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Disparate Conjunction: A Review of Abstr/action + Senses i-v

by Emily Kerski

Abstr/action + Senses i-v is a unique five-part experimental series combining the artistic explorations of visual and sound artists of all kinds. The brainchild of Chicago artist Matthew Manowski, the project brings together this collaborative creative work in weekly installments running through the end of August.

I entered Comfort Station to find a wide variety of projectors, cables, and interfaces set up for the first program in this series, Sense i. This was my first show at this venue and I am naturally impressed with the merging of history and future that results from this re-purposed space, a fusion made more poignant this evening with the presence of this intensely technological medium. Sense i features Manowski performing a solo experimental set involving visual and aural material, both fixed and improvisatory.

Manowski first speaks about his keen interest in exploring the physical senses of viewing an art exhibition (space, proximity), and the collaborative interpretation of different artists on the same subjects of time and space. For this particular experiment, he compiled texts provided by artists Rebecca Lund (New York, Madrid) and Carolyn Molloy (Chicago).

One final task remains before the performance begins: Manowski mentions his recent fascination with the guidance of chance in his work, namely via Rider Tarot cards. Desiring to facilitate audience participation in the show, he asks for a card to be drawn from the Tarot deck. I drew the 8 of Swords, if that means anything to anyone, and the artist explains this choice will inform some of the tonal and formal decisions taking place during the piece.

The video and sound materials of the performance were devised separately; this live performance is the first time the two have been combined. There is a fascinating organic quality to the idea of both artist and audience experiencing the joining of separate aural and visual elements together in the same space.

On top of the pre-arranged audio elements are live electronic sounds produced by a contact microphone and the manipulation of the microphone on the wooden desk and the metal legs of a long table. The artist mentions there is some improvisation to the sounds created, but that he is also responding to the video as inspiration for the sounds he creates.

The sounds coming from the speakers create shifts of perspective in that I feel as though I am in a much larger space – with more corners and spacious expanses – than the relatively intimate room. The live electronics are added to this texture as the artist thoughtfully moves the contact microphone across the table at varying paces to complement the sounds already at play. There is a certain visual interest to watching how the contact microphone is used, how new reverberations occur with different angles and points of contact, how the slightest rocking of the table results in a noticeable effect.

The sounds grow, decay, blend with passing ambulances, and I slowly become aware of nature sounds which I thought were coming from the adjacent park but are actually part of the exhibition, accompanying images of light purple flowers floating in an invisible breeze. The images change frequently, some contrasting darkness and light, some calm, some quickly moving and agitated.

The Tarot card earlier set things in motion intellectually, but now creates change literally as the contact microphone is brought closer to and further from objects on the table: cords, metallic pieces, and the Tarot card itself.

The text contributed by the collaborating artists concerns themes of nature and general life, surfacing occasionally as text on the screen and other times recorded audio of a person speaking. The element of proximity is again explored: sometimes it seems the person speaking is further, sometimes closer to you, as if we are all standing in a crowded art exhibition?

Naturally-occurring shadows skate across the screen, bouncing off cars on Milwaukee Avenue behind the back window, complementing the beautiful simplicity of the pale bars of color flashing from the projector. Other visual material projected on the screen includes skies of clouds (I’m later told these cloud images were filmed in the artist’s backyard and time-stretched to look as though they are passing faster) and people moving through space (people playing baseball?). As the piece continues, something faster with a metallic edge begins, the sounds from the contact microphone somehow settling into a rhythmic groove.

For a brief moment toward the end of the piece, the light coming in from the window bounces perfectly against the projector and collides with the screen so that – for a second – my own shadow is visible as part of the exhibition. It is a striking flicker of self-awareness in the midst of this sensory immersion.

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