BY LENNIE BENNETT
Times Art Critic
‘Thoughtful" and "entertaining" are adjectives we usually read in reviews of good movies, plays and books. Rarely are they paired in discussions of art exhibitions. But they are the most appropriate and succinct words to describe "Open Score," a new show at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum. And in some instances, we can add "fun," which is really not an art-critic word.
"Open Score" is at heart cerebral, a technologically based collection of eight installations by a globally diverse group of artists: three Cubans, two Colombians, one Argentinian, one Australian, two Canadians and one American. All were part of a larger exhibition, also titled "Open Score," that was in the vast 11th Havana Biennial in 2012. It was curated by Luis Gomez and Dannys Montes de Oca Moreda. Noel Smith, CAM's curator of Latin American and Caribbean art, edited down the larger exhibition to one that could inhabit the museum's galleries.
The title is a homage to the late Robert Rauschenberg, who was one of the first artists to understand the new frontier possible when new technology is coupled with aesthetic. His Open Score debuted in 1966 in New York, a performance piece conceived as a tennis match with microphones wired to the rackets. Engineers manipulated and magnified the sounds until they resonated throughout the cavernous space that Rauschenberg had rented.
None of the works in this show makes a direct reference to him, but all are inheritors of his visionary creativity. (Rauschenberg was a longtime resident of Captiva Island in Lee County, where he also had a studio. He died there in 2008 at the age of 82.)
Bill Vorn's Hysterical Machines has a sci-fi sensibility, using two robots, washed in dramatic lighting, with spidery arms that move and click in response to viewers' movements and proximity.
Camilo Martinez and Gabriel Zea's Value Generator is even more interactive and seriously playful, based on the opposite concepts of loss and gain. The artists have built what looks like a simple contraption using low-tech materials. A lever is attached to a sawhorse and has a pulley attached to a weighted box, all built from unfinished wood. When a person pumps the lever, raising and lowering the box, a computer activates keys, scroll and ribbon taken from an old manual typewriter. The participant inserts a card and the typewriter creates a "print" with a graphic design made by the keys and numbered, like a limited edition but theoretically unlimited in the number eventually produced. A computer program tracks the value of the art on a graph projected onto a nearby wall. The more people create prints, the more value is accrued even as the value diminishes because more prints are created. The artists also factor in the standard depreciations applied to machinery as it is used. And the act of physically empowering the machine, expending human energy for tangible gain (the print) is another profit/loss dimension. You can think about this as you're see-sawing that lever, letting your kids have a turn at it, too. Discussing the gravitas behind the wit will be a good excuse for a family meal.
And you may want to volunteer as a participant in Levi Orta's Test, which is a smoke bomb set on a pedestal with wall text informing us that it will detonate at 4 p.m. every day unless someone telephones a special museum number to deactivate it. Don't worry, fire marshal or insurance carrier: It isn't a real bomb, but it does invite participation in a type of hoax that is an all-too-human temptation.
Alt Control, an installation by the collective of Luis Gomez, Barry Moon and Patricia Clark, is even pithier in its exploration of irony. A projection on a large gallery wall mimics the recognizable drips of Jackson Pollock and grids of Piet Mondrian while a camera pinpoints the location of people in the gallery using dots. Then an Xbox program sends messages projected on the screen telling them individually to move in a certain direction. This overt manipulation may seem alien to a museum experience; we're used to having the freedom to range as we choose. But we are subtly manipulated in the choices made by others of what we will see, implying value judgments in which we have no part. And this work, while pointing out the control, participates in it, too. A second component of Alt Control is a station that emulates interactive video games using floor mats. Here, the viewer steps on the pad facing a screen that features information about area museums and arts venues, with a program that allows one to write comments or contribute a sketch. It's the empowering antidote to control.
The exhibition may be a tribute to Rauschenberg, but Mariano Sardón's Books of Sand is an unequivocal bow to the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and The Book of Sand, one of his famous works. Sardon used sand from an Argentinian beach near his birthplace to fill a large container. When we move our hands over it, text from Borges' book is projected in changing colors that undulates like a wave coming ashore.
We are observers only of several other installations.
Clark's Malecon is a seven-channel video installation that collages film of life on Havana's famous coastal highway and esplanade. It's a complex narrative that captures the romanticism of history and the pragmatic reality of constant change, often framed visually by the blue Caribbean Sea.
Resonancia uses four small video screens to project the artist Antonio Gómez Margolles' didactic: The incoherence of some concepts leads us to the action capable to change them. Yes, you might scratch your head. I was aided by a conversation with the artist, who said he explores "the fissures where science and technology don't have answers," which I interpret as meaning we often have to trust our emotional responses and intuitive human behavior. I needed no help to appreciate the graceful curve of the mounting poles holding the screens and the way the words jiggle slightly as we read them to the soft rumble of an audio track. It's as if the message is reaching toward us and quivering with excitement at our meeting.
Ingrid Bachmann's Pinocchio's Dilemma is a charming meditation on the power of our stories as truth or fiction. A motor sends a metal rod resembling the would-be-boy's wooden nose from a wall, and sculpted "tongues" on a facing wall begin gently wagging as they emit a low clacking.
This is an exhibition with many layers that invites you to dig deeply. But it doesn't make you feel guilty if you choose not to. And it's a show that older children, who are often far more technically advanced than their parents, could enjoy and appreciate.
Though I'm an advocate of paying to see good art and endorse museum admissions, I suggest that an added incentive for a family outing is that CAM, as a university museum, is free.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.