|The graphic strategies of mass media advertising have always played on viewers’ subliminal needs and desires in order to sell products. In the post-War period, the manipulative power of the media became synonymous with Madison Avenue’s seductive magic. Fast forward to the digital age: Vienna-based media artist Günther Selichar investigates how those advertising strategies of embedding a subliminal or manipulative message into the very structure of the image persist in the digital era. Selichar photographs the digital machines that deliver the information we consume every day and structure the very way we communicate.|
Media Machines – Amy Ingrid Schlegel
The graphic strategies of mass media advertising have always played on viewers’ subliminal needs and desires in order to sell products. In the post-War period, the manipulative power of the media became synonymous with Madison Avenue’s seductive magic. Fast forward to the digital age: Vienna-based media artist Günther Selichar investigates how those advertising strategies of embedding a subliminal or manipulative message into the very structure of the image persist in the digital era.
Selichar photographs the digital machines that deliver the information we consume every day and structure the very way we communicate. The Tufts University Art Gallery in Boston presented the first major survey exhibition in the United States of Selichar’s work as well as a mobile public art intervention around the Boston metro area.
Although he does not employ more commonly used new media tactics and tropes, Selichar regards himself as a “media artist” because both his subject and his practice involve a critical examination of the uses and forms of digital media, rather than media narratives. He calls our attention to objects often overlooked and only recently regarded as industrial design objects with their own aesthetic merits—information delivery devices or “media machines.”
Selichar sees his artistic inquiry as similar to an archeologist’s practice; he excavates the interfaces and apparati used by media producers—the code, so to speak, not the content. The medium is, indeed, the message for Selichar.
Selichar’s digital photographic work focuses on the metaphysical meaning of the interface and on the formal, physical appearances of screens. He complicates our normative relationship to interfaces as thresholds and screens as portals or windows by asking us to consider them as objects in their own right. Selichar asks viewers to consider the ways in which our access to media is impacted by the viewing mechanism itself.
He uses specialized cameras to expose hidden or obscured structures that the human eye cannot see—such as cold computer screens (turned off), film and video lamps turned on and the stand-by mode of television screens. He then enlarges these images so that they are many times larger than the original object, and prints them on high-gloss, pristine surfaces that appear to float on frameless mounts. It is impossible to avoid seeing your reflection as you look at the work, and yet it is often very difficult to guess what kind of media machine you are looking at.
Close visual analysis of the work is highly rewarding on both aesthetic and conceptual levels. These seemingly straightforward—and very beautiful, exquisitely produced—documentary images deliberately contrast with complex social questions. Selichar hopes that we will “hold a microscope” to, and think critically about, the effects the mass media has on us as consumers of information.
Selichar’s highly detailed, large-scale digital photographs are inspired by a strain of mid-20th century abstract painting that referenced its own structure in its making. Frank Stella’s landmark Black Paintings, whose stripes corresponded to the width of the canvas stretcher bars, Barnett Newman’s colored stripe paintings, Franz Kline’s calligraphic brushwork and Aaron Siskind’s photographs of graffiti and other mark-making, are all conceptual sources for Selichar’s blend of photography and new media concerns.
Moreover, the aspect ratios of television, computer monitor and movie screens determine the proportions of his photographic objects and associated public art intervention in Boston.
Who’s Afraid of Blue, Red, and Green? Public Art Interventions
Selichar has extrapolated his concerns with colored screen surfaces to the public realm in several public art interventions staged since 1993 under the rubric Who’s Afraid of Blue, Red, and Green? These interventions have taken place at venues in New York City, Shanghai, China, various European cities and now in Boston.
In Boston, Selichar’s public art intervention is mobile and co-opts traditional advertising space on the sides of a tractor trailer. He typed the word “embedded” on a computer, photographed the screen, and enlarged the image to monumental (9 ft. high x 53 ft. long) proportions, employing the rectangular Cinemascope aspect ratio perfectly suited to the format of a tractor-trailer.
We see every pixel of the screen and the red, blue and green colors assigned to each pixel, which optically merge to appear as white when seen on a smaller scale. For Selichar, the term “’embedded’ is the starting point of a thinking process about our relationship to media and how it affects our knowledge, reactions and general view of the world generated by our media machines. In a self-reflective view of the “media surface,” the word embedded therefore raises the much more general question how we treat information and communication. Concept and image are perfectly united in this project.
The artist planned to have the trailer moved to different symbolic sites around the city during the run of the exhibition—governmental, commercial, transportation, cultural and athletic nodal points—where viewers would be forced to encounter the massive truck out of its normal context of interstate travel and to consider the meaning of the banners in place of conventional advertising or logos.
Permission to park and even move the truck to these desired sites have been denied or have yet to be granted. Such a large truck is already an eyesore and most entities approached for permission presumably did not want to be associated with the banner’s latent political message.
Selichar’s art intervention is nevertheless mobile. On certain, significant days (such as Primary Election Day in September and mid-term Congressional election day in November), the truck was driven around the city on roads capable of handling its size. The primary audience for this aspect of the project therefore was the occupants of other vehicles, moreso than pedestrians.
In between its movements, the truck is parked on the Tufts University campus. One astute Tufts student commented: “The trailer awakens the passerby to their surroundings, requiring them to acknowledge the looking process. It is an effective way to activate the growing passivity of the American populous.” Lack of a stronger or more widespread reaction to date seems to confirm this passivity and to underscore Selichar’s admonition against media consumption as a form of entertainment.
Selichar photographed video and camera lamps turned on in the Exposures series. In order to make both the lamp designs and the bulbs visible, the artist photographed the objects with professional lighting and a large-format camera with a built-in scanner (used in the advertising industry), with narrow apertures and short exposures.
Selichar focuses on the apparatus responsible for creating images in nighttime or low-light scenarios. In this series he explores the “pre-condition” and essential component of all photography—light—while also commenting on the “yellow journalism” of tabloid and paparazzi photography, which exposes its subjects with the use of flashes or other intrusive means.
Screens, cold, 1997-present
Selichar photographs the surfaces of screens (computer and television monitors and various types of LED, LCD, and plasma display screens) turned off. Viewers are presented with the challenge to trying to determine what kind of screen is documented in each image. Some of the screens appear to have memory— traces of the programmer’s icons, and other screens appear uniformly devoid of surface nuance or the illusion of depth.
Most have shadows cast from the studio lighting needed to photograph them with a narrow aperture and long exposures (up to 30 minutes), an approach that reveals colors not optically visible.