Multimedia artist Ben Coonley’s show Winter Games (February 15 to March 24, 2019) at Microscope Gallery (Bushwick, NY, USA) projects the poetics of ecological togetherness and its reparative rituals in a slow wintry refuge by weaving together technologies and remediated reflection on nature, time, kinship and play.
By Hyemin Kim
New York-based artist Ben Coonley, famous for mismatched stereoscopic 3D videos and his cat Otto’s ingenious presence in the series of works, is currently exhibiting his recent multimedia installations in the show Winter Games at Microscope Gallery (Bushwick, NY, USA). A remarkable quality of Winter Games, despite the artist’s known tendency to blend optic and sonic technologies for a zany effect of hybrid media art, is in Coonley’s constrained use of dense mediums to effectuate a sympathetic experience of lasting ecology, human and non-human relations, and wintry time of waiting and playing at the level of the audience’s common imagination. Humanistically and equally non-humanistically (close to animals and other old ecological elements), Coonley’s second solo show Winter Games clearly concerns what media technologies can repair and envision on the infrastructural platforms of local communities (Hudson Valley and Brooklyn) and their disappearing yet resilient ecology and alternative sensorium. Accompanying the engagingly spectral effects that characterize Coonley’s continuing 3D projects (from “Wavelength 3D” (2002) to “3D Trick Pony” (2002) to “Compositions” (2017)), Coonley’s latest four works – “On Plain Air,” (2019) “End in Itself,” (2019) “Kane (Dust for M.A.),” (2019) and “Epigraph” (2019) – are sculpted and installed in the home-like microcinema in ways that build and sense a communal space and its affective duration and openness. The subjects of this show’s works lovingly emerged from Coonley’s personal stories: living with his aging cat Otto and reading with his precocious daughter Clara; making and maintaining a curling rink in Bard’s tennis court; remembering his mentor sound artist Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009) who encouraged him to record dust; and photographing a NYC MetroCard vending machine that enigmatizes him by asking him to choose “add value?” or “add time?” Overall, the show is in full touch with all these personal everyday subjects. Concurrently, moreover, the way Coonley’s technologies remediate the personal and materialize the participatory and sensory layers of everyday fragments and particles, interspecific friendship, and environment brings forth a communality of that intimacy to the gallery and the visitors.
On entering the dimmed gallery, an audience will first see a sculptural installation “On Plain Air” (2019) where Otto the cat is sitting like a host in front of the fireplace. The a little over 15 minutes long video is projected onto the DIY-pop-up-card-like corrugated cardboard sculpture (that Coonley haphazardly built using scraps of geodesic dome made in 2016/7). As implied in the title that playfully anglicized landscape painting practice of “en plein air,” “On Plain Air” forges a landscape through this mixed-media variation of moving-image, sound and cardboard sculpture. The subject here is Hudson Valley seen through the eyes of Coonley’s 15 year-old elderly cat Otto who is the artist’s muse and alter-ego. Both in the image and the sound, Otto is a protagonist attuned to the sublimely pastoral mind of Hudson Valley School painter Thomas Cole. Otto’s engineered voice corresponds to Cole’s mind: “you paint yourself into the canvas as if observing yourself from the heavens. The scene is rich with light, judicious appropriation, and compost.” As though Otto’s mental gaze would parallel Cole’s perspectival aspiration that expands from the house to the world to the heaven, this fable-like projection traverses various places in Hudson Valley: from the fireplace to the Hudson River Park and green field to Duchess County Fair. Whereas there’s certainly an anthropomorphic sense of humor in Otto’s storytelling of this self-journey, the two cutout holes connected to the security cameras in front of the projection would more suggest an interspecific perspective of the self and landscape. Through those holes, Otto’s gaze alternates with a viewer’s own as the viewers’ faces become Otto’s (paper) cutout eyes. (Later, those eye holes are also melodically interacting with the voiceover citation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous “transparent eye-ball” lines: “I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”) This confusion between the observation and the observed inside the remediated and projected landscape generates the thin sense of the self as an imperceptible belonging to ecology like any other elemental particles, which also continues in Coonley’s appreciation of dust in “Kane (Dust for M.A.)” Furthermore, at some other moments, Otto monstrously mutates into a giant cat who observes the curling match by looking down to it. Otto’s prevailing presence (captured and layered thanks to one of Coonley’s favorite art tools, green screen) is desynchronically interwoven with adapted text and sound, and it evokes the equal or inverted gaze between humans and nonhumans in musing on alternative ecology. Also, the sound (made by artist Shy Layers) moves from Otto’s amiably robotic voice to Coonley’s daughter Clara’s blithe voice and laughter alongside disarmingly buoyant electronic background tune. This seems to embrace all the fuzzy entanglement and dispersion of subjectivities across Otto, Coonley, Clara, and visitors as in a kind of airy dance carried by the wind. Furthermore, as the projection merges the 2D video and the sculptural object, there’s a cognitive confusion of physical flatness and 3D depth and it also befogs the sensibility of distinctive identification.
