Thinking Inside the Box

Jeff Shore likes to control his space. In "Livefeed," his fifth collaborative exhibition with composer and programmer Jon Fisher, Shore has covered all the gallery windows at Mixture Contemporary Art to block out the Houston summer, creating a cool, dark refuge in which to present what is accurately but awkwardly billed as "A New Series of Networked Electro-Mechanical Kinetic Sculpture with Integrated Music." Don't worry, the results are much more engaging than the description.

Hanging on the walls is a series of rectangular, wooden-framed boxes, clad with opaque Plexiglas. Each box holds a miniature diorama constructed by Shore -- a hallway, a living room, an airplane interior, a strip of terrain -- and each functions as a tiny film set.

Little cameras move through and over the miniature environments, directed by a computer. Small video monitors rest on cantilevered shelves that protrude from the sides of the boxes and display the live black-and-white video taken from inside the sculptures. All the electronics are run by collaborator Fisher's microcontrollers via Ethernet links to a central computer. The monitors display all the video sequences in a narrative succession.

In his first semester of graduate school, Shore painted his studio entirely black, everything from the floor to the overhead pipes. He put in a private door and built a wall to block out the windows. One faculty member asked if he was running a nightclub. His professors wanted him, as a painting major, to paint something other than the walls and floor of his studio. He decided to leave school. The faculty arrived at his studio for his end-of-semester review and walked into a vacant, pristine white space. Shore had meticulously stripped the room and repainted it white, erasing all evidence of his presence.

What Shore was doing with all the black paint and plywood was trying to explore ways to present art in an environment akin to a darkened theater. By controlling the lighting, he could control where people looked. Ten years later, he's got it down. When Shore's installation cycles on, the room darkens, Fisher's music starts, and the monitors display the video feed. The boxes glow red and yellow like the rising and setting sun.

Fisher's music ranges from eerie to uplifting. He works with digitally sampled acoustic sounds -- everything from a pepper grinder to a didgeridoo to his own voice. Fisher, who teaches in the art and technology department of the Chicago Art Institute, discusses Shore's imagery and environments with him over the phone, then devises a program to compose his own collected audio files into a soundtrack. The program has parameters, but randomness and chance lie within those boundaries.

Shore contributed drum machines to the musical effort. They are goofily low-tech affairs with stretched drum skins in wooden frames. A Rube Goldberg contraption causes actual drumsticks to hit the drumheads. The esthetic of the three drum machines and their exposed mechanisms and wiring harks back to the matter-of-factly haphazard look of Shore's earlier installations. In previous work Shore has used everything from a stationary bike to a bowl of water to trigger mechanical actions. The wonky aesthetic still exists in the meticulous but slightly off-kilter dioramas Shore uses here.

Shore offers tantalizing glimpses behind the Great Oz's curtain through mirrored strips that intentionally reveal the tricks of cinematography when lit. In one video sequence the camera moves slowly down a long, skewed hallway as light shines through open doors. But while the scene is being filmed, the lighting illuminates the diorama so that you see that the seemingly cavernous hall is actually an inch-and-a-half-high rectilinear tube that moves over the camera lens.

Another camera tracks over an airplane interior as sunlight shines through the window onto the passenger seats (crafted from balsa wood). Originally three seats sat neatly in a row, but the tiny camera got off-track and leveled two of them. The broken seats have acquired an unsettling aura of tragedy. As the camera goes down the plane interior, it passes the upright seat and slowly moves to the two that are uprooted. Ridiculously, you find yourself becoming anxious as the windows go dark and "lightning" -- in reality, a 40-watt-bulb -- flashes outside the windows.

The video cuts away to an aerial view of a rotating planet. Fields, trees, rivers and chemical tanks all pass by. The terrain is flat, save for the exaggerated curvature of the earth -- you seem to be flying over it at an alarming speed. Peek in the side of its box and see the simple yet stunningly creative way the illusion has been constructed. On a big wheel of sheet metal, Shore has glued three different grits of sandpaper, cut in shapes like fields, with model train greenery creating tree lines. The impression of silvery rivers occurs where the metal is revealed. The lighting design is key to creating the illusion. Shore has lit the rotating diorama below the horizon line, because, the artist explains, "if you light it the other way it looks like a bunch of sandpaper with shit glued to it."

Shore's constructed worlds are unpopulated, adding to their haunting, unsettling quality. His tiny living room has La-Z-Boy and a portable TV on a '70s-looking table. A dead-on mock-up of an air conditioner rests in the window. The space seems lonely and abandoned as the camera moves through, investigating the emptiness. Its occupant has seemingly been vaporized, leaving on the flickering TV. Fisher's audio generates a palpable sense of trepidation.

There is something unimaginably riveting about staring at these dinky five-inch TV monitors as they provide you with images from miniature concealed environments. Somehow I think there is a link between this rapt fascination and the reason why millions tuned into the Today show to watch Katie Couric's colonoscopy footage or why people who couldn't care less about entomology are transfixed by a Discovery Channel special about an ant colony. There is something in the voyeurism of peering into the unknown, the hidden, the miniscule, that is fascinating.

This show's only glitch lies in the disparity between the aesthetics of Shore's internal environments and the structures that house them. The rectangular wooden frames, partially enclosed with Plexi sheets, aren't sleekly minimal, nor are they straightforwardly off-kilter in the way of earlier pieces that related to their electromechanical guts. Shore is working toward contained components rather than sprawling, overtly visible mechanics -- the boxes just need to go one way or the other.

But Shore and Fisher's collaboration is so smart and creative that such nit-picking seems pointless. Each installation these two have done has been an intriguing progression from the previous one. The audience can only wonder what lies ahead.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer