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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Rest stops on the information superhighway: Michael Itkoff's CtrlAltDel at Flanders Gallery

Posted by on Wed, Sep 18, 2013 at 4:32 PM

RALEIGH—This sentence has been severely mediated. Typed on a word processor, it was converted from human thought to digital data, then encoded in an email to an editor and now you’re reading it as light from a screen.

A hundred years ago this sentence would have been Linotype. A hundred years before that, letterpress. Technological changeovers may not be immediately evident in this sentence, which could have just as easily been hand-set verbatim in lead type, but then it wouldn’t be the same sentence, would it? Messages don’t mean independently from their media.

Michael Itkoff, in CtrlAltDel through Sept. 30 at Flanders Gallery, mulls the gap between medium and message in the digital age, when media are in constant changeover. With appropriated photography and imagery, and video capture that brings the images of visitors into the work, the accomplished photographer and cofounder of Daylight Books and Daylight Digital in Hillsborough reaches back toward 1960s conceptualism in the exhibit.

A still from Karate, Michael Itkoff.
Overall, CtrlAltDel has an austere, white look. Mounted on the walls at regular intervals, the small, page-like works suggest an unbound book. Itkoff has actually made books of some of the projects in this show, hearkening back to the heyday of artists’ books. His flat presentation of Google Books images for his “Handscans” series and of images from exercise and karate books for his “Self Help” series recalls the literality of Ed Ruscha’s artist’s books, particularly his seminal 1962 Twentysix Gasoline Stations.

But both series contain a subtle commentary beneath their deadpan pointing. The 11 “Handscans” capture errors in the processing of Google Books, a project in which the web giant has scanned over 30 million books to date into a text-searchable database. Itkoff presents the mistakes in the processing, when a book had not been placed flat on the platen before its image was captured, or when the gloved hands of scanning technicians were still in the frame.

A page of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species is covered by a hand sporting three bright pink finger cots. Other antiquated books such as The History of the Baptists in Maine and The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health suffer a fan of page ends or the illegible smear of movement. Within a medium offering unprecedented availability in the name of the democratization of information, Itkoff celebrates these inadvertent human errors as contributions, reminding us that human knowledge is a perpetually collaborative act.

“Self Help” is a trio of video works displayed on tablets mounted to the wall. Scanned stills flick past at a rate of around three per second, fast enough to seem animated but slow enough to be comically jerky. The stills are exemplar shots of karate and exercise positions culled from those decades-old learn-at-home books that persist at library sales and thrift stores.

The ambivalent violence in the videos is unnerving. In “Karate,” the dispassionate presentation of the combat postures—done solely for the camera rather than out of conflict—conveys a gesture of comprehensiveness, not aggressiveness. The rapidly changing contortions of the exercise and yoga imagery of “Body Principle” and “Exercising for Health” seem torturous and unreal, like an action figure yanked and dropped within each second.

Replacing an expert or a teacher with pre-recorded media sounds great at first but, if it doesn’t oversimplify the content in its standardization, it renders it useless through sheer volume. Type “karate instruction” into YouTube and over 65,000 results appear, likely including something like Itkoff’s video piece.

Although such an information glut served so quickly and globally is thrilling for its sheer scale, that scale isn’t a human one. No one previews 65,000 videos to find the high-quality handful that address just what one’s looking for. In fact those 65,000 might prevent access more than they facilitate it.

But volume and speed are the game today. A reference work’s value is in its format and accessibility, not its quality. A definition has been reduced from a piece of prose improved iteratively through generations to a bulleted list of key information minimized for storage and tagged for cross-reference. Anyone who’s helped their kid prepare a PowerPoint presentation for some Common Core Standards whim is nodding his or her head here.

Kitty, Michael Itkoff.
Reduction figures differently in another series called “Menagerie.” Reminding us that obsolete technologies always retain some lasting value, Itkoff has typed 18 ASCII-art animals and flowers using a manual typewriter. A jellyfish with parenthetical tentacles and a cat with whiskers made from equals signs reference the creative flourish of simplified representational imagery made with the 1963 code for information interchange that drove our old dot-matrix printers before image formats emerged.

If “ASCII art” doesn’t mean anything to you, then these are the forerunners to emoticons, an idea that persists prominently within each new communication system. Itkoff isn’t so much pointing out the tension between outmoded and cutting-edge technology as he is treating that space between them as a playground, redeeming the inevitable gap as a productive space.

Picking up on Itkoff’s “Menagerie” tone, Flanders also features Neill Prewitt’s Bad Economy, a tongue-in-cheek video work about becoming an artist. Two parts parody to one part complaint, the mini-rock opera shows aspirant Bobby’s journey from cubicle farm jockey through grad school critiques to his first one-man show, all with the production values of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Prewitt, who recently completed an MFA at UNC-Chapel Hill, skewers the critique particularly hilariously, calling “bullshit” on it without being mean about it.

Ironically, though, you might need some of that academic background to connect with the subversive and constructive natures of Itkoff’s and Prewitt’s work. The largely anaesthetic artwork of CtrlAltDel doesn’t automatically prompt a deeper engagement with it. But at a time when democratization has become so problematic that it seems on the verge of eating itself, this show’s cool, smart space provides an escape from overmediation, so that you might be more inclined to see the medium and the message once you step back out of the gallery.

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Revealing the medium's mark on the message, Michael Itkoff maps the conceptual space between analog and digital in a show at Flanders Gallery in Raleigh.

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