An engineer here at Wisconsin Public Television kept an excerpt from an Edward R. Murrow talk about television above his desk:
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.
I thought of it when, over the holidays, I went to see an exhibit at Madison’s Museum of Contemporary Art of the work of light artist Leo Villareal.
It would be easy to dismiss much of Villareal’s work as just wires and lights in a box. In fact, for many of them, that’s a pretty apt description (see the video below). But you could also try to sum up the work of Mark Rothko as a bunch of color of gradations on canvas.
I had learned about the exhibit from my daughter who’d been there on a field trip with her calculus class. Villareal bases much of his work not just on a visual aesthetic, but in computer code and mathematical formula.
In another video for the San Jose Museum of Art, he says, “I don’t know what they’re going to be when I’m making them…My goal is to create the conditions for something to happen.” Villareal establishes the parameters through coding and mathematical rules, letting the work “happen” in front of the viewer.
I very much liked what was happening in front of me at the exhibit, though I make no claim to understand the deeper mathematics behind it. And I don’t think that was the point.
Villareal’s intentional use of formula creates unintentional consequences. Lights flash, or shift color based on the complex relationships that are assigned each to the other through programming. In this way, it creates more complex and unexpected patterns than could be made by the artist’s choosing. This removes the artist from imposing his direct expression and allows for serendipitous discovery; the work “happening” in front of the viewer as Villareal describes.
Later, at a restaurant, I noticed how much of the wall space was devoted to flat screen televisions. Televisions that no one was watching. The video image has become so ubiquitous today with screens in airports, hotel lobbies, cars, even embedded in gas pumps. The ironic effect of this omnipresence is that the more there are, the less attention we pay.
The flat screen adds (or subtracts) a dimension to this contemporary saturation of moving image. The screen itself becomes an interior design object, affixed to the surface not so much to command attention or connect an audience to the wider world, but to fill the space between this knick-knack and that tchotchke. Framed, flat television has become just so much banal motel art.
So I thank my daughter’s calculus teacher for introducing us to lights and wires in a box that–with apologies to Murrow–can teach, illuminate, and, yes, even inspire.