Tuesday’s Video Pick

August 18, 2009 · Print This Article

This week’s pick features Olafur Eliasson discussing the importance of model making for his show, Take Your Time, currently on view at the MCA.

Take Your Time will be up until September 13th.
220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois

Wherefore Art Thou, Sound Art?

August 17, 2009 · Print This Article

Kids on DSP-DrowningStreet.rjz-256Heard any good Sound Art lately? I sure haven’t. I did, however, download a pretty amazing iPhone app today, and it’s made me wonder if the rise of augmented reality apps like this one will ultimately signal the end of institutionalized (i.e. gallery-bound) sound art as we’ve known it.  RjDj incorporates the sounds of your current environment into its aural landscapes cum musical compositions, which aren’t exclusively musical in nature.

The idea behind RjDj is that different musicians or artists create different “Scenes,” some of which respond to your physical interactions with the iPhone device while others react to aural stimuli or to the relative speed of your body moving through space. Some are calming, others rev you up. The possibilities, as they say, are virtually endless. (Scenes are available for download on the RjDj website; some are free, some cost a few bucks, so artists who choose to sell their Scene stand to make a bit of cash).

But even beyond the crass monetary potential, the unprecedented degree of interactivity that augmented reality sound apps like RjDj offer the artist who works with sound, along with its relative ease of distribution and extreme portability, has the ability to radically reinvigorate (if not reinvent) sound art, which has been a pretty moribund art form for awhile now. Take, for example, Chicago Phonography’s recent performance at the MCA (part of the Museum’s Here/Not There performance series). Although I liked the collective’s incorporation of Chicago city sounds into an ambient aural landscape, it was a largely passive experience, for the audience anyway. I’m not sure how much we got out of listening to a sound collage of Chicago city traffic, etc. when we could (and did) experience pretty much the same thing–with added layers of sight and smell–as soon as we walked out of the MCA’s doors.

But if Chicago Phonography’s performance were rejiggered a bit and distributed as an augmented reality app (and who knows — maybe they’ve already done something like this) think how different our experience of their project would have been. Instead of sitting in a museum watching a bunch of guys staring down at their laptops and PDAs we could have gone out and roamed the streets of Chicago ourselves, our eyes, ears, hands and feet jamming with and co-creating Scenes that these artists set up for us. Everyone’s experience of the performance would be slightly different (as it always is, of course, but this would concretize those differences) and yet there would still be an underlying core that everyone shared.

RjDj also gives users the ability to record the Scene they’re listening to, then upload and share it with others. Again, imagine the difference if, after listening to an augmented reality sound art piece, everyone returned to the original meeting space and shared their different “audio takes” of the experience with one another.

Of course, not every artist wants their work to be interactive. But there is something inherently subjective and interactive about sound art to begin with that seems to demand at least some degree of excursion into what augmented reality has to offer.

Visit RjDj’s website here. I first read about this app via Bruce Sterling’s always wonderful, and always just-a-little-over-my-head, Beyond the Beyond.

The International Museum of Surgical Science

August 17, 2009 · Print This Article

Tucked away in an elegant, chateau-style lakefront mansion facing Lake Michigan, The International Museum of Surgical Science is a sparkly gem of a niche museum that delivers a solid lesson on the history and development of surgical practices with just the right touches of gore to keep things interesting for us laypeople.

With its room-sized walk-in environments and galleries filled with big paintings of bloody surgical procedures, the IMSS is the kind of museum you can thoroughly enjoy even if you don’t read any of the wall texts. Not that I’m recommending you do this — you’ll learn a lot by delving into the didactic material that accompanies the Museum’s numerous exhibits. One of the most striking comes early on with the Museum’s recreation of an early American apothecary. Push a button and the pharmacist behind the window will tell you how he makes his pills and tinctures while sharing his plans to add a soda fountain to the shop to bring more people in; CVS, here we come!

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Across from this there’s a tiny inset window that displays a tray of early dental tools.

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On all four of the Museum’s floors one finds galleries devoted to the subjects of ophthalmology, nursing, the contributions of Japan to the history of surgical medicine, and countless more. Don’t miss the “Hall of Immortals,” which is lined with huge white marble statues (oh yes!) of medicine’s greats, including Imhotep, Hippocrates, Andreas Vesalius and Marie Curie, among others.

Very few of large scale medical paintings in the Museum’s collections are what you’d describe as “good paintings,” but who cares, really — they certainly get their point across. I’m pretty sure all of them were executed in the 20th century in a style that’s clearly enamored with the overblown realism of classical religious painting. There’s an entire gallery, called the Hall of Murals, whose paintings illustrate historical achievements in surgery and medicine. Many of these works are by Gregorio Calvi di Bergolo (1904-1994). In the Hall of Murals, we see depictions of a wartime amputation, early methods in the delivery of anesthesia, and a scene depicting an anatomy lesson taking place over a cadaver, among other subjects (click here to see more images of these paintings, which have also been reproduced as notecards–notecards!– available for purchase in the Museum’s gift shop or online).

Amputation, Gregorio Calvi di Bergolo (1904-1994). Copyright Museum of Surgical Science.

Amputation, Gregorio Calvi di Bergolo (1904-1994). Copyright Museum of Surgical Science.

