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Screens of Text Without Context

Art review: 'Tracings' takes on techno life. But even with a computer mouse, it doesn't quite click.

September 05, 1998|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

"L.A. Freewaves," the citywide festival of video and new media, gets off to a somewhat sluggish start with "Tracings," a multimedia installation by Hungarian-born artist George Legrady that opened Wednesday at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Sophisticated in its technology and ambitious in its aims, "Tracings" is rather old-fashioned in its incomplete, nonlinear narrative.

A white wall stands in the middle of a black room, acting as a double-sided projection screen. Both sides of the screen are bombarded with continuously changing text and visual data, projected from unseen sources.

Text dominates one side. At the top left of the wall, faintly rendered words rush by in a virtually unreadable torrent. Below, big, bright block words inquire and declare, "Who are you? Everyday situations. Issues of technology. Who are you?" In between, a list describing mundane activities appears: making coffee, grocery shopping on the Internet, waiting in line, riding the bus.

Across the full width of the wall, a white bar surrounds a line of text, arrayed in the style of old-fashioned typewriter print. The words float in and out of focus, but their implications of a narrative are obscure.

Eventually you notice that the perimeter of this half of the room is lined, a foot or two off the floor, with almost two dozen motion detectors that click on and off as museum visitors perambulate through the space. This random ballet of on-off switching, accompanied by quiet clicks and the blinking of lights, is a crude simulacrum of the way computer technology works.

It would seem that these motion detectors must be directing, or at least interacting with, the steady flow of information seen streaming across the center wall. But, there's no way to tell for sure. Movement around the room yields no obvious correlation between where you are and what's up there on the screen--probably because the potential number of on-off combinations among 23 motion detectors is huge.

The setup in the other half of the room is very different. There, the screen is divided by pulsing horizontal bands that move up and down, seemingly at random. One is a white bar that contains more fragments of typewriter text, familiar from the other side of the wall, which begins to reveal itself as a memorandum or a letter. Something about meeting on a train is described, although mostly a sense of separation and loss is conveyed.

Rather than motion detectors, this half of the room features an illuminated pedestal with a computer mouse on top. Moving the mouse moves an arrow across the screen. Every now and then, when the arrow crosses a red line that vibrates across the width of the screen, a word appears. Click on the word and, suddenly, a short fragment of video is projected on the wall.

A train yard, a leafy bower, passengers in a car on a rainy night, a train pulling away from the station--the video fragments are like half-conscious memories of utterly unremarkable events. As quickly as they appeared, the video fragments vanish. The white bar with the bits of typed letter comes bouncing back into view.

The more you play with the mouse, the more information you get and are able to piece together--although not to much coherent effect. One big problem with "Tracings" is its stinginess: The effort required to figure out what's happening to piece together the elements is barely rewarded in any visually satisfying or pleasurable way. If I wasn't being paid to be there, I'm certain I would have wandered away much sooner than I did.

On one level, "Tracings" is reminiscent of traditional Dada poetry, hot-wired for the 1990s. Dada poets used to clip sentences and words from mass-printed newspapers and magazines, toss them into a hat, then pick them out in random order and read them aloud, making crazy poetry out of the residue of regimentation in modern industrial life. Legrady's work, despite the postindustrial high-tech apparatus, has a similar feel, albeit with one notable difference.

A hushed and darkened room inside a museum, with visitors creeping about and patiently waiting their turn with the mouse, is dramatically different from the raucous social atmosphere of a neighborhood cafe, where Dada performances were typically played out. Interactive or not, the solemnity and isolation surrounding "Tracings" only increases the longing for a visual poetry of satisfying imaginative richness, instead of the rather thin gruel that is offered up here.

*

Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Nov. 5. Closed Mondays. For program information on L.A. Freewaves, call (213) 617-3950 or visit its Web site at http://www.freewaves.org.

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