Non-Trip to a Non-Site: Perry Hoberman’s Suspensions
Perry Hoberman: Suspensions at Postmasters
February 17 to March 31, 2018
54 Franklin Street at Cortlandt Alley (between Broadway and Lafayette Street)
New York City, postmastersart.com
In Perry Hoberman’s Suspensions, detritus collected from an abandoned town in the California desert is assembled into bungee-corded chains hung from the Postmasters ceiling. Rather like refrigerator magnet poems, each “suspension” conforms to something bordering on syntax in its assemblage of small to medium sized objects: flattened toys and rusty cans, orphaned gears and transistors; shiny round things; jagged, plastic things. A portion of the gallery is given over to hanging, scroll-like digital prints of the same objects in silhouette. Individual chains have mordant titles like Low Credit Risk and Pinched Nerve Jamboree, and do not seem overly concerned with sculptural or taxonomic rigor. But nonchalance flips to obsessive literality when the visitor puts on one of the virtual reality headsets placed around the installation. Each suspension has been mapped and recreated in digital space, with scores of individual objects, each corresponding in shape, surface detail and location to the physical ones in the gallery. Yet the differences are striking: with the motion-sensitive headsets projecting a stereoscopic view exactly synchronous to the turning of one’s head, the viewer notices first of all that one nearby digital Suspension jiggles like a child needing to pee, while others swing slowly like porch hangings in a breeze, naturalistic gravity and bungee bounce having been modeled into the virtual dynamics. In the really real world of the gallery all remains decorously still, but the viewer is likely to remove the goggles again and again in order confirm the fact.
That is only the beginning, however, of this “non-trip to a Non-site,” to use a typically open-ended phrase of Robert Smithson’s, whose ideas about 3-D mapping, displacement, landscape as quarry, the neutral abstraction of the gallery, and much more seem pertinent to both the critical and the visionary polarities of Hoberman’s practice. With goggles back in place, the gallery walls unfold like, well, a white box. The suspensions now hang weirdly from an infinite blue sky, and a stark, barely differentiated desert panorama is available if you spin your view. The ground drops away as you look down, then piles of rock float underfoot and one fears to take a step. Projective geometry hems you in. A stereoscopic slideshow plays haphazardly behind the confabulated digital sculptures hanging in the foreground. You can walk into the slides, towards a recurring giant who traverses the barren landscape and explores the decaying innards of cheap, prefabricated homesteads. The giant is the artist himself, and the strange scale shift an effect endemic to 3-D VR, which fixes the viewer, unlike in cinema, at an absolute location, which in this case is the end of Hoberman’s selfie stick.
Hoberman is an artist/researcher who has been on the circuit-building front lines of a wide range of simulation technologies since the 1980s. He currently teaches and leads study labs at the University of Southern California and consults on the development of VR systems with rival acronyms (AR, MxR, and MEML, et al.). But if Hoberman is an insider he is a dissident one, a skeptical historian of every dropped thread and wasted opportunity of virtual reality precursors, which in modern times can be said to date to Wheatstone’s invention of stereoscopic drawing in 1838. Hoberman has proposed recreating Daguerre’s once-legendary painted and mechanized diorama with digital technology.
Though clearly enraptured by sensory illusion, Hoberman is anything but an uncritical technophile. Previous works have typically programmed computers to malfunction with the banal malevolence of the corporate culture that proliferates with them. A show at Postmasters in 2003 included a digital still from an interactive home screen with a pop-up window reading, “Security forces have been alerted, and will be arriving shortly.” Users could mouse-click on three bitterly hilarious options: “Read Me My Rights,” “Call A Taxi,” or “Surrender.”
The hanging shards in Suspensions are garnered from abandoned homes that were sold cheap to military families from a nearby base that has already featured in Hoberman’s work. His recent multimedia collaboration with performance artist Julia Heyward, 29 SpaceTime, delved into the juju of this same desert Non-site with mesmerizing paranoia.
One thing that is, unfortunately, missing from Suspensions is Hoberman’s expertise at vivisecting image and sound. He began his performance activities in the 1980s, collaborating extensively with Laurie Anderson (he was artistic director on the O Superman video, among others), but at Postmasters the only sound accompanying his piece is incidental: an audio bleed from Jillian Mayer’s adjacent installation fills the void plausibly enough with a soothing electronic score. This imposed mood softens Hoberman’s deliberate rough edges and visible seams, which are intended to show us what VR can’t do as much as what it can, and we may miss how the artist is cackling under his breath at an essential absurdity: after all, what is the point of painstakingly simulating garbage? Garbage, what’s more, which is already right here?
The viewer, contemplating the truth of the illusion, may be all the more awed by VR’s transformative potential, as Hoberman surely is. His decades-long quest for sensory engineering could only have been fueled by optimism worthy of a Quattrocento perspectivist, if not by the fevered Wagnerian dream of a totally enveloping artwork. Of course, whether in fascist or rampantly capitalist regimes, gesamtkunstwerken have a way of ending badly, and few dreamers understand so intimately as does Hoberman the inevitability with which visionary artistic research enables corporate bread and circuses. If dark thoughts of interactive shooting games and their full-metal VR counterparts used in mechanized wars of occupation come to mind when you put on the high tech headsets, you’re paying attention.