However, my favorite paintings in the collection were done by Eduardo Ramirez, who exhibits a peculiar fascination with gynecological operations in his paintings of the first Caesarian section to be successfully performed in Latin America (check out how the woman in the top painting appears to be halfway sitting up, OBSERVING HER OWN PROCEDURE!!), and an early ovariectomy, for example.

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In the end, however, it’s the inherent strangeness of the objects that are on display — many of them tools that once were indispensable but are now just relics of outdated science — that propels the curious viewer from room to room.

Display of Prosthetic Legs, Museum of Surgical Science

Prosthetic Leg Display

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For me, one of the most chilling exhibits displays a technology from the not too distant past: the iron lung. Funny, but I never actually knew what an iron lung looked like until I saw this. The display is accompanied by some truly heartbreaking photographs of the polio-stricken kids who had to inhabit these contraptions, including two who are holding hands to comfort one another. Praise Be Jonas Salk.

Iron Lung used by Polio victims

Iron Lung

I also like the Museum’s thoughtfully-curated Anatomy in the Gallery program, which features temporary exhibitions highlighting intersections of contemporary art and medicine. Right now, the program features two exhibitions that work marvelously alongside one another:  Redefining the Medical Artist, a survey of work by students at UIC’s Biomedical Visualization Program (what used to be called ‘medical illustration’), and “Pareidolia,” an exhibition of ink spill drawings by Chicago artist Vesna Jovonovic (which I reviewed for New City this week, it should be online in a day or so).

Earlier this year ThreeWalls held its annual fundraiser at the IMSS, a vampire-themed, interactive production created by Death by Design for which the Museum’s elegant and inherently creepy environs provided the perfect setting.  But can you imagine having your wedding there?

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Well in fact, many people can and did, and judging by these pictures, it’s actually a pretty romantic place to tie the knot.

The International Museum of Surgical Science is located at 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive. Click here for hours and directions.

The Disturbing Truth about Obama’s “Death Panels”

August 16, 2009 · Print This Article

Further on the subject of health care reform…if you haven’t already seen this, you must check out www.DeathPanels.org. Fantastic, comprehensive experiment in online journalism. And not at all what it seems. (Via Snarkmarket).

Arts Organizations Call on Congress to Recognize Artists in Health Care Debate

August 15, 2009 · Print This Article

Americans for the Arts and a coalition of 20 national arts organizations are calling on Congress to fully recognize the rights of individual artists and arts groups in the health care reform debate. On August 13th, they issued the following statement in support of comprehensive healthcare reform:

“As national arts service organizations representing thousands of nonprofit arts organizations at the state and local level as well as serving thousands of individual artists across the country, we call on Congress to pass a health care reform bill. The current economic crisis has affected the cultural sector as dramatically as it has the millions of unemployed and uninsured Americans. Like others who have fallen through the cracks of the current system, many in the cultural workforce work independently or operate in nontraditional employment relationships, leaving them locked out of group healthcare coverage options.

Additionally, soaring health care costs are consuming the ever decreasing budgets of nonprofit arts organizations hit hard by today’s economic recession. The time for reform that delivers high quality and affordable health care for businesses and individuals is now. We call on Congress to pass:

*A health care reform bill that will create a public health insurance option for individual artists, especially the uninsured, and create better choices for affordable access to universal health coverage without being denied because of pre-existing conditions.

*A health care reform bill that will help financially-strapped nonprofit arts organization reduce the skyrocketing health insurance costs to cover their employees without cuts to existing benefits and staff while the economy recovers. These new cost-savings could also enable nonprofit arts organizations to produce and present more programs to serve their communities.

*A health care reform bill that will enable smaller nonprofit and unincorporated arts groups to afford to cover part and full-time employees for the first time.

*A health care reform bill that will support arts in healthcare programs, which have shown to be effective methods of prevention and patient care.

There is little time to waste as a broken system continues to leave far too many behind and adds trillions to our national debt. Millions of cultural workers stand ready to assist our leaders with solutions that protect all Americans and its creative sector with guaranteed universal insurance coverage deserving of the wealthiest nation in the world.”

Makes sense. Except, perhaps, for that last bullet point, which departs from the economic issues surrounding artists, art professionals and health care to suggest that art itself should be considered part of the health care “cure.” That, as the L.A. Times’ Christopher Knight observed in an editorial written last week, is where the Coalition’s statement gets more than a little iffy.

While praising most of the Coalition’s statement, Knight rightly points out that its call for more arts in healthcare programs is mostly hooey (my words there, not Knight’s). In an August 13th editorial, he questions the degree of art’s efficacy when it comes to prevention and patient care, noting that

“Clinical art therapy might be a perfectly legitimate, even beneficial medical specialty. But whatever the case, when I want advice about a medical procedure, I’d rather ask my doctor than a national coalition of arts organizations.”

By trying to make art part of the healthcare solution, Knight argues, the group replicates “the therapeutic fallacy that plagues our sentimentalized culture” — in other words, the old bromide that “art is good for you.” Better swallow! What’s more, it may make it even easier for those who oppose health care reform to dismiss the Coalition’s overall point (for one, that artists are part of a larger group of working people who for various reasons don’t have adequate access to health care) and focus instead on their push to add money for art in healthcare programs — you can imagine the glee with which some folks would tear into that one.

It’s a small point, to be sure, but as we’ve seen those little issues have a way of getting blown out of proportion, obscuring the finer points of critical debates like this one.

Read Knight’s editorial in full here.