Magazine article Artforum International

Robert Whitman: Talks about Passport, 2011

Magazine article Artforum International

Robert Whitman: Talks about Passport, 2011

Article excerpt

FOR MORE THAN FIFTY YEARS, Robert Whitman has been making theater pieces that verge on alchemy. In these works, everyday objects take on uncanny properties, as in Two Holes of Water No. 3, 1966, where suburban station wagons wrapped in plastic become mobile TV and film projectors, or in Prune Flat, 1965, in which a single lightbulb descends from above, its brightness washing out the piece's projected 16-mm footage and restoring three-dimensionality to the world onstage. In the 1960s, when many artists sought to escape metaphor and illusion, Whitman embraced them, even using stage-show tricks--mirrors, transparent scrims, shadow play, and moving props--that hark back to vaudeville and magic lanterns.

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Whitman is also celebrated for his pioneering collaborations with engineers and scientists, the most famous of these being the many projects he undertook with visionary engineer Billy Kluver. In 1966, Whitman, Kluver, Robert Rauschenberg, and engineer Fred Waldhauer founded the organization Experiments in Art and Technology. As a result of their efforts, technologies ranging from infrared cameras to closed-circuit television were used in performance for the first time, allowing artists to explore the shifts in temporality, spatiality, and subjectivity that imaging and communications techniques were bringing about in daily life.

Many artists had, of course, already embraced technology to mount increasingly complex and futuristic spectacles. But Whitman's use of media technologies has always been in the service of something at once more grounded and more dreamlike. His images are fleeting and evanescent, not totalizing; his aesthetic emphatically tactile. Whether projecting film onto performers--a recurring tactic--or inviting viewers to exchange telexes, Whitman uses such devices to layer different times and places, exploring an experiential world that is always occurring both here and somewhere else.

Indeed, Whitman is fascinated by events that can never be grasped in their entirety but may be experienced intensely from particular points of view--a preoccupation evident in such works as American Moon, 1960, where he distributed audience members into partitioned "tunnels," and Local Report, 2005, for which participants in five locations in four states provided video "news reports" via their cell phones; for the latter work, the artist mixed video and sound reports at the performance site while streaming them online. This piece, in turn, is part of a series of similar events dating back to works such as NEWS, 1972, when Whitman used pay phones to transmit far-flung dispatches, and radio waves to broadcast them.

Whitman's new work, Passport, is the latest exploration of this spatial dispersion and recombination. Passport will take place on April 16 and 17, transpiring simultaneously at Riverfront Park on the banks of the Hudson near Dia: Beacon in New York and in a theater at Montclair State University in New Jersey. At each location, performances will be combined with projections of prerecorded video and a live feed from the other site. Linked by wireless transmission and real-time image streaming, the park and the theater will be in constant dialogue. In contrast to this dematerialized exchange, the performative actions are determinedly physical and material: Boxes are moved, dirt is shoveled, a fire burns, glass is broken. In the theater, three giant shirts are raised and lowered, and animated by projected images. In fact, Passport would seem to bring together the literal veiling and projection of the artist's early theater pieces and the layering of networks in the later telecommunications pieces. Via both theatrical and technological means, Whitman's latest work will generate a sense that the performance extends into the ebb and flow of events that occur around us all the time. As Whitman notes, "That reach of space is what I wanted. …

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