Smart Box

Tall and wire-thin, with a light cloud of curly auburn hair, Andy Mann darts back and forth in his kitchen, making dinner. Navigating the cramped space between sink, countertop and stove, the subversive genius of video art rinses every used dish or utensil clean as he goes. He wears all black, in stark contrast to the white ceramic tile. He talks fast, his New York accent still strong despite living more than 20 years in Houston. "I needed the space," he says, explaining why he left the early-'70s in-crowd art scene in Soho.

In New York Mann's work has been shown at the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery and twice in the Whitney Biennial. Here in Houston it has been shown nearly everywhere -- even outside, in Tranquility Park. His Video Christmas Tree there flickers and glows all season long. "That piece says everything that multiple-monitor video can reasonably do," he says. "I use the devices of reversing a picture, and turning it upside down, to give me a very simple video matrix." It's something Mann calls the "X Matrix," and he uses it to subliminally manipulate the consciousness of the viewer. "My work is about dissing the world's religions," he says, firing up the video in one of his "sparkle boxes" in the living room. "Though you wouldn't know that to look at it."

The sparkle boxes are large hexagonal wooden boxes in which an image is projected onto mirrors, forming a kaleidoscope effect. Mann stumbled into the somewhat dangerous technique of using a band saw to carve fine wood while working in a factory. "Making this was hard," he says. "It was painful. You lose more fingers with a band saw than with any other Š but it also cuts beautiful, graceful curves." Mann's work is a fascinating combination of physical and intellectual; he's an artisan as well as a theorist and experimenter. It's impossible to look at a sparkle box or one of his video matrix installations without noticing the technical skill it took to bring the piece to life.

Early on, Mann spent four years in Navy sonar school, which taught him basic electricity and, he says, "how to sit in one spot and watch television analytically." What sets him apart from other video artists is that "his approach to video is pure video," claims Andrea Grover, a member of DiverseWorks's artists board and a consultant in Mann's upcoming "Videomusic Video" at the art space. "Everything is integrated. The electronics, the mathematics, the matrix, all of it." And unlike in most video art, where video is used just as a documentary tool, Mann's art is the medium.

The DiverseWorks show is something Mann has always wanted to do. He has incorporated his music into his video work since the '80s, but now, for the first time, he'll do it live, manipulating all the elements, shooting video and playing music simultaneously. The installation will consist of 36 individual monitors for the matrix, forming a video altar "with all the sacrifice involved," he says, joking seriously. "[It's] the antireligious portion of my subtext."

Video tape will be played back on the monitors in such a way that, according to Mann, anyone watching it will become more intelligent. "On a basic, biological level," he says, "viewers' minds will become better tools. They will see better, listen better and think better." Which sounds lovely, but be forewarned: "When people become more intelligent by watching video, they become less valuable as chattel."

The opening for Andy Mann's "Videomusic Video" is Friday, November 12, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the DiverseWorks Main Gallery, 1117 East Freeway. The show runs through December 18 and changes weekly. For more information, call (713)223-8346 or go to

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Liz Belile