This post comes to us from Bethany Gugliemino, Curatorial Intern.
On the evening of May 25, the LED counter mounted above the swing in the front courtyard of the NBMAA displayed a single red digit: 0. Two weeks later, the counter boasted the significantly larger number of 3614, a number that will only continue to grow in the coming months. This swing is one part of Particular Heights 2.0, the second incarnation of an installation by artists Paul Theriault and Siebren Versteeg that was first displayed in New Haven, Connecticut in 2010. Consisting of an outdoor component (the swing and LED counter) and a gallery component, the installation falls into the category of New Media, a field with which both Theriault and Versteeg are very familiar. New Media involves the fusion of traditional mediums such as painting, sculpture, and music with the interactive potential of computers, communications technology, and the internet. Both Theriault and Versteeg have worked individually with New Media in the past, producing works that explore themes of contemporary life and the way that digital technology can be used to create pieces that constantly change and grow.
The title Particular Heights refers to two different events that take place each time that the swing reaches a certain height that has been predetermined by the artists. First, the number on the swing’s counter increases by one to keep a record of the total number of swings. Second, a webcam captures a snapshot of the swinger in flight that is then fed to a monitor in the New Media nook in the Bachelor Gallery. These images are then strung together in a constant loop, creating a stop-motion visual record to accompany the quantitative record provided by the counter attached to the swing. As more and more people use the swing, the fraction of the total loop of images that a single image makes up becomes increasingly smaller, much like the relative space that a single webpage occupies continuously shrinks as new internet content is generated. However, this does not mean that the importance of each individual snapshot to the work as a whole is diminished. In this sort of work, the responsibility for its success or failure is shared between the artists and the participating viewers. The artists create the setting and the framework, in this case the swing and the feed of images to the gallery, and then the viewers determine what sort of content is created within this existing framework. The work changes and grows with each additional individual who swings even as their proportional piece of the work grows smaller. If the viewers decided to simply stop participating, no new images would be added to the loop in the gallery and the work would stagnate, and if no one had used the swing at all, the screen in the gallery would have remained blank.
The audio, entitled Music for Swingers, which accompanies the monitor screen in the gallery was not a part of the earlier version of the work, but was created as a new element for this second installation (hence 2.0). Composed for contrabass and wind chimes, the piece is algorithmically generated, meaning it was created by a computer program based on mathematical equations and random events. Again, the artists are not entirely responsible for or in full control of the final result. They created the computer program and chose the necessary equations, but then simply stepped back and allowed the program to “work its magic.” What results is a piece of rhythmic music that is at times repetitive and at other times entirely random, interspersed throughout with abrupt bursts of wind chimes. It is almost as if the wandering tones of the composition reflect the sounds heard while swinging, from the rush of the wind and the creaking of the swing to the sudden sound of a car driving by or of laughter from the nearby park.
Particular Heights 2.0 takes a physical experience and translates it into a virtual one. You can go on the swing outside and then rush inside to the gallery to see images of yourself reflected back to you minutes later, mixed in with the numerous other people who have shared the same experience. The piece also allows you to be an essential element of a work of art by shaping its end result. Without each person who has participated and will participate, the work would not exist in the same way, and you have the images of yourself on the monitor in the gallery to prove it. How does being an active part of the work affect your feelings about it? How does the physical experience of swinging compare to the experience of viewing the images in the gallery? How does the instant sharing of images taken without the participant’s awareness relate to the role of surveillance in today’s society? Does your interaction with this work change how you view your interactions with other works of art?
Paul Theriault (b. 1972) lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut. From 1992-2002, he resided in Chicago, Illinois where he studied orchestral technique of the contrabass and worked primarily in digital video and sound based art. Siebren Versteeg (b. 1971) is originally from New Haven, Connecticut and now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He has studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (BFA), the University of Illinois at Chicago (MFA), and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. The two have been close friends for the past 25 years.
Particular Heights 2.0 is on view at the NBMAA until November 11, 2012.