by Kara Q. Smith
Perhaps like any work, the successful reception of video-based art in an exhibition is almost as dependent on its installation as it is the artistic merit and intentions of the piece, though sometimes the latter is built into the former. In the art world, there are varying schools of thought about the reception of video work in an exhibition. Recently, I have heard that viewers only watch a piece for a maximum of two minutes and that many people are now hesitant to put on headphones due to spread of germs.
Personally, I think any good piece will hold my attention for as long as is needed, length and bacteria-ridden headphones be damned. My preferred viewing format is a dark room surrounded by black fabric where no headphones are needed. This sanctuary-like dark space creates a viewer dependency on the light of the piece being projected and I am drawn into the material as a direct measure of my disorientation from my surroundings (night/day, other people’s presence). Not unlike a cinematic alien abduction-like trance, I am ready to interpret the carefully edited flashes of light in front of me—the variations in value acting as a function of time that indicate the intensity through the subtle or dramatic shifting of light and create certain palpable “light rhythms” throughout a piece.
These light rhythms combined with linear movements and patterns, spatial relationships and dramaturgy (and the aforementioned viewing experience, of course) are what highlight the experience of watching Matt Borruso’s How to See, 2011, at Steven Wolf Fine Arts. In this video installation, two looped scenes of struggle are projected side by side. It is evident that they are excerpted clips from extant films, but their orientation to each other creates a new, heightened tension-provoking rhythm in the dark back room of the gallery.
On the left, one man holds a pair of sunglasses and speaks briefly to another man, who proceeds to punch him. They scramble. One helps the other up. More scrambling. Their conversation is abstract. Now the first man pushes the second man down. More scrambling. The men grunt and shuffle awkwardly across the screen. Before I have watched the loop in its entirety, the repetition of the scene itself leads me to focus on the right-hand scenario. Here a child refuses to eat, throws her food, her helper/mother/sister tries to feed her again. The child grabs her hair, runs around the room, bangs on the door. The caring figure still tries. The child won’t eat, and won’t stop throwing a tantrum. The two seem as though they are locked in a room. There is pacing around, sighs and screams from both characters intermittently throughout the loop.
Ten minutes have passed and I realize there will be no resolving the plot of each loop. The fluctuation of movements across each scene, the rhythms of screaming/shuffling/light/dark/shadow creates an intense pattern across both screens, and as I travel back and forth, I feel anxious, as though I am hearing drums rolls get closer and closer, never crossing the threshold into existence.
After viewing the piece, I learn that the first scene is excerpted from They Live, 1988, a sci-fi B-movie centered around a man who finds a pair of sunglasses that expose the subliminal messages that the media is using to control the population. The second scene is from The Miracle Worker, 1962, the landmark feature film about Helen Keller and her relationship with her relentless teacher, Anne Sullivan. The title of the installation gives credence to the subject of each scene: How We See. Refracted light being the basis of sight, the plots of the films used in How We See suggest a struggle to see and understand the world around us and how even when we think we can see perfectly, looming messages of deceit may abound.
Using repetition as a tool of persuasive discourse, the viewer is pushed to create their own revelation wholly different from the revelation evidenced in each film (when the sunglasses are finally put on, and when Helen Keller finally learns how to experience form and communication with her hands). Borruso’s re-interpretation and collapsing of forgotten films creates new patterns and rhythms generating new thought and new meaning about not only the viewing experience but also the known or unknown tensions in our own lives between the seen and unseen. Now, having unpacked the juxtaposition between experiencing How to See with no context and digging deeper into the underlying messages, I actually find that it was really successful and perhaps even more disturbing without my conceptual framework.
—Kara Q. Smith
 Based off the research of light as a function of time in cinema by Robert Steele at Boston University. Referenced in: “Report on a Study of Light Variables Measured as a Function of Time in the Cinema” by Robert Steele and Robert Logan. The Journal of the Society of Cinematologists, Vol. 4/5 (1964/1965), pp. 37-54