In the 1960s, artists such as Desmond Paul Henry started manipulating existing computer technology for artistic purposes. He made drawing machines, and other artists tinkered with randomly generated paintings and the like. The question then was how to incorporate the burgeoning technology into contemporary art. Reactionary art dealt with politics – McCarthyism, Vietnam – and with pop culture. Fifty years later, we have a different situation. Art reacts (sometimes) to the universality of contemporary mass media, like the Internet, broadcast television and brand-driven culture.

A handful of students and faculty have added their reactions at the School of Art and Design’s Work Gallery on State Street. The current exhibit, “Mania,” is a collection of artwork inspired by media – a vague concept that, correctly, takes many forms. But it’s easy for this theme to be too cynical. Is the art reacting to mass media, or is it incorporating it? What’s the difference? You won’t find much differentiation, as the bulk of the displayed work barely escapes the qualifier “unmitigated whining.”

There are the typical advertisement mash-ups: senior Devin MacDonald’s “iBaby” is a slick poster of a silhouetted infant with an iPod, and senior Sara Burke’s digital photo series “Beef Cakes (unintentional)” mocks fashion/modeling. The best of these reinterpretations are found in Candy Wei’s “Works from the Collage Series.” Magazine ads for Neiman Marcus and Chanel are manipulated with additional photos and sentences made up of words cut out of magazines. Models have dogs for heads and slogans are mocked. Especially appealing is Wei’s rejoinder to the slogan “Where fashion meets function”: “Heck No.”

It’s no surprise the exhibit is rife with cynicism. After all, Google and Amazon are figuring out what you’re going to click on before you do, Apple is creating a lifestyle out of hard drives and ear buds and models are forever divorced from real-world beauty (on a Chanel ad with a dog’s snarling head on the model, Wei pasted the words “liposuctioned monster from hell”). It’s frightening, this notion of corporations plugging product choice into an algorithm and calculating my love for sci-fi/fantasy novels before my friends do.

Apparently we all have a genome made up of choices, not alleles. To wit from “High Fidelity”: “A while ago, Dick, Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like – not what you are like. Books, records, movies, these things matter.” Yes, they certainly do. As such, several works seem to reflect this feeling. Senior Genevieve Mihalko’s “Sushi Rides The Tentacle Train” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but pictures of sushi ride up tentacles toward a human brain (perhaps Sushi.come had something to do with it). Senior Margaret Chen’s “Suburbia” looks like a periodic table of elements: detached, unfeeling. Urban sprawl is exposed as a formula.

A more prevalent unifier is the grid. Several of the exhibited works are arranged in a strict grid format, best expressed in the exhibit’s video installations by Joey Ostrander and Steve Coy, who have separate but similar pieces in the basement gallery. Each features a grid of television feeds, including movies, commercials and sitcoms. Coy’s piece, “Target Audience,” is small in scale. A grid of video feeds washes over several white, movable dolls (used by artists for sketching exercises) with red targets on their heads, a rather literal interpretation of the title.

Ostrander’s “For Your Viewing Pleasure: a perfect combination” is more mocking – better cynicism because it quietly makes jabs at the audience. A grid of 81 videos is projected onto the wall. The images are too small and change too quickly for accurate identification. While it’s impossible to watch any one clip, audio from the clips can be heard – but not all at once. The brief snippets of dialogue and commentary don’t overlap. Basically, Ostrander has recreated manic inattention. There’s too much to focus on, too much to absorb. The title tells us this is a “perfect combination.” Sarcasm, anyone?

But that’s about it. It’s disheartening to see so little reinterpretation or imagination. Instead, we have reaction, reaction, reaction. Make a video of the artistic process and put it on YouTube. Invite the viewer to get on the Internet. There’s plenty of good to be mined from all this “media” stuff. How are artists manipulating it to their advantages? Contemporary critique of pop culture is just fine, but as in the case of Burke’s “Beef Cakes (unintentional)” series, art is sometimes undermined by that which it attempts to undermine. The work can’t be “unintentional” if the backgrounds are completely white (as if taken in a studio). With few exceptions there is no audio, no tactile elements, no audience participation. Isn’t that a major part of modern mass media? The viewer/audience member/consumer is king. They need to be engaged.

Mass media – and all its many tentacles – is a blessing and curse, right? It’s time to see where the blessings exist. Cynicism only goes so far.

Wish Klein would write more about Lolcats? Email him at andresar@umich.edu

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