Play with Me: Interactive De-Struct[ion]ure at the Museum of Latin-American Art

a collaborative visit . by April Durham . 17 August 2012

Long Beach is about 20 minutes southwest of the crumbly LA neighborhood where I am spending a sticky-baked summer. I am too tired to drive and Pam prefers to pilot anyway. It’s already needle hot when we leave at 10:23 am. The 110 to the 5 to the 60 to the 710. Aquarium exit to Broadway to Alamitos. The parking lot is mostly empty and (finally) a sea breeze teases us toward the door. The space is so professional, so institutionally proper, with excellent air conditioning, gleaming floors, and very quietly polite security guards. The museum avoids the obvious tropes of Latino-ism, tropical frescoes, colorful tile, dense installation. Instead, minimal institutional space sanctions resistance, creating a strange, almost discomfiting celebration of the ways in which its constituency creatively reflects on its experience of the world: a globalized, not-particularly-supportive, often-exploitative world.

Why interactivity? The term implies, these days, a high level of technological interface, a mediating of the “natural” world by the tools of the cyber terrain. But there are only two pieces with an overtly technological structure: Deep Thought V.2, by Dream Addictive, brings to mind boardwalk fortune telling machines, where touching bolt-like “sensors” connect the traveller to a machine that renders thoughts as biofeedback, eventually spitting out a slip of paper with a Spanish interpretation of the imagination. The other involves sitting inside a little oval hut made from egg cartons and waving hands in front of sensors that emit the sounds of the Tijuana streets. Neither of these pieces functions with the slick, fault-proof necessity of the digital interface though. The sense is that they repeat where they should progress or they reset because the physical touch is too tenuous, issuing faults or making frailty and apparatic vulnerability transparent to that of the “natural” human. Fear of too much interface drives the interaction with these works more than a streamlining of the meat-to-machine we’ve grown to expect à la Sleep Dealer.

An air bladder made from pages of An Introduction to Psychoanalysis and other books by Freud that the viewer can enter, a candy-finish painting the viewer can touch, and a wall of plastic funerary flowers to which the viewer can add. Only uncertainly interactive, these works seem shy and tentative, failing to invite the masterful engagement humans are used to exercising with their digital partners (AKA computers or games). Appearing as traditional sculptures, the viewer hesitates to touch. The guards stand by looking pointedly to see if you will touch, in fact. But beautifully trained, they kindly, gently encourage, lifting edges, coax the shedding of various bits of clothing, soothingly offer instructions on precisely how to interact.

Pressing on the slick sunset finish of Rubén Ortiz-Torres’ painting, you see the shadow of your hand beside that of your friend and then it fades as if you were never there. The nature of this interactivity is not immersive, not consuming in the way a Gibsonian, jacked-in cybersurfer (or an MMORPG player) experiences/becomes. Rather, it is consuming in the way of a penetrating glance cast by a stranger in a dark public gathering place that catches the receiver in the middle of the chest and is long remembered, even though it was perhaps the most momentary experience of one’s life. The lingering questions: who, why, what… transmitted in the print, the look, the air between ebb and flow through Memory, layered upon the fading imprint of body heat cast by whatever number of viewers dared to touch the same surface.

If interactivity, in today’s online gaming world and even for more pedestrian users like bloggers, vloggers, and social networkers, implies a certain machine-to-human-to-human interaction, with a performative component, the interactive quotient of these works is shockingly “lo-tek.” The concerns of high and low, however, are shared: what does it mean to navigate the political, aesthetic, and social (aren’t they the same in a way?) terrains of shared space/time? Is is possible to witness the “Other’s” sensations/cognitions, material-semiotic struggles, mediated in objects, subjectivities, and histories encountered in the institutional setting (be that the museum or Google Chrome)? What is the nature of that connection? How to describe it? Faulty, tenuous, vulnerable, pedantic, shrill, violent, contained, noisy, ephemeral, colored, blocked, or elegiac? What about gaps, glitches, non-functionality, errors, obviousness, inelegance, and awkwardness? Does my interface accommodate embarrassment, illiteracy, clumsiness, incompetence? While the stakes in on-line interactivity hinge on these last attributes being ameliorated through the discipline of practice, the works in this show leverage the incapacity of the viewer to prepare her laboring body for skilled engagement. Frailty and inability are prized when succumbing to the floating weight of Freud’s knowledge or the faux-foliage of funerary decor of  Alberto Baraya.

The nest built by Franklin Cassaro of pages from books by Sigmund Freud, taped together with plastic packing material, breathes a welcome to its strange interior. “I could lie in here all day,” says my companion. “Yeah,” I sigh. Highly legible but impossible to “read,” these familiar texts, so important to 20th century thought, culture, and social/psychical understanding float around like a breathing womb, a lung-abyss that allows in light, receives the air from a rotating fan just outside, but does not encourage exit. Even the kindly young guard who so attentively lifts the edge so you can enter, is nowhere to be found when you want to leave. You have to struggle against the rigidity (however frail) of the tape, and the concern for damaging the already creased and worried edges of the text, to trip out awkwardly and straighten your skirt, and wonder about who might notice your dirty knees. While deliciously inviting, the interactivity solicited by this work is precarious, and if not imprisoning, then certainly sticky and all the more maddening thanks to its beauty.

In the lobby of the museum, Federico Herrero offers the closest thing to immersive interactivity in a piece comprised of old, painted cardboard, little boxes, sticks, and styrofoam balls, all dusty and a bit decrepit. This work “translates the mix of colors, shapes, and forms of the streets of San José, Costa Rica—and the tropical landscape that surrounds the city, onto gallery walls,” or so says the museum website. The artist offers a little space, like that in a preschool, where components that might be used to make the throw-away artworks that fascinate my friend and me, comprising each of our own art practices (differently but in a shared context) can be moved around at will, bent, walked upon, hidden under, stacked. I reach out and move a stick as we pass by the jumble and a little tower of stuff tumbles over, almost landing on my foot. Interactivity can be dangerous, first lesson. I look to see if the security guard is ready to wrestle me to the ground, but he goes on checking things on a list and ignores me. “Pam,” I whisper. “I think we can play.” Pam, of course, doesn’t need another nudge and begins dealing out slabs of wasted cardboard in various shades of green in piles that appear random but which are governed by her highly honed aesthetic sense. I move some sticks and a ball into a tight grid at one corner. Then I make a little ramp and hope a ball will roll down it.

We stay here the longest, really playing, really having fun and never at all intimidated, cautioned, or constrained by the fact that we are professional artists, serious women, not-super young, creative urchins lingering between the spaces sanctioned for play and those made political by the kind of gesture exercised within-upon them. We wonder for a moment, loving cardboard, thinking about fish, wishing it could stay this way, desire unmediated in a falling-down structure that is oh so pretty all the same.

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