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ON VIEW

Curious glimpses of the Gilded Age

January 27, 2008|Hugh Hart

America's vision of the future circa 1900 brimmed with optimism and a fascination with electricity, blimps, X-rays, socialism and quack cures. But there's more to the story, as pictured in "The Imaginary 20th Century." The interactive installation, on view at the Orange County Museum of Art through April 27, follows a group of neurotic dreamers struggling to cope with the accelerated pace of life unleashed by the period's twin dynamos of science and industry.

To conjure a fantastical history of Gilded Age culture, media artist Andreas Kratky, writer Norman Klein and curator Margo Bistis culled more than 2,000 images from turn-of-the-century postcards, caricatures, cardboard "3-D" illustrations, science fiction, travel guides, Victorian pornography and adventure novels. Kratky says, "We were pretty much all over the place in pulling together the images. The discipline was to avoid high art and go for materials people would have seen daily that would serve as the basis for the way they thought about their own time period and what the future would look like."

These digitally archived pictures are projected slide show style onto the walls of OCMA's black-box gallery space at the behest of viewers who control the so-called "database narrative" from a pedestal-mounted computer screen. Visitors can mix and match individualized versions of the story by mouse-clicking individual images for greater detail and selecting content from four narrative "tiers."

The cavalcade of images is accompanied by voice-over narration from Klein, who mixes fact and fiction to recount the adventures of clinically depressed world traveler Carrie and her quartet of fumbling gentleman admirers.

Klein hopes their hopes and delusions resonate with contemporary audiences. "In the United States today we are beginning to sense that the next century does not belong to us, which is not an easy feeling," he says. "For this piece we wondered, what kind of story would speak to that? This is our attempt to use the picaresque form as way of getting to the bottom of these anxieties. We're trying to fashion a new way to deliver a moment in time so it feels like you're actually visiting these people."

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-- Hugh Hart

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