Consumer Culture

Kiss your remote good-bye. Heretic Brian Heiss wants to do away with that ultimate convenience and fundamentally alter the way we interact with our televisions. Heiss, who was trained as an architect, creates quirky TV-based objects that exist comfortably in the fine art realm while cleverly culling ideas from the world of design. His work is part of "Transvision," an exhibition of envelope-pushing consumer objects at Lawndale Art Center, created by three twentysomething Rice graduates.

Mercury, a TV encased in an ergonomically designed round shell of sandwiched plywood, was his first attempt to get people's asses off the sofa. Viewers must grab the integrated handle and physically interact with the TV to control its functions: Tilting it from side to side changes the volume and channels; laying it face down turns it off. Turning on Jerry Springer means wrestling with your television. The trick is worked via mercury switches that respond like the bubble in a level.

Lazy takes the carrot-and-stick approach to couch potatodom. A TV and a motion sensor are encased in a legged tower of white acrylic. The TV stays on as long as you keep moving. But if you plop down in front of it, the picture shuts off and a light inside glows through the plastic casing. The TV becomes a reading lamp.

But Heiss isn't completely against inaction. You can snuggle in bed with Dakko Makura, which means "nurture pillow" in Japanese. A cylindrical, body-length, royal-blue pillow has a tiny TV screen embedded at one end and a little tail containing its cord at the other. According to Heiss, "It's great for an intimate evening of watching CNN."

The TV becomes decidedly sculptural in Radius. According to Heiss, most pre-flat-screen TVs are simply sections of a giant sphere. So he extrapolated the slight curvature of a 13-inch screen into a giant white hemisphere. It is a simple, well-executed idea with a great visual impact -- it looks like an asteroid lodged in the gallery wall.

Turn On inflates like a car lot promotional balloon and closely resembles a giant condom -- albeit with a TV screen in its base. A fan keeps the translucent prophylactic-esque latex erect. But hit the big red button on the control box and the whole thing shuts down. The stiffly vertical form deflates, drooping sad and flaccid over the screen in tragicomic display.

The four legs of the upturned vintage TV titled I did not know that stick straight up in the air. Its underside is inset with a shiny pink "belly" dotted with red nipplelike control buttons. It looks like some Future Farmer of America was trying to sex his television set. Heiss smacks the side of the box, and the slender Barnett Newman-esque white line across the screen resolves itself into snow. He wants to change the way we interact with our TVs, but this isn't exactly what he had in mind. This is not an engineered feature, just one of the hazards of working with elderly electronics.

Heiss has something in mind even for owners of conventional televisions: "TV cozies," cardboard templates you can assemble and fit over a 13-inch set. One model transforms your TV into a gothic cathedral; another turns your box into a giant skyscraper. My favorite is a giant milk carton; the hole for the screen is just where the "Have you seen me?" picture would be.

Although some of Heiss's objects are more compelling than others, he's definitely onto something in his quest to jar us out of TV catatonia. It's interesting work that effectively draws upon a variety of disciplines. And his sculptures could make even morally superior Sony-shunning Luddites long for one of his televisual objects.

If Heiss is on a mission to change the way we watch television, Peter Weir Clarke is on a tongue-in-cheek crusade to change the way we date. His gender-specific, clear plastic Body Language suits streamline the courtship process with their labeled sensors at significant and/or erogenous zones (like the head, breast, crotch and butt). Participants go through a series of overtures, and each must electronically accept the advances of the other in order for things to continue. One participant asks another, in an electronic voice, if he can kiss her. Things progress until one says, "I think we are very compatible. Would you like to have sex with me?" If the other agrees, a robotic voice mimics a game show announcer: "Congratulations on your successful interaction."

Moving too quickly -- e.g., going straight for her tits, like "Tony" in the demonstration video -- leads to a warning. If one participant rejects the other, the omniscient voice proclaims, "All interaction must cease; member B is not compatible with member A." The suits supposedly work when hooked up to a laptop but are strictly for display at Lawndale. Clarke's project is satiric but creepily plausible in the context of current technological dating trends.

Darshan Amrit wants to remake your wardrobe by deconstructing, altering and re-presenting cast-off thrift store specials. Circa 1985 white nylon OP shorts become a skirt; mailman pants suffer a similar fate. A brown V-neck sweater has part of a shoulder replaced by an argyle sock. The clothes on display can be tried on in a dressing room constructed of multicolored webbing; it's a hip-looking structure but a little overpowering for the show.

All of the "Transvision" projects were supposed to have a salable component. Body Language has a catalog, but Heiss's cardboard TV covers were too labor-intensive to mass-produce. Amrit has the most effective commercial element: Just take one of pre-addressed, screen-printed envelopes off the wall, fill out the questionnaire, stuff two pieces of old clothing inside, along with a check for $75, and Amrit will custom-design a piece of clothing for you. The questionnaire asks you to describe yourself and reveal things like your childhood dream occupation. The clothing is supposed to be something you like the fabric of, but no longer wear. It's a clever collaborative project designed to transform generic clothing into something individual.

The show's subtext of altering extant consumer items and then re-presenting them as consumer items has its origins in the human desire for uniqueness. At a contemporary grassroots level, this desire spawns craft stores and appliquéd sweatshirts and manifests itself in the cult of Home Depot and DIY. But the "Transvision" artists riff on this 21st-century zeitgeist and push it to a conceptual extreme.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer