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Tony Oursler documents the psychosis of our virtual reality

In the thirteenth century, showman Arnaud de Villeneuve used a camera obscura to delight an audience with a shadow play avec sound effects. The fact that the audience stayed inside to witness the players' intrigue projected on the wall, when they could have been outside viewing the action, is early proof of the "victory of the virtual image over reality" -- the first live broadcast, if you will. That's according to Tony Oursler, who has packed the Contemporary Arts Museum with his creepy, aggressive video dioramas.

Despite the up-to-the-minute technology Oursler uses -- sleek miniprojectors, surveillance cameras, CD-ROMs -- he is deeply immersed in the archaic history of the projected image, hearkening back to times when a slide projector could make ladies faint and gentlemen draw their swords (the 1790s); when films shot from the front of a boat or train induced nausea in viewers (1909); and when the Oscar-winning The Three Faces of Eve (1957) sparked a gradual climb in the incidences of multiple personality disorder, in which the average number of distinct personalities has increased along with the number of television channels. The history of projection, to Oursler, is the history of introjection, or the unconscious absorption of and obsession over an image; the word serves as the title of a "mid-career survey" of Oursler's work.

Oursler's career, which began at the California Institute for the Arts in the mid-'70s, has been a series of attempts to unpack television from its neat, rectangular, passivity-inducing box. Although there's a video component in almost every piece in the CAM exhibit, at only a couple of points are actual TV monitors in plain view. The rest are reflected in mirrors or puddles; used to cast manmade moonlight on tinfoil stars; encased in awkward homemade frames or, in Oursler's signature pieces, dispensed with altogether.

Talking heads: Oursler's sculptures posit a world in which the marble gods of the Parthenon can speak. And they're bored.
Contemporary Arts Museum
Talking heads: Oursler's sculptures posit a world in which the marble gods of the Parthenon can speak. And they're bored.

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(713)284-8250.
is on view through February 13 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose,

Those pieces, scarecrowlike sculptures with videos of human faces projected neatly on their blank heads, provide the heft of the exhibit. The high point of Oursler's experimentation, the talking heads restore projected images to their early status as Frankensteinian marvels and turn a walk through the CAM into a tour of Bedlam. Not in the least ingratiating, these objects seek to provoke a reaction that's the modern equivalent of drawn swords and fainting ladies. Their contribution to traditional statuary is simple: They posit a world in which the marble gods of the Parthenon can talk, and they're bored and manipulative.

Moaning and whining, lashing out one minute and demanding attention the next, Oursler's homunculi are absolutely alive and none too happy about it. "Asshole. Scumbag. Hey, ya fucking whore," says one figure without enthusiasm, as if muttering about a bad driver. "Hey, you! Come over here," beckons another, trapped beneath a mattress on the floor. "Get away from me," she says in the next breath. Another figure, in a tantrum, shouts, "I'm going to fire you all!"

That figure, a manic and messianic film director played by actor Tony Conrad, glances here and there in paranoid appraisal, his body a plaid suit hanging limply on a cross below his animated face (the piece is titled Keep Going). Personifying a culture that demands immediate gratification, he prattles preposterous orders for a car chase, a volcanic eruption, a train wreck, a burning wheat field and more lipstick in rapid succession: "We need to have the lipstick. It's as important as the mountain. I think we need some more snow on the snowcap. If you would please make a subtle -- a subtle adjustment."

In addition to humor, there is drama, albeit drama purified of plot or context. In Let's Switch, two little beanbag dolls on a shelf, both played by actress Tracy Leipold, argue with the hushed intensity of a soap opera dialogue. One is ponderous and abject, the other impatient and snippy. "Together, we don't even make one person," sighs the first. "Pass the pain!" snaps the second.

In these video-objects, the projector is both a technical device and a metaphor for the psychological act of projection, that phenomenon wherein we believe someone else is anxious when actually it's us. Demonstrating our eagerness to project, Oursler's early videos use characters that, without some fleshing out on our part, are little more than scraps of tissue paper. One protagonist, in Diamond (Head), is nothing more than a piece of cardboard with eyes, proving that only the bare minimum is necessary to provoke empathy.

Yet wherever projection can occur, so can its opposite, introjection, in which television's quickening glow projects onto us. Oursler races up and down that two-way street, exploring media-induced mental disorders, children at play with movie action figures, and a woman who believes she has been abducted by aliens (she's introjected a probe or two).

The only problem with Oursler's frenzy is there's way too much of it. Video exhibits try one's patience to begin with; they should at least be spare. This one is jam-packed. I don't mind the clamoring of many voices; it adds to the characters' desperation. But there's the additional noise pollution perpetrated by sprawling installations of little consequence, which are virtually impossible to decipher or in some cases even to hear.

An enormous amount of gallery space is devoted to a new piece called Optics, which presents various incarnations of virtual experience from rainbows to a camera obscura to a video of a woman and a man in angel and devil costume, sparring. The problem is, it doesn't convey the sort of deliciously interwoven observations Oursler makes in his timeline on the same subject, printed in the catalog, which traces the historical connection between projection and Satan and makes note of the various interpretations given to the rainbow over the centuries (Apple computer's logo, Oursler points out by way of intersecting those two subjects, is a rainbow-colored apple with a bite taken out of it. And yet it was Proctor & Gamble that got the rap for being satanic).

There is little apparent rhyme or reason for what "Introjection" curator Deborah Rothschild of the Williams College of Art selected. There are certainly better works in the catalog than there are in the show, including the piece on the cover. As a general rule of thumb, in this exhibit it's best to stick to the projected face pieces, which include MMPI (Red), Judy (a piece about a woman with multiple personality disorder), Underwater (Blue/Green) and Fear Flower.

Oursler's fascination with multiple personality disorder stems not from some fascination with exotic afflictions, but from the idea that MPD is an extreme manifestation of the way our minds normally work. Nowhere is this idea more convincing than in Side Effects. Here Oursler has dispensed with the thrift-store scarecrow duds and affixed five heads of varying sizes to a kind of freestanding head menorah. Each is projected with an image of Leipold delivering a monologue. At any given time one head is wheedling, one is reciting a series of numbers, one is berating itself or someone else for being a "highway queen," and still another complains, "You're making poor food choices."

What's most interesting about this piece is that each of the five monologues is the same, only they're staggered, so that the dominant persona (the largest of the five heads) cycles through the petty moods as well as the grandiose. Which is pretty close to what happens in real life. It's not the id versus the ego versus the persona, it's just a bunch of voices that rarely harmonize, and whom, perhaps, it's best to ignore.

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