Windows of Opportunity: Visual artists add spectacle to Paramount façade

strongAndrew Doerfler, Beacon Staff/strong

A series of nirvana-seeking tadpoles swam along the windows of Paramount Center yesterday evening, as ArtsEmerson debuted the first set of visual art to christen its newest venue.

The windows, which are filled with light-emitting diodes (LED), will run the work of four artists on a loop every evening, starting two hours before sunset and ending at midnight. The entire production lasts just over half an hour. Two of the artists, Harvard Medical Center Artist-in-Residence Brian Knep and Emerson associate professor of new media John Craig Freeman, were present for the premiere, as well as Distinguished Curator-in-Resident Joe Ketner, who selected the artists.

The night served as the culmination of months of experimentation on a platform that’s new to the curator and artists. Ketner noted the low resolution of the screen might be a potential hurdle for some artists used to dealing in media with crisper quality.

“I selected people whose work I know would be able to deal with that effectively,” he said. The variety of work in the inaugural production, which includes text, animation, and video, will reveal what kind of work translates best to the screen, he said. “To be candid, I think we’ll learn to use this wall over time.”

He acknowledged, though, that it will be difficult to reach a clear conclusion based on this first run, since the majority of the audience consists of casual passersby.

“It’s important for us to realize, 99 percent of the viewers will only catch five to seven seconds,” said Ketner. “To tell the truth, I’m not sure how we’ll gauge the response.”

The most immediately jarring of the pieces, San Francisco-based new media artist Jim Campbell’s “Dear John,” depicts a massive flame encompassing the Paramount’s façade. Its aggressive motion and intimidating scale immolated any concerns of poor image quality.

ArtsEmerson Executive Director Rob Orchard, who was also in attendance last night, noted that because the individual LEDs are about four inches apart, the images might seem hazy up close, but converge into a cohesive image as viewers move farther away. “It’s like pointillism from that point of view,” he said.

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Knep, whose existential amphibian piece “Rapture” kicked off the lineup, said he was thrilled to have such a large public piece of art on view, though he wished he had more than two months to work on it. He said some of the colors appear differently than he anticipated, and the image as a whole isn’t as nuanced. “Big things translate well, but small things get lost fairly easily,” he said. He lamented that he “can’t sit here and program as I watch.”

“Rapture,” he said, explores how people “struggle and strive for happiness when it’s right in front of us.” White tadpoles on a red background are birthed from the top of the screen and fall to the bottom. They struggle fruitlessly to return to the top of the screen until a huge “Buddha frog” swims over them horizontally, revealing, according to Knep, a different way to move through life.

Erwin Redl’s “Comfort of Code” and Freeman’s “Paramount Watching” follow. Redl’s is the simplest visually: Entries from his diary scroll along the screen, offering a stark contrast to the frustrated tadpoles and smoldering blazes.

“Paramount Watching” portrays its title literally. A large, convulsing eye appears in the LED screen, jumping from window to window and constantly varying its size. It’s part of Freeman’s “interventionist public art,” with which he aims to thrust his work unannounced into the viewer’s mind.

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The eye is not a new subject for Freeman: In the mid-90s he put a series of four-by-six foot eyes in wooded areas. The LED platform, he said, allowed him to play with movement in ways he couldn’t before.

“It’s almost like a musical score,” he said, referring to the rhythmic manner with which the eye hops among the windows. “Each of the windows represents a beat or a melody … The blank windows represent silence.”

Orchard said even though last night marked the first official installation, there have been experiments with the wall previously. He said in March 2010, after a 12-day period of dour, gray weather, an image of a sunny day was projected. He said the organization wants to bring back that sort of relevant imagery once they grow comfortable with the platform.

Orchard said that the college and ArtsEmerson are considering efforts to engage students with the wall. “Perhaps we’ll offer a class or a workshop,” he said.

Ketner and Orchard both stressed that they hoped the installment would add another layer to Emerson’s established reputation in the arts.

“The goal is to add a visual art component on a monumental architectural scale,” said Ketner.

emDoerfler can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @adoerfler./em