Public Imaginative Spaces

In this moment between exhibitions here at The Art Gallery lots of exciting things have been taking place, too many to list off. We’re deep in conversations about where art and technology are fusing and what is in store for the future, ours and the future of art. It would be hard to deny that we are living through a technological revolution. The virtual world is becoming tangible; we interact with it as physical presence despite its immateriality. This perhaps has always been one of the great attractions of 2D art through the ages. We’ve been creating public imaginative spaces since art’s inception.

I am no art historian, but I think of early cave drawings, the hieroglyphs, and all the 2D art that followed as vehicles to transcend a single life and create a space in which to share one person’s knowledge with many. These early depictions were not always purely informative: fact a, fact b. Often fictions, whether in the depiction or the text, were used to fill in the gap of what we don’t know or to create meaning. Though the line between communication and art has never been particularly clear to me, as a poet I would like to keep it that way. If my instincts are right, the 21st century is developing into a duplicate world where we live in the material, the internal imaginative and the public imaginative or virtual reality.

The lines blur. What I see as the physical world or the material world—the grass, the houses, the air—is not totally separate from my imagination, but I’m not as interested in this philosophical debate as I am with how technology is shaping our contemporary interactions with the world and how we understand art. It’s nothing new though, really. The arts have always been a vehicle for experiencing the world outside of the human/nature interaction, outside of our purely sensory experience, a way of making meaning. It has been a staple of our communities to engage in the creation of imaginative worlds. We do it with myth, we do it with paint, we do it over and over. We are always creating our own “new” worlds and reinventing how we define and interact with them.

As an art gallery this seems to have always been our duty in a sense. Through FLY ZONE, our recent exhibit featuring the work of Shahla Arbabi, you may have a chance to experience the pain of war, change, the destruction of comforts. If you weren’t able to attend the exhibition before it closed Saturday, April 28th with the annual Maryland Day MFA Reading, there are still ways to interact and experience the exhibit.

As we build our database, we are increasingly able to offer multiple art-experiences whether you are near or far. Images of each piece are uploaded to the website. It’s not just us: Xchange and Voice of America are in the process of producing television shows that feature interviews with Shahla in the gallery. As the exhibit transcends our physical gallery making its way into the digital world, the notion of the event, the temporal nature of an art exhibit is brought into question. Whether or not it is important that exhibits don’t last forever takes us back to Aeneas Wilder’s performance piece I wrote about last entry.

The truth is we don’t know the life-span of the digital realm, but it’s exciting to be able to offer so much simultaneously as a result of our digital space. Still, the virtual world is not without its flaws. Walter Benjamin’s speculations and assertions in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction seem as prevalent as ever to the work that we do and how we can distribute it.

Still, I find myself asking the question: what does it mean to view an exhibit on television as opposed to in person? There is the problem of lens: a viewer is carried through at the directors constructed pace and with their attention, free will is restricted, but is there more to it than that? Is there an aura? I would argue there is. Unlike Benjamin, I think the aura is an important aspect of the art work and viewer relationship, but I wonder how much the term aura is just a way of avoiding a more precise dialogue. I wonder if aura could be better understood when considering what is happening in a piece regarding its physical composition, how the piece moves the eye, and the dialogue it engages. Those physical elements can be captured on camera, but is there something more that cannot? It’s hard to say yes or no.

I think of beautiful films that evoke emotion, but I’m not sure that fits this unnamable quality I’m referring to. Can a camera act as a surrogate to the physical world? What about on the computer, with images that you can resize? That is a totally different opportunity than what can happen when a person is standing in front of a piece of art. I have to argue there is no real replacement for doing something, being in the physical space; otherwise why leave your house? Maybe it has something to do with the senses, the complexity involved in being in the physical world. At the moment, computers and televisions don’t offer that textured sensory experience that you get when you go outside. We lose smell, taste, touch, everything that is not visual. Will we someday replace physical spaces with virtual ones? The idea that we may one day replace physical interactions with virtual ones completely is Orwellian and terrifying, but would it ever really go that far? Is it a matter of simply finding a balance or finding destruction? It’s interesting to consider how art can act as a vehicle of warning. Not only does a show like FLY ZONE ask its viewer to interact with the destruction of war, it is a warning of the byproduct of future wars. When we destroy a place or kill a person it is not merely a physical destruction and it affects more than one individual.

This is in part why it is hard to ignore the presence of Shahla’s work. In the order that they are presented—much of her work is presented in pieces, whether in separate frames or not—Shahla invokes movement; she conjures the multiplicity, at least the visual/emotional complexity, of living in the world, particularly one that is being destroyed. Because we all experience loss we bring our own wounds to the space of the exhibit. In this way, the viewer takes on the authority of the artist. Being the viewer is its own moment of creation where the viewer is able to build their own meaning, creating their own understanding of degrees of importance. This helps to explain how one person can have a totally separate experience from another within the same space, at the same time, or any other degree of relativity.

When the exhibit transitions into another space, whether physical or digital, the experience changes too. In the digital world what happens in a live interaction, what we bring to the space, takes a back seat. In the televised world we become listeners or participants; it’s a ‘secondary’ interaction. Secondary interaction is different from the interaction where a viewer becomes the artist because much of the thought, movement, and interaction that occur in the physical presence of the viewer/art work relationship are lost.

What I’m getting at is that there are many different types of interactions in the relationship between art and the public and they all offer very different experiences. Each of these experiences offers a valuable understanding not just of art but of what it is to be human and to live in the natural world.

During the closing day for FLY ZONE poets and fiction writers in the MFA program here at the University of Maryland read their work as has become an annual tradition here at The Art Gallery. It seemed utterly appropriate to have had these writers read in front of FLY ZONE 3rd Series, Drawing #11 which depicts a series of planes, birds, and shadow-like heads. With the podium interrupting the piece, it was hard not to hear the poems with particular attention to change and loss. What does it mean to have writers read surrounded by such an exhibit? How different is that experience than sharing the exhibit with a camera? These questions obviously don’t have one right answer, but it’s interesting to see what happens in moments of collision. Each experience is different from the last, each illuminates different elements, and to think that all such things can occur in one space in so many ways validates the need for a space like The Art Gallery. Such variety is perhaps one of the great advantages of exhibiting art and having a space devoted to the interaction of viewer and artwork, as well as a collection of artworks.

The tailored experience is not so different from the emerging virtual world, or the virtual world through television. As a space that facilitates such collisions, there is also the pressure to stay with the current of change. It will be interesting to see Shahla’s work through the cameraman’s lens.

We will post more as we learn when the Xchange and Voice of America interviews with Shahla in the gallery will be available for your viewing pleasure. In the meantime, we have our May 10th opening for the MFA showcase, which seems fitting following FLY ZONE with young artists at the very bud of their careers.

– Rachel Carstens
MFA student, Creative Writing

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