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There is a specific order to things at Three Dimensions, the three-installation exhibit by Toronto artists Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins that opens at Contemporary Calgary on Oct. 19.
Sure, the exhibit has a decidedly, open-ended and open-to-interpretation vibe to it, but there does seem to be a set path to follow to have the optimal experience. Visitors are first invited to check out and interact with Balancing Act, which features an oversized, user-controlled, claw-crane game that allows participants to stack foam shapes and form their own sculptures. It is surrounded by paintings that depict various possibilities and groupings that can be created using the same geometric shapes.
“The crane game has a long history,” says Borins, who joined Marman at Contemporary Calgary to launch the exhibit earlier this week. “It’s completely recognizable. Everybody has seen claw-crane games in arcades, in fairgrounds. It has a long history connected to the gold rush or the building of the Panama Canal. Why did that get gamified is a question that no one asked. But it was something that we thought was relevant to our practice. We make kinetic art. We make interactive art. There is an industrial-design quality to some of our projects.”
So visitors are free to contemplate deep questions about the strange history of this gadget, artistic construction and deconstruction or the moral complexities of extraction while manoeuvring the giant claw machine. Or, they can simply have fun.
“Promoting agency and participation in the museum setting is something we’ve been interested in. Not just looking at pictures but actually becoming engaged with artworks.” Borins adds.
The Balancing Act had its debut in New York, but Three Dimensions as a whole was envisioned and built specifically for Contemporary Calgary’s Flanagan Family Gallery and there are plans to have it tour to other spots in Canada. All three installations have interactive elements and offer a playful mix of painting, sculpture, kinetic art, video, virtual reality, pop-culture allusions, sci-fi narratives and interactivity. It runs until March 17.
While all three installations feature a similar pallet of cheery, pastel colours, visitors will be in for a bit of a jolt when travelling from the fun, if occasionally frustrating, claw-game shenanigans to the second part of the exhibit, THX2020. Named after and loosely inspired by George Lucas’ pre-Star Wars 1971 dystopian film, THX1138, this installation invites visitors to first take in a short video. The visuals are made up of pleasing and colourful abstractions, but the calm voice-over narration – which was produced by Artificial Intelligence for added creepiness – seems to be ominously hawking various products that produce unsettling results: “Substances which produce physical disablement, such as paralysis of the legs, acute anemia and weakness and other complications” or “substances that alter personality structure in such a way that the tendency of the recipient to become dependent upon another person is enhanced.” Some of the same abstract, geometric combinations on the screen are found in paintings as visitors exit the video space and walk toward a computer.
“It’s kind of intense,” Borins acknowledges. “It takes a bit of a dark turn. It also starts to set up this idea of artwork in context. So it’s building context for the reasons these paintings look the way they do. Can you ever see them the same way? Or are you going to be influenced by some power of suggestion or narrative that has been overlaid on top of the exhibition? You don’t have to get that intense about it, but we’re investigating altered states or altered dimensions for how art is absorbed.”
After passing through the “hall of mirrors”, visitors are then invited to don a pink energy-dome helmet like the ones New Wave weirdos Devo wore in the early 1980s and sit in front of a computer surrounded by screens displaying a slideshow of similar geometric shapes. When the helmet is placed on, it apparently “responds to bio-feedback by moving shapes on video screens.” So, yet again, the viewer has become the creator.
The third and final instalment, ABCD, comes with a heady sci-fi narrative that involves “intergalactic bureaucrats” wearing colourful robes that feature elaborate designs. Those designs are echoed in paintings around the room and there is also a stark tree behind the video screen (which Borins says is meant to recall the tree in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which is the only set piece in that play). The four characters are central to a 15-minute video that finds them loading simulations into the tree that are meant to avert “some sort of unknown crisis,” Marman says. There is also a robot that lies face down on the floor. But when the visitor puts on virtual-reality goggles, the surroundings are altered. The chatty robot comes alive and floats around the room while spouting a seemingly nonsensical soliloquy. It’s clear we are in the same space, but perhaps a different dimension or time, Marman says.
“We are playing with different temporal states,” she says. “We’re in one room, but different things have happened in this room. With the robot, we see evidence through the VR experience where we go back into a different dimension and different time through the VR goggles and the robot is no longer lying on the floor, it’s flying through the space and animated. In the narrative video, as in the VR experience, the one thing that anchors the characters is the tree. So we understand that the characters were once in this room. We’re watching something unfold that may have happened at a different time but in this space.”
Yes, it’s all very trippy. Borins and Marman, who have been working together since 2000 when they both attended the Ontario College of Art and Design, have often navigated big philosophical questions in their large-scale, mixed-media installations. But they stress the exhibit – with content that covers A.I., how we process art, temporal states, claw games, robots and Devo helmets – is meant to provoke questions rather than supply answers.
“It’s a complicated exhibition,” Borins says. “Nothing against looking at pictures, but in the spirit of this space, it shows potential for interdisciplinary art, multi-media art, mixed-media, multiple installations. I think that’s what we want people to get (from the exhibit) and to have an open mind about it. There are no right answers: Ask questions, come to conclusions, have an enjoyable experience.”
Three Dimensions is at Contemporary Calgary until March 17, 2024.