Instead of espousing the intractable immediacy of romantic nature and vision, Coonley presents the constructive (albeit modulated for a minimalistic look) artificiality in remediating the transcendental ideas of nature and time through his mediums and their perceptional and sensory transformativity. Also, newer mediums are interlaced with the humble and imperfect hardware quality of older mediums which in turns add a tangible quality and a task of maintenance to the projection. “End in Itself” (2019) is the 17-minute-long single shot video projection that is composed of slow-movement of object (stones) and gamers on the surface of the curling sheet. Through the observational camera, the close records of stone-moving sounds, and the flat floor projection, it synesthetically generates the different laggy temporality that suggests the slow and ritualistic sense of communal awaiting in the wintry hibernating months. As the projection feels very slow, I asked Coonley if this video is slowed down in any way. Then Coonley exquisitely answered, “this is real-time. Real-time is slow!” By removing the real sound of the curling match and the overhead drone (that recorded the match) and rerecording the stone movement sound, the video surely achieves a tactility of somnambulistic yet careful gaming in an oneirically postponed wintry time. The activity of gamers looks ritualized (rather than being competitive) for the poetics of that slowness and maintenance of the game. In fact, that sense of maintenance isn’t just part of this projection. To record this match and continue the game with his friends, Coonley has maintained the surface of the rink by learning about the old mediums – ice and weather.
Now at the back corner of the gallery, a visitor can see the 3D installation piece “Kane (Dust for M.A.)” (2019) named after the home town of the late sound artist Maryanne Amacher (1938 -2009) who is acclaimed for site-specific ‘sonic theater’ where an audience would experience a psychic ‘third-ear’ of listening. Coonley always remembered that Amacher, a perceptive mentor, encouraged him to record dust when he mentioned the idea. During the summers of 2016/7 he eventually pursued it in an old barn in Hudson Valley by regularly returning there. (Though the video itself is 12 min long, consisting of 3 takes, Coonley had much longer footage of dust records that he accumulated over so many days.) Even while this is a silent 3D projection piece, the rhythmic float of dust in the small corner of the gallery brings back the memory of a summery barn and its internal light rays psycho-sonically in reverberation with the shadowy tone of the gallery space itself. (Please see the door image of this article.) More than the visual marks of the dust and the wooden slats of the old barn, the indistinctive pace and haptics of the dusty light projection would evoke the living presence of those home towns (Kane, Hudson Valley, and Brooklyn – and other unsaid homes of the visitors) like a ‘snow’ whirlwind of memory and its inaudible sound inside the synaptic sense of the audience. “Kane (Dust for M.A.)” signals a turn to the subliminal memory of infinitesimal ecological elements through 3D technologies that confound the perception of the surface and the depth of object.
Across from the 3D haze of dust, the audience are already puzzling over the show’s most popular game “Epigraph” (2019). The installation is a 1500-piece cardboard jigsaw puzzle that will (hopefully) reveal a printed image of a NYC MetroCard vending machine when it asks a rider to choose “add value” or “add time.” If the Winter Olympic Games requires the corporeal training and select team work, this challenging jigsaw puzzle asks participants to endure time and its collective (which is openly so) transformativity of the game itself. Also, this game is a reminder of the ethics of communal cognition and maintenance of infrastructural elements within the local communities and their refuges. Although this installation is a small cardboard game, this is an affirmative practice of slow care and maintenance that favors the observation and interval of process of repair and kinship over the consecutive innovation and completion of new technologies for urban planning.
Ben Coonley Winter Games, February 15 – March 24, 2019, Microscope Gallery (Bushwick, NY, USA)