REVIEWS

21

ST

-CENTURY ARTISTS

BY LILY ALEXANDER The setting, a white-walled gallery, is perhaps characteristic of an art opening, but the audience at this evening soirée put on by BArCMuT (Bay Area Computer Music Technology Group) is anything but. Surrounded by an impressive array of screens and dancing projections, a tightly packed crowd of unruly-haired, glasses-wearing computer scientists is mixing it up with hip young artists and musicians. Up front, several casually clad women are preparing to unleash their own singular brew, part PowerPoint presentation and part performance art. They are operating on the margins of new media art, performance, experimental music, and computer technology. The concept of "blending" is representative of more than just the crowd at San Francisco's recently inaugurated Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, an institution created specifically to support and showcase those arts involving technology - meaning anything from new media art to electronic music and computer design. The locale itself, a novel combination of studios and exhibition space, is a venue for performance, presentations, and workshops. New media art is often condemned as undeserving of the "fine art" appellation, and although a few new media artists, such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer or Cory Arcangel, have achieved a measure of recognition, most inhabit their own netherworld and are known only by a small segment of insiders within the contemporary art community. The near-ubiquitous criticism one hears from many established professionals and collectors of mainstream art is that practitioners of new media are more computer scientists than artists, and the work itself more technology than art. Performance art itself has historically embraced the breaking down of barriers surrounding traditional concepts of art. As early as the 1960s, artists such as Carolee Schneemann used video in their performances. In the next decade, performance art began to incorporate elements of song and dance as well; since the rise of computers, it has embraced technological developments. The recent combination of performance with new media art, as well as electronic music, has not been surprising. What has changed is that while the older generation of performance artists often worked alongside technology experts (think Laurie Anderson), artists of this generation meld their art with a specialized knowledge of technology. Their sensibility is more Silicon Valley than Beaux-Arts. They are more comfortable with user interfaces and code than perspective or composition, and you will not hear the term "palette" unless it pertains to Photoshop. It is into this area of experimentation that we have ventured. The performer who really stands out this evening, particularly in her fusion of performance art, music, and technology, is the young artist Surabhi Saraf. Saraf only graduated last year from the MFA program in art and technology at the Art Institute of Chicago. A few months ago she was the winner of Art vs. Design, organized by Artists Wanted at the New Museum, for her video PEEL. She is an audiovisual performer who uses elements from experimental sound art, classical Indian music, choreography, and video art. Saraf performs part of a work titled Tunneling. In the original performance she collaborated with Nadav Assor, but for us she performs alone along with a video projection. Most overpowering in Tunneling is the sound of - WHITEWALL 30 - Surabhi Saraf's Tunneling performed at The Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco on March 11, 2010. Courtesy of the artist Saraf's voice, singing a verse from a Bollywood lullaby, multiplied thousands of times into a haunting blanket of sound, which follows the narrative sequence of the other part of the performance. In the original performance Assor is physically penetrating through a reconstructed model of a wall, using various tools, his hands, and finally a power tool to eventually break through to the outside. The cutting of the wall is then projected as a live video. But what the camera focuses on is the slowly opening hole and Assor's hands as they plunge into the wall's pink insulation, which, magnified on the screen, resembles flesh violated by the brutality of the exposure (in our performance we have only the projection of this video). The sound of Saraf's voice, combined with the noises made by the tools, joined by a background of domestic-cooking sounds, becomes softer, eventually leaving Saraf alone, her unaccompanied voice chanting, against the gaping opening (a prerecorded view of the exterior) displayed on the projection. Saraf manages to bring together the diverse elements of traditions as far-ranging as John Cage, Indian classical music, and mixtures of video and performance, while using state-of-theart technology. She likes to take elements from the everyday and, through her nimble use of various media, manages to choreograph something that is truly captivating, both visually and musically. If new media performance moves in this direction, with artists who can combine raw creative talent with cutting-edge technological training, then we are in for some exciting new work and artists like Saraf who are breaking fresh ground, inventing new forms, and pushing the limits of what it means to be an artist in the 21st century.

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