The Shadow Knows

By Rebecca Schoenkopf “Everyone wants virtual reality now,” one of my paintin' friends hissed—he does that a lot—when I said I was headed to UC Irvine to see electronic art. “So, do some,” I said. I am nothing if not sympathetic. He hissed again, and rolled his eyes into the farther reaches of his brain and shrugging with all the expressiveness only a Frenchman can impart. His displeasure needed only jazz hands and a step-ball-change to be a full-fledged showstopper.

But Scott Snibbe's electronic media installation “Screen Series” at UCI's Beall Center is as simple as my friend could have wished. It's not an arcade for cultural bumpkins who only like art they can play with. (Guilty.) There's no saturated color to manipulate your emotions like the playboys of Light N Space gave us, just varying shades of gray and pure white. There's no storyline, no snipers, just blocks of light.

It's not so much virtual reality as Pong. And try as you might, you can't possibly spend more than 14 minutes with it. Why? Because only a narcissist or Paris Hilton could spend so much time gazing at her own shadow.

In the darkened center, six projectors throw squares of light onto two long walls. Each is equipped with a different game. Step between one projector and the wall, and your shadow's movements are catalogued and looped until the next person walks or dances along. Step in front of another projector, and your shadow catches, spreading gray across the wall in a tsunami of pixels. One more gives you an angel aura. And two have squares of light that will run away from your outstretched arms like a bad boyfriend, never to be caught. Like the attention-hungry cast in any reality show, the blocks of light need a viewer in order to live.

Snibbe gets to show at places like the Whitney. He's taught at Brown and Berkeley. He's an award-winning “research artist,” but with this series he's going for intentionally primitive.

According to the Beall Center's website, Snibbe's “stunning meditation on light and shadow . . . functions on a number of levels, introducing the audience to the history and technique of the earliest cinematic cameras as well as allowing viewers to create cinema directly with their bodies. . . . Snibbe has developed a work that belies its technical complexity and brings the process of the earliest moving image photography into the 21st century.”

You half expect one of those preposterously huge '70s mainframe computers humming in the middle of the room, synching up his shadow boxes—or better yet, a spiked roll of tin, like that in a player piano—to more authentically simulate the positively ancient processes Snibbe's recreating. Nothing fast or small or elegant. So Snibbe cheats, and we dance.

My son posed for some minutes in front of the projector that loops your movements (narcissist? My son? Shet yo mouth!). He threw gang signs. He twirled. It was very like the old shadow box at the Children's Museum downtown, which froze your shadow for later like the blast at Nagasaki. The only addition in Snibbe's work is the looped movement—the silhouettes at the children's museum were still and dead—and there's more than a little discomfort in watching your shadow move along without you. First is the simple embarrassment of doing an arabesque or the Hustle in front of the bored eyes of the gallery-sitter. Since only a kid or Ruth Gordon would feel free enough to do the steps necessary to create a compelling movement, the rest of us simply walk quickly by, realizing in horror that our shadow—walking by over and over again until someone else's movement starts the process anew—is both saggier and more wrinkled than we knew. And the second is a Dr. Jekyll uneasiness in seeing your shadow separate from you. Next thing you know, your shadow will be doing bad, bad things along with your evil tattoo on an episode of The X-Files.

Far more pleasant is the projector that gives you a halo. You can raise your arms into ballet's fourth position—even fat arms look graceful that way—and feel like Joni Mitchell's stardust. Your shadow doesn't move along without you; it just retains a messianic glow.

I'm a sucker for toys, for color, for virtual reality. But Snibbe's simplicity is a pleasure too—those of us old enough to have Pong in our blood can try to catch Snibbe's squares a good two minutes longer than kids weaned on X-Box ever could. Snibbe's squares are intentional dinosaurs already—almost as dinosaur as my friends who are still stuck on canvas. But one lets you be a tsunami, one lets you jump and try to catch something as elusive as true love, and one lets you be a dinosaur and an angel at the same time. A halo can be a wonderful pick-me-up.

Your 14 minutes are all gone. You could, at this point, falsely intellectualize Snibbe—talk with yourself about the Rogerian notion of self concept, Freudian separation anxiety, Durkheimian anomie. Or you could simply do the Hustle one more time.

“Screen Series” at UC Irvine's Beall Center for Art and Technology, (949) 824-6206. Open Mon.-Sat., noon-5 p.m.; Fri., noon-8 p.m. Through Dec. 13.

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