Clad in sequined jackets, thick-framed glasses, animal prints, and the like, Chicago’s hippest 20-somethings came out for a night of art and beer at the Octagon Gallery’s latest show last Friday. Housed at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport, the venue offered an ideal scene for people-watching, which was fitting (and a bit ironic) for the closing reception of “Society of the Spectacular.” The exhibit takes its name from Guy Debord’s 1967 “Society of the Spectacle,” a Marxist meditation on society’s obsession with illusions. His definition of the spectacle as “not a collection of images,” but “a social relation between people that is mediated by images” was an appropriate theme for the night.
The lively show overwhelmed the small space. Vibrant canvases, television sets, and a video game competed for viewers’ attention. The overload of images and sounds underscored the idea that we live in an overblown, spectacular society. Works made by over nine artists were on display, all of which confronted the tensions of living in a digital world and its effect on our perception of reality. Throughout the night videos playing loud rock music were projected onto the far wall. From 7-9pm, two artists played music from turntable.fm and various Internet DJs, followed by a live broadcast of local band American Draft playing from an Andersonville studio. For the final hours of the event, the band Volcano took the stage in front of a webcam that was hooked up to Chatroulette. The digital element of the music was a consistent motif throughout the exhibit.
“I tried to choose artwork that had a skeptical and curious take on our digitally mediated experiences,” said Octagon Gallery curator Jake Myers.
Myers noted that the exhibit wasn’t meant to be a condemnation of today’s society: “Instead of simply pathologizing these digital trends,” he said, “I just wanted people to step back and think about them in a different light.” In one piece, entitled “Mashup,” Doug Smithenry painted still frames of YouTube videos in which individuals came out of the closet. In his work, the Internet is seen taking on a supportive and protective role, qualities not often attributed to the World Wide Web.
Humor played a role in many of the other works. Eric Fleischauer’s digitally altered photograph “Universal Paramount” replaced Los Angeles’s famed “HOLLYWOOD” sign with the word “YOUTUBE.” Several other artists contributed irreverent MS Paint printouts, one simply of a cat saying “Meow.”
Despite the heavy message of Debord’s book, the light mood suggested that the show intended to disorient rather than attack, illuminate rather than disapprove. It encouraged people to be skeptics of society, not cynics.
One of the highlights of the show was “Marco Solo,” an interactive piece commissioned for the show that rendered a startling intersection between digital and analog life. Created by Aaron Orsini and Adam Rux, two wicker basket-turned headpieces were worn by gallerygoers. Inside these odd helmets the wearers stared at an iPad, which streamed a live feed of their surroundings. Literally forced to experience life through a screen, people stumbled around the space, groping at their friends as they tried to orient themselves.
“You put on the helmets and immediately when you’re with another person the first impulse is to look them in the face and try to touch their hand,” said Rux. “In the digital sphere you don’t have that, you don’t have an obvious person to grab hold of.”
The artists began by putting the iPads inside empty PBR boxes and staggering around Orsini’s apartment. They eventually settled on the wicker baskets because, as they explained, an artisanal craft like basket-weaving was one of the most analog tasks they could think of. The idea of a tangible product is nonexistent in a digital world. By producing something physical, they attempted to resolve the gap between virtual reality and our physical lives. “It’s almost like an homage to real life,” Orsini said. Their work uncovered the inhuman aspect of a society consumed with digital spectacle. “After we spent so much time in these helmets,” Orsini continued, “We were like, I hate digital. I hate it all. I just want to be able to look you in the eye, talk to you straightforward, and touch your hand.”