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Law of Averages

Jason Salavon sets his computer in motion and sits back to see what it tells us about ourselves

On Christmas Day, 1978, Santa left a clunky machine under the tree for my dad. It looked like the bastard child of a typewriter and a portable TV with a cassette player as its conjoined twin. The thing was a Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor), a primordial PC that stored data on cassettes that appeared to be interchangeable with my ABBA tapes. My eight-year-old brother was enamored with it, but I looked at the black screen with its fuzzy glowing symbols, pronounced it "booo-ring," and went back to playing with my new 30-marker assortment and Doodle Art poster. Today my brother is a software engineer and eminently employable. Let's not discuss the fate of Miss Doodle Art. Little did I realize the boundless potential of that dorky-looking machine. Who knew that it would evolve to dwarf the once seemingly infinite artistic possibilities of the 30-marker set?

"Tech Support" at Inman Gallery is an exhibition of four artists who work with technology -- most compellingly, Jason Salavon. Salavon manipulates images not aesthetically but algorithmically, devising programs that analyze and average images based on their color content. It's a process that sounds dry but produces intriguing results, especially since the images he chooses to analyze are so culturally revealing.

In a 1998 project (one of several on view at www.salavon.com), Salavon took ten years of Playboy centerfolds and averaged them together to create an indistinct but vaguely feminine form. The figures are not morphed together; instead, the pixels of each image are averaged with similarly located pixels in every other image. It's as if he overlaid a stack of photographs and managed to visually average them into one via their smallest component parts. He repeated the process with 76 Internet porn images of fellatio (a 76 Trombones reference), resulting in a pinkish field with a central orificelike shape connected to a faint cylindrical form. In another series Salavon created a black-and-white image from all the head shots of a 1967 high school graduating class, creating a blurred grisaille portrait with a circular aura.

Jason Salavon's The Top 6 Grossing Films of All Time, 2x2: Can you tell which one is Titanic?
Inman Gallery
Jason Salavon's The Top 6 Grossing Films of All Time, 2x2: Can you tell which one is Titanic?

The single image that results from Salavon's broad samplings is a visual manifestation of a superficial statistical survey. From the Playboy piece, we can determine that the vast majority of models are white. In the blow-job image, we can tell that the photos are taken with the "blow-ee" most frequently on the left side of the frame. The halo of the combined class photo illustrates the preponderance of bouffant hairdos in 1967. The conclusions may seem obvious or inane, but seeing them presented as an image is somehow still enlightening.

For two works on view at Inman, Salavon pulled images of homes from real estate Web sites. Searching the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex for homes priced between $100,000 and $200,000, he found 114 images and averaged them to create a subtle visual/statistical portrait. He repeated the process for the Seattle-Tacoma area, although he bumped up the price range to between $200,000 and $300,000 (like you could find 100 homes under $200,000 in Seattle). The resulting photographs feel atmospheric with their soft, blurred fields of color. Salavon labels the images with their parameters on the bottom of the photograph, clinically presenting the romantic wash of muted colors as the result of an analytical process. Seattle-Tacoma has the grays of misty weather, while Dallas-Ft. Worth is a bright blue-and-green landscape. Two-story homes in the Northwest produce a horizontal band of white haze. In Dallas-Fort Worth the band is low-slung and brown, bespeaking the single-story ranch style. The residue of intermittent roof peaks creates the faint illusion of a hilly landscape.

In another work, a stack of six monitors (three high and side by side) presents what looks like a mediocre minimalist video exercise of alternating and flashing grids. Each monitor screens a video divided into four parts, each part a changing field of color. Titled The Top 6 Grossing Films of All Time, 2x2 (2000), the videos are just that: Titanic, Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Star Wars (1977) and The Lion King (in order). The list itself says more than we would like about America today. Salavon has digitized each film and divided it into quadrants, each quadrant screening the average color of that area.

The colors of the animated Lion King are clear and bright yellows, oranges and greens. Titanic has a lot of blacks and grays -- the sinking, you know. The speed of the color fluctuations indicates action scenes, and a detailed viewing reveals the formulaic structure of top-grossing films; the compositions of the Star Wars movies are remarkably similar. All of the films run in their entirety with screens going blank one by one until the Titanic epic mercifully ends; the audio plays throughout, creating a kind of Hollywood white noise. Salavon's related piece, The 100 Top Grossing Films of All Time, was included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. We are a country of polls and surveys and statistics that attempt to ascertain the most, the majority, the average. With his incisive selection of subjects, Salavon is the visual counterpart to the Gallup poll.

Salavon is part of the next wave of digital artists. He isn't using a software tool like Photoshop as a kind of painting substitute (although the way Photoshop filters can systematically alter an image is related to his method). He's using the computer to cold-bloodedly create art over which, after his selection of source material, he has no real control. He simply sets up the parameters, creates the process, enters the data and puts the whole thing in motion. That some of the results are aesthetically pleasing is incidental. The real appeal is conceptual, lying in the process he has developed.

Salavon is currently turning art upon itself in a piece titled 100,000 Abstract Paintings. Now if he could only make his computer color Doodle Art with markers…

 
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