“Uncertain Spectator” Exhibit at Rensselaer’s EMPAC Gathers Works Reflecting Present-Day Anxieties
Still from Jordon Wolfson’s 2009 video
Anxiety in contemporary art is the subject of Uncertain
Spectator, Nov. 18 to Jan. 29, 2011, at the Curtis R.
Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at
Rensselaer. The group exhibition presents works by 10 artists
that confront anxiety in art and in the experience of art, said
Emily Zimmerman, assistant curator.
“Our historical moment is highly conditioned by anxiety,
from post-911 homeland security to the financial crisis, all
exacerbated by the news media,” Zimmerman said. “Artists are
responding to the time in which we live.”
In particular, Zimmerman said, the show draws attention to
the anxiety attendant upon viewers of challenging contemporary
“So often, contemporary work asks you to push your
boundaries, to venture into an unfamiliar terrain,” Zimmerman
said. “There is a moment of anxiety that the viewer has to
overcome in the encounter with a work of art, trusting that the
experience may be of great value or provoke you to think
The exhibition is free and open to the public Monday through
Saturday from noon until 6 p.m. There will be a free opening
reception on Thursday, Nov. 18, at 5:30 p.m. Additional
information can be found on the EMPAC website at www.empac.rpi.edu.
The exhibit includes:
Claire Fontaine’s 2006 CHANGE, a
spine-chilling display of 12 seemingly ordinary American
quarters, each modified to conceal a box-cutting blade — a play
on the infamous weapon wielded by the 9/11 hijackers and the
security obsession it has fueled.
Jordon Wolfson’s 2009 video Con
Leche, a swirl of anxiety-inducing images and narrative
touching on the trajectory of capitalism in our country — the
patterns of commodity culture, and the after-effects of
The video loops animations of milk-filled soft-drink bottles
marching through footage of post-industrial Detroit, overlaid
with audio commentary on current debates like the pros and cons
of recycling. The commentary is itself disjointed as an unseen
director interjects commands to the narrator as she is
Zimmerman said the piece requires careful consideration.
“You have to take your time with it,” Zimmerman said.
“You’re initially weighed down in the pain and difficulty of
the everyday confusion that it reflects, but there is a point
at which the piece transcends that mundane experience.”
Susanna Hertrich’s 2008 Realty Checking
Device offers perspective on our anxieties. A graphic
displayed on a mirrored box depicts the degree of public
outrage a particular danger elicits — such as global warming, a
car crash, or a terrorist attack — in relation to the actual
risk it poses to the life of an individual.
“It’s reflecting your anxieties back onto you, questioning
whether we’re anxious enough about certain things and far too
anxious about others that, in reality, are not likely to affect
us,” Zimmerman said.
EMPAC will post 13 of artist Anthony
Discenza’s signs across campus. The signs mimic
official street signs in appearance, but are worded with
disquieting phrases like “This Area Now Controlled by Unseen
Forces,” “Please Stand By,” and “Coming Up: Greater
“It’s an intervention in your daily life that pulls you out
of rote experience and hopefully creates a moment of
reflection,” Zimmerman said.
The exhibition also includes documentation regarding a
famous event in the history of experimental art which has
relevance to the themes of Uncertain Spectator. Ten
photographs chronicle Graciela Carnivale’s
1968 action for the Experimental Art Cycle in which Carnivale
invited guests to an opening and then locked them in the
gallery. An hour after Carnivale locked the doors, the guests
convinced a passerby to break the storefront window. As they
escaped through the broken glass, they were given a statement
about the intention of the work.
Zimmerman said the works in Uncertain Spectator ask
individuals to cross that threshold — place themselves in
situations riddled with tension, confront deeply charged
emotional content, and grapple with feelings of
“The show isn’t an easy topic — people don’t want to dwell
in anxiety. The show is asking people to sit with anxiety, and
to consider the positive aspects of uncertainty,” Zimmerman
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Jason Steven Murphy
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