Article by Scott Indrisek
“Surround Audience,” with an advertising campaign designed by K-Hole and a working shower in the lobby gallery courtesy of DIS, has no intention of being a typical survey or snapshot of contemporary practice. The third triennial organized by the New Museum, this edition — co-curated by Lauren Cornell and artist Ryan Trecartin, who was himself included in the first iteration, “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus” — features plenty that is “surreal, exuberant, and poetic,” in Cornell’s summation. And while the stated curatorial thrust involves technology’s effect on our bodies and minds, the exhibition is quieter, and at times more sedate, than you might expect, if what you’re expecting is an immersive, epilepsy-inducing sensation-arcade meant to simulate how the endless proliferation of images (political, corporate, personal) is swiftly mashing our grey matter into gruel. Stepping into this triennial is not like stepping into the Internet, with all the gee-whiz corniness that would entail. (As Cornell hilariously told the New York Times: “I think there is this kind of expectation, because Ryan and I are the curators, that the show is going to be all holograms and that we’re going to fly in on U.F.O.s. But it’s because there are still pretty simplistic ways of thinking about art in the digital age. That kind of online-offline binary that used to exist about art made with technology or the Internet as a factor doesn’t really exist anymore.”)
The prevailing mood, rather than one of future-forward, hypercharged digital connectivity, is unexpectedly elegiac, earnest, and often nostalgic. And if there’s an overload at work, it’s verbal and textual, not visual; Cornell and Trecartin both cited the primacy of poetry to much that is in this triennial, and language here operates as a sort of warm bath that washes over you, making sense in stops and stutters. (Brian Droitcour has edited a companion volume of verse, “The Animated Reader,” whose density and page layout makes it look like it might be observed by osmosis — rubbed right into the gums or eyeballs — as well as read.) Text is everywhere in “Surround Audience”: in Lisa Holzer’s playful prints, covered by nailpolish-smeared glass, that co-opt advertising-speak to sing of cosmetic hues; in Juliana Huxtable’s inket-printed poems, paired with portraits that mix the aesthetics of fashion, porn, and sci-fi; and in Ryan Trecartin’s own poem, written for the triennial and placed in portions around the museum as a companion to the official wall texts. Where it’s not written, it’s spoken, occasionally by humans, occasionally by robotic avatars (or maybe by humans trying to mimic the affectless emptiness of robots) — as in Ashland Mines, whose “succesful shit,” 2015, plays in the downstairs restroom, so that when you’re going about your business you have the jarring experience of hearing a woman explain that her “dad always said, stop calling blacks niggers, and start calling them people.”
Pathos are generated here by means both high- and low-tech. There’s Ed Atkins’s mortality-soaked “Happy Birthday!!,” 2014, in which CGI men — their blank handsomeness hinting at sociopathy — vomit streams of oil, their birth and death dates seemingly tattooed on their foreheads. That video’s commercial-worthy special effects are contrasted by Basim Magdy’s “The Dent,” 2014, which tells the story of an imaginary town’s attempt to become a site of the Olympics. Documentary footage — subjected to a range of filters, sunbursts, and swells of color, reminiscent of Cyprien Galliard’s “Cities of Gold and Mirrors” — is recast as magical-realist myth, thanks to narrative subtitles which use the raw imagery as a springboard for fiction. Upstairs, Oliver Laric’s untitled video from 2014-15 loops animation sequences — men turning into cars, or werewolves, always a thing swiftly and scarily altering — over wistful piano, evoking a floating, non-specific sadness. A series of 2011 videos by Steve Roggenbuck are a stand-out in the triennial, featuring him addressing the camera waytooclose while reciting unabashedly lovelorn poetry; traipsing around the woods of Michigan, talking about how his grandfather played piano right before he died; or shrieking while lifting weights, his cheeks marred by an upside-down cross, in the madcap “My Satanic Fitness Regimen (2011) VERY DEMONIC, WOW MOST EVIL VIDEO!!! 666!!!,” which has something of Trecartin’s early energy. (Perhaps another layer was added by the fact that, for whatever reason, while watching these direct-to-camera addresses, I couldn’t help but thinking of Elliot Rodger’s YouTube monologues.)
“Surround Audience” is particularly strong on sculpture. There’s Tania Perez Cordova, whose pieces pairing man-made items (colored contact lenses, SIM cards, earrings) with terracotta or marble nod to the offbeat juxtapositions of Gabriel Kuri. Eloise Hawser has a series of found lithographic plates — literally the CMYK-streaked metal slabs used for silkscreening, retaining the ghostly afterimages of what was previously printed — hung on the wall as paintings. Nearby there’s a roughly 1-foot-square cube made of compacted lithographic plates, and the oddly charming “Haus der Braut [The Bride’s House],” 2012, a hulking sculpture composed of a paper swan resting atop a folded-up roller door typically used to shutter storefronts. Guan Xiao’s “The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture,” 2012, is a triptych of sculptures, the set-up for a bizarre photo shoot: Various sculptural assemblages (a clay miniature riffing on an Easter Island head, an Ouroboros, camera lenses stacked into a tall pillar) wait in front of backdrops printed with snakeskin patterns. On the fourth floor, Jose Leon Cerrillo’s multi-part aluminum-and-acrylic sculpture creates a series of apertures and screens, an intervention that’s mostly architectural but, in this context, seems like an obvious physical-manifestation-of-the-web. Navigating its parts you come to a series of works by Verena Dengler — drawings, rugs, embroidery paintings, sculptures, posters — whose hanging recalls the slapdash clutter of a teenager’s bedroom wall.
Take into account the amount of fairly traditional work here, including painting — even if it’s painting informed by digital aesthetics or virtual space, as with Sascha Braunig or Avery Singer — and “Surround Audience” is less bleeding-edge 21st-century than you might expect. There’s no work made using Google, or realtime Twitter feeds, or Second Life, or any of those swiftly dated “OMG everything about us is changing so fast” motifs that many artists have previously exploited to good effect. The artists, and the curators, don’t seem too uptight about staying on the crest of the super-high-tech and contemporary; perhaps an expected attitude in a world where 2-year-olds can nonchalantly operate iPads. Sure, there’s a work here that incorporates an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, but most of the tech on view in “Surround Audience” is more about the failure to accurately represent or convey: the almost-human creepiness of Ed Atkins’s video; the way Obama’s face, mapped onto an actor in a work by Josh Kline, appears to periodically hang or droop from its frame; the wonky movements of Casey Jane Ellison’s avatar in “It’s So Important To Seem Wonderful II,” 2015, delivering a stand-up routine to an empty room. As much as Cornell and Trecartin’s triennial is about how the digital rubs off on the human, it’s also about the ways in which the human survives — different, but perhaps not as radically transformed as we once expected.