrows experience to one individual while expanding the politic to gender as she painfully struggles to pull herself through a roughly-hewn wooden shaft – not unlike a corset – barely large enough for her platform shoe and skirt-clad body. As she inches along, the sound of her scrapping and snagging is punctuated by exacerbated breaths; her effort is nearly embarrassing and entirely uncomfortable, but magnetic. I couldn’t look away, despite the empathic tension mounting in my limbs. Gilmore filmed her narrow journey from both front and back so that images of her labored face and kicking feet are presented side by side on a split screen. Her fight to escape from this physical construct is a metaphorical flight to transcend the claustrophobic gender construct, blatant but powerful. Gilmore simultaneously crawled toward and away from Carnevale’s photos, enacting fight and flight in the same moment. The two artists confront violence from differing vantage points, yet arrive at the same exit, wrapped in jagged edges and facing forces bigger than either of them; government corruption, gender conformity, two sides of one coin bereft of value.

“The awesome uncertainty governing our current circumstances necessitates a farewell to anything even remotely resembling rational understanding,” reads an Anthony Discenza street sign near the Kate Gilmore piece. Discenza’s often-stolen signs poetically and sometime humorously encapsulate potential responses one might have while wandering the terrain of Uncertain Spectator. “Coming up: Greater horrors,” “Future site of low-intensity conflict,” “This is about something that happened a long time ago that continues to affect us today,” among many others, signal the potential catharsis of active engagement, but do so with the official language of government-sanctioned and codified public appropriateness.

Anthony Discenza's "End in Tears," 2010, in front of EMPAC. Photo courtesy of Kris Qua.

The standard operating procedure we have come to know and abide through the signs that direct us everywhere is reduced – or perhaps enlarged – by Discenza to fragments of wisdom that speak directly to the individual, highly personally interpretable invitations to look inward. The constant theft of such invitations can be interpreted as either “ignore” or “engage,” depending on your perspective. Zimmerman told me that several of the Discenza signs placed around EMPAC’s campus went missing shortly after the show opened, which elicited some anxiety for the curator herself.

Reality Checking Device by Susanna Hertrich allows us to face ourselves, to literally stare into our own eyes while Yes Men-style information correctives are offered in slick attire. A mirrored image screen activated by a touch-sensitive panel presents vivid circles of color to indicate the disparity between actual hazards and public outrage as inflamed and distorted by media spin. For example, the actual threat of bird flu is miniscule compared to public perception of that threat, just as the chance of crashing in a plane is dwarfed by actual fear surrounding that scenario. (This information didn’t help me much for my return flight to Chicago.) The same is true for terrorist attacks, while the real hazard of cancer and credit card fraud is far greater than our awareness of either. Hertrich asks that we own this information as we read it on our faces in the mirror, an important first step in making informed choices about how we live.

As I saw truth and spin present themselves in color on my own face, I wondered how many people would see past the graphic surface and into themselves. Sometimes I think relevant and important information suffers for being so beautifully presented, so awash in modern technology — which, after all, is one of the tools used to obfuscate relevance. Then again, maybe this technological vocabulary is increasingly becoming the only one we’re able to decipher.

Susanna Hertrich, "Reality Checking Device," 2008. Photo courtesy of Kris Qua.

Nearly every work of art in Uncertain Spectator presents the potential for such ownership, though responsibility remains ours. Paris-based collective Claire Fontaine’s Change is a cluster of quarters, each containing retractable and concealable razor blades that signify the eviscerating financial climate and a fear-saturated post 9-11 culture, but also act as a quite literal directive. Change will continue rolling in and trickling down, but to what degree and what end depends on our level of engagement.

Claire Fontaine, "Change," 2006. Photo courtesy of Kris Qua.

What struck me as a natural ending point for Uncertain Spectator was perhaps the most widely interpretable piece in the whole exhibition, a ten-minute black and white film by Jesper Just entitled A Vicious Undertow. Our vision slowly moves along a rich tapestry that resonates with a feeling of historic weight. We’re so close we can count threads, individual fibers frayed in places, only to find that the patterned and aged fabric is a dress clinging to an aging woman. She sits alone in an opulent parlor and whistles the augmented melody of Nights in White Satin. Her solo becomes a duet when her younger self appears across the parlor – a memory or wishful reflection – and quickly evolves into a trio as a man joins the younger, sultry self. The three intensely alternate in a dance until the older woman, as if queued by sudden percussive tension – final heartbeats? – makes her exit. Despite the downward cast of the title, A Vicious Undertow closes with ascension as the older woman winds her way up a seemingly infinite staircase, an apotheosis after letting go of what she once was.

From Jesper Just's film, "A Vicious Undertow," 2007. Photo courtesy of Kris Qua.

A passage from Tobias Wolff’s collection The Night in Question came to mind as the woman’s face left its imprint on me as I too left: “We’re supposed to smile at the passions of the young, and at what we recall of our own passions, as if they were no more than a series of sweet frauds we’d fooled ourselves with and then wised up to. Not only the passion of boys and girls for each other but the others too – passion for justice, for doing right, for turning the world around. All these come in their time under our wintry smiles.”

This melancholy optimism is what I chose to take with me.

Beyond the choices presented, beyond “recoil or advance” and “ignore or engage,” and more than any one particular piece of art, what was evident beyond interpretation in Uncertain Spectator was the will of the curator. In dealing with her own concerns regarding the limitations of curatorial practice and extending those concerns metaphorically to how people exist in their world, Zimmerman sought to illuminate the small white cube – the narrow field of experience whose sole purpose is often the avoidance of discomfort – that we all occupy.

“I have never been satisfied by really straightforward curatorial approaches – the ‘cats in painting’ approach,” said Zimmerman. “Not taking this approach may sacrifice legibility to a degree, but in my mind it allows for greater running room for poetic juxtaposition.”

Each work of art evokes these boxes in which we stifle ourselves, only to eliminate boundaries by asking that we willingly participate by facing our responses, no matter how unpleasant they may be; essentially, that we cope with things we’ve conditioned ourselves to avoid: a lack of narrative closure, fear at situations we have no control over, the fallibility of virtually all information we receive, and the ever present confusion and anxiety of witnessing the last decade. Uncertain Spectator asks that we move beyond spectatorship regardless of our uncertainty. My own inclination toward optimism fools me into believing we’d be better off if we did.