Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Q&A: Kate Mondloch on the use of screens (as in the computer screen you're looking at right now)

Kate Mondloch is assistant professor of contemporary art and theory at the University of Oregon. She also serves on the executive committee of the university’s new Cinema Studies program and is a member of the Digital Scholars initiative. She is author of the recently published Screens: Viewing Installation Art, and is currently working on a new book about museum-based media art and feminist theory from 1970 to the present.

(see photo credit below)

Q: Given the book’s title, it seems safe to say that this book is concerned with screens. What kind of screens, and what do they have to do with installation art?

The book focuses on the experience of viewing gallery-based artworks made with film, video, and computer screens, but I encourage readers to think much more broadly. Screen-mediated viewing existed well before the invention of still or moving photographic media. Artistic screens have had an implied “depth” or virtual component to them ever since the Renaissance, for example, and camera obscura images, shadow shows, magic lantern projections, panoramas, dioramas, and a variety of peep-show based attractions also positioned their observers in front of “screens” of various kinds. However, as I argue in the book, an important shift occurs in art spectatorship when everyday cinematic and electronic screens are incorporated into installation artworks in the mid-1960s. This is transitional because how we see and interact with media technologies in everyday life outside of the art gallery impacts how we engage with such devices within the institutional context of the visual arts. In other words, one can’t assess these art works outside of their relationship to the larger media culture. A lot of people have commented on the book’s great cover design and I think that Günther Selichar’s photographs of various unidentified and “turned off” media screens are a big part of its success. His work is compelling for getting us to notice neglected details about media interfaces that define so much of our daily lives. It also asks us to bridge our experience of commercial media technologies and works of art—much like the media installations I examine in the book, they suggest that these two seemingly distinct experiences are in fact deeply entwined.

Q: Screens is situated at the intersection of several fields—art, new media, and film, to name a few. What is the biggest challenge in writing a book like this?

It’s true, interdisciplinarity is always challenging—it can be a struggle to find the right voice to reach diverse audiences without sacrificing disciplinary specificity. But this is also what makes field-bending research so exciting. In fact, there are lots of historians and critics working to bring art history and film and media studies into closer conversation in recent years (and only a smaller part of this effort would be considered so-called “screen studies”). But the biggest challenge by far in writing about contemporary technologies, whether in relationship to art or anything else, is that they change constantly. One of the biggest shifts since I completed the manuscript has been the increasing ubiquity of touch screen interfaces, from iPhones to in-flight entertainment systems. Although this technology hasn’t yet become widespread in screen-based art, it represents a really provocative transition in terms of our everyday relationships to screens as objects and one that shifts how we think about embodiment. As a reviewer said, Screens could theoretically be a continuous project, one that could be updated continually as artists engage new screen-based technologies.

Q: If you could choose one take-away point for readers, what would it be?

My hope is that the book will encourage readers to think more deeply about the ways we interact with media screens, both in our everyday lives and in certain forms of contemporary art. How many screens are surrounding you right now? I’m typing this on my laptop, which is hooked up to an external monitor, and I’m armed with my cell phone and iPod within arm’s reach. Blog readers will undoubtedly find this interview through yet a similar series of screen-based interfaces. When we go to contemporary art museums we find ourselves surrounded by even more screens. I’m fascinated about the implications of this—how do we begin to make sense of the world in what one might call our “society of the screen”? For me, screen-based installation artworks offer a fascinating perspective on this issue.

Q: Where can we see the artworks discussed in your book?

(see photo credit below)

Most contemporary museums showcase media installation artworks on a regular basis; as for the book's specific case studies, it can be difficult to observe them first hand (in fact, this is something I talk about in the book itself). A fantastic show of Dan Graham’s work recently ended at the Walker Art Center—Dan Graham: Beyond. The exhibition was organized by MOCA, Los Angeles, and traveled to the Whitney Museum in New York prior to coming to Minneapolis. I really can’t praise it enough. Graham is one of those artists whose oeuvre has been remarkably consistent and yet radically experimental at the same time. One could argue that he has been interrogating “screen” interfaces for much of his career—from film installations such as Body Press (1970-72), to the two-way mirrored glass architecture in Cinema (1981), to his more recent public art projects and pavilions. One of the principle case studies in my book, Graham’s Two Consciousness Projection(s), is in the show; it was such a treat to see people interacting with the work and to consider how these engagements may have changed since it was first shown in 1972. For those who didn't get to the exhibition, the catalog is a really fantastic resource.

Other exhibits currently in progress:
-Bruce Nauman's "Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage)" (2001) is on permanent view at DIA: Beacon, NY.
-electric earth by Doug Aitken (1999) is at the Cincinnati Art Museum through April 4th, 2010.
-Parasol Unit (London) has a show of Eija-Liisa Ahtila's work right now.


Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art is available from University of Minnesota Press.

Photo credits: (Top) Günther Selichar. Screen, cold # 8, 1997/2003. Ilfochrome/Alucobond, 125 x 167 cm, Collection Maison Européene de la Photographie, Paris, (VBK, Vienna),
© 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VBK, Vienna.
(Second) Dan Graham, Present Continuous Past(s), 1974. Mirrored wall, video camera, and monitor with time delay. This installation view shows a spectator observing a time-delayed image of herself on the monitor adjacent to the mirrored walls. Reproduced from Video-Architecture-Television: Writings on Video and Video Works, 1970-1978/Dan Graham, edited by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1979.) Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

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