‘RETURN TO FOREVER’ Still image from looping video by Michael Bell-Smith.
If you can't find the link between the print archive Whole Earth Catalog exhibit and Michael Bell-Smith's installation of tech art, update your browser (haw!). Experiencing both takes on cultural media — one an antiquated library of social tools, the other a digital portfolio of postmodern fragments — gives visitors the opportunity to make lasting connections.
In the front gallery of the ICA, entries from the Whole Earth Catalog are laid out on a display table. Launched by Stewart Brand in 1968, the Whole Earth Catalog was once a earth-shatteringly vast journal of products and offerings from various subcultural movements in the '60s. As a bound book that smoothly connects radically different topics by way of a subjective philosophical rubric, many have called the Catalog a precursor to the Internet. Though the Catalog, largely the labors of Brand himself, would have been footnoted long ago without his personal artistic stamp. Its careful design and excellent prose have more similarities to an artist book or fanzine than, say, Amazon. Elements of several countercultures — drifter, Beat, Western Buddhist, left academic — crop up in Brand's writing, which despite the array of influences, always reads like a guy sincerely trying to figure things out, just like you. Elsewhere is a card box containing thousands of titles from aaaaarg.org, an immensely valuable archive of intellectual works freely available in digital format, and the Maine Catalog Trading Company, which transposed Brand's ethos to a local sphere in the '70s.
As unorthodox as it is for a contemporary arts museum to ask visitors to sit on a couch and flip through a book, it's tempting to view these historical artifacts merely as visual art. But they're more complicated than that. Counterculture, at times, depends on commercial technology to disseminate and reflect its ideas. When it does, it can be incredibly useful — so useful, in fact, that it can end up a model for the commercial world itself.
Which brings us to Michael Bell-Smith. A 33-year-old born in East Corinth, he is a prolific tech artist working and exhibiting in New York. On the surface, his work is wildly different from Brand's, but his proficiency in the medium allows him to smoothly integrate innumerable cultural concepts, from which the user can take as they choose.
Five of his single-channel videos are cued up in the side gallery. In one, titled "Hamburger Presets," Smith puts a 20-second clip of a double cheeseburger through a spectrum of camera filters, helping us to see fast food, a post-industrialized convention if there ever was, in increasingly different, well, lights. "Oonce-Oonce" adapts Beat-era cultural resistance to an unrelentingly rigid house beat, highlighting our generation's comparatively constricted avenues of linguistic expression. And I'll leave it to you to extract meaning from "Chapters 1-12 of R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet Synced and Played Simultaneously," though the experience certainly isn't leaving my head anytime soon.
Just like we can look back to a time when the Whole Earth Catalog was a groundbreaking innovation within its medium, the installation of video screens Bell-Smith has arranged in the back room recall an era when low bit-rate digitization was a dominant cultural presence. The darkened room is lit by several video projections — many display vast landscapes and rolling vistas, and because the videos are generally looped, they appear to the visitor as infinite. It's a busy, Lite-Brite-ish room, yet bizarrely, it projects a sense of calm.