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NCSU Art+Design students and faculty futurize CAM Raleigh 

McArthur Freeman's "Poly-faces"

Photo by Chris Vitiello

McArthur Freeman's "Poly-faces"

As you trot down the steps to the new ID:ENTITY show at CAM Raleigh, you will first become aware of its cumulative sound. Whether you find the audio interference of many multimedia artifacts vaguely comforting, like the heady slot machine din of a casino floor, or repellant, like holiday stores competing for your attention across the corridor of a mall, the sound will at least be familiar.

Despite this show's futuristic feel, these sounds and images are those of the present. And you'd best learn how to interact with them, or even wield them, if you aren't doing so already.

The blurring of boundaries—between media, disciplines, realities and identities—is the conceptual undercurrent of this show on display through Feb. 13 in the lower-level Independent Weekly Gallery. ID:ENTITY features 11 artists affiliated with the North Carolina State University College of Design. But that's putting it too simply.

Many pieces are collaborative, showing the partnering—and blurring together—of artists with technicians, faculty with students, and various departments such as the art+design and the communication, rhetoric and digital media programs. CAM exhibitions manager Kate Shafer officially curated the show but effusively deferred credit to the artists who quite necessarily installed the works themselves. In every way, ID:ENTITY expresses a hive approach to creativity and exemplifies the museum's partnership between the College of Design and Raleigh's Contemporary Art Foundation.

Most of the works appear on screens or are projected onto walls, and many use the gesture-recognition technology of the Microsoft Kinect sensor—familiar to Xbox gamers—to react to the movements of gallery patrons. Released just a year ago, the Kinect's proprietary drivers were quickly cracked, prompting Microsoft to release an open source software development kit for the unit. Patrick FitzGerald, an associate art and design professor at N.C. State and co-creator of several pieces in the show, lauded the Kinect as not simply a toy or even a tool but a new artistic medium unto itself, providing a natural user interface for various kinds of operations that could replace the mouse and keyboard with gestures and sounds.

"Designers are in charge now, and not just the computer science guys," says FitzGerald. "This isn't just a show. It's a platform of software that we're building and that it can just go on. We believe we're going to have projections on the front windows, which will be frosted so that at night, when people walk by, it'll do stuff."

David Rieder and Kevin Brock use the Kinect to interactively animate the e.e. cummings poem "This is the Garden" in a piece titled "embody(text) {." As you enter an alcove, your body outline appears on a wall, filled with the words and lines of the poem. It jitters with atomic life as the Kinect incessantly scans you and adjusts to your movements. One cannot help but break into a playful, but Wittgensteinian, dance. Brock grins as patrons get over their initial hesitancy, gradually forgetting their bodies in favor of their virtual and textual counterpart.

"We wanted to think of writing and reading as natural activities," he says with a chuckle.

Rieder also collaborated with David Gruber on "Tunnel Vision," another poem-based work that uses a Mark Strand poem about a man's fear of a person in front of his house as a metaphor for one's relationship to new technologies.

FitzGerald, Lee Cherry and Karoon McDowell's "Facebook Friend" is one of the works that most directly expresses how the blurring of virtual and actual realities destabilizes one's conception of self. Green status updates tumble from above onto a whiteface head that floats in a small alcove, its ambivalence disturbed only by occasional pixilation.

David Millsaps' "Routine" is a large touchscreen grid of aerial photographs of downtown Raleigh that extends the conception of self over an urban surface. The images change when you tap them, so you can reconfigure the downtown layout, although it gradually resets itself over time.

"I'm sort of obsessed with the built environment of Raleigh," Millsaps says. He taps several times upon a square in the grid, changing it from a green park to a parking lot to a square containing the recognizable circular roof of the Clarion Hotel. "This is the southern central grid of the city, and that's my interaction grid. That's not everyone's, but there's a certain kind of demographic that lives here and works here that kind of interacts within these squares."

Wherever you tap, a crowd of little will-o'-the-wisp dots (Millsaps calls them "agents") heads there and swarms the square, eventually changing it.

"After you get it up here and people are interacting with it," he says, "it becomes more about the built environment than the individual routine. It becomes more about the topography of the land and things like that."

Other highlights include Marc Russo's formidable and chilling computer animation titled "The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse," which devotes a framed flat screen each to silence, decay, consumption and death. The imagery is reminiscent of the Brothers Quay—grotesque dolls crush televisions in a desolate landscape; innocent-looking figures on a conveyor belt vanish into a booth amid a horizontal snow of ashes. Each television displays randomly ordered segments from a repository, providing a tonal narrative rather than an explicit story.

"If someone wants to, they can close in on one and build a story," Russo says.

With all the screens and sounds, one can almost overlook the most interesting and subtly tricky work in the show. The back wall of the gallery contains six small portrait sculptures by McArthur Freeman, which appear to be plaster at first glance. But a monitor on an adjacent wall reveals a very different process. Freeman sculpted these "Poly-faces" entirely virtually, and the monitor shows a filmic screen capture of this work.

"I start with a ball of polygons," Freeman says. He works the ball into a head shape, defines features and moves through levels of detail until a very handsculpted-looking head is onscreen. Then he makes a 3-D printout. When you scrutinize the heads, you can see the limit of the printout's gradation. Rings and whorls surround the features as on a contour map, an idiosyncrasy that Freeman very much enjoys. It's part of what makes the printout a surprise: "I am really familiar with the forms, but I'm not really quite sure what they are going to look like in the end."

Freeman is the only artist in the show using a cutting-edge process to produce a traditional artistic form—"traditional" meaning handmade here. His expressionless, white heads raise all sorts of questions. Are these sculptures? If we define sculpture as handmade, then maybe not. But Freeman used his hands to manipulate a mouse and a touchpad instead of clay, so aren't these handmade? Handmade sculptures that are never actually touched by hands until their completion—is this a contradiction?

Freeman shrugs, very comfortable with leaving these questions unanswered.

"The work was about capturing the likenesses and also about the process," he says. "I was thinking about the identity of the figures and the identity of the process too." In their automation and ease, our processes have themselves become almost animate.

This show doesn't always explore its primary claim: a definition of self as the sum of perception and reality. Some pieces pick at or vanish into the phenomenological holes in that equation; others are really just the answers to a "Hey, what if we did this?" playfulness with a new medium. But these works are so playful and impressive that hopelessly evasive, multiple and even unconsidered realities don't undermine them. And you might catch yourself asking, "Wouldn't it be cool if it could do this?" and thinking yourself into the future.

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