Bethany Engstrom, “Into the Woods / The Bodies Brush Together,” 2012, PVC, fabric, leaves & multi-channel audio, dimensions variable
Bethany Engstrom, “Into the Woods / The Bodies Brush Together,” 2012, PVC, fabric, leaves & multi-channel audio, dimensions variable
Conceptual art, which is driven by an idea rather than its making and can even be nothing but an idea, has taken many forms over the decades. More recently, it has turned from asking viewers to become intellectual participants to asking them to become physical ones as well. For one more week, visitors can experience what that means at Asymmetrick Arts in Rockland.

See Touch Hear encompasses work by John Bell, Richard Corey and Bethany Engstrom, who all graduated in 2011 from the Intermedia MFA program at the University of Maine at Orono. The show's title is perfectly suited to the multi-sensory experience their work offers. These are relatively young artists, whose concepts for artwork are fresh and engaging, and while the execution of some works could have been improved, I attribute that to lack of funds.

Engstrom's installation "Into the Woods/The Bodies Brush Together" envisions the experience of walking through the woods at night, surrounded by strange sounds and unsure where we are treading. It actually engages a fourth sense too, that of smell, as the bleached oak leaves we are walking, and possibly tripping, on exude an undeniable odor of nature that has been tampered with. It is not quite dark enough in the tunnel-like pathway for the suggestion of space, time and perception to be convincing, but this intersection of social, psychological and natural space is interesting nevertheless.

Engstrom's reverse confessional "Marriage" is more persuasively realized. Sitting in a seductively comfortable and intimate booth lined with white fabric, we listen to the sounds and conversations of the artist's marriage. Participants witness ordinary domestic drama while inhabiting two perceptual spaces simultaneously, hearing the home and seeing the gallery.

Bell most forcefully attempts to engage visitors as co-creators of art, but I am not sure he is the most successful. His three pieces center thematically around art and challenge, invite, or coax visitors to engage in narrowly defined creativity. "Art for Sale," a large banner depicting a barcode, dares anybody to develop a scanner large enough to successfully read the code to complete the artwork. The only way to respond to this is to wonder whether it is worth the trouble, which is probably just the artist's intention - to have us consider how much we are willing to invest in our aesthetic experience.
"Manifesto for Dust" displays several sentence threads with multiple choices for word replacement, thus allowing for the creation of new meanings. It illuminates how we interact with information online - sideways, in depth, branching out, tangentially - but hardly ever linearly.

"Emote8" grew out of a code-writing challenge and continuously rearranges lines to suggest emotions on a stylized face (imagine Darth Vader with a capacity for facial expression). Participants are expected to kneel on a prie-dieu and freeze an expression by pushing a button upon which they receive a printed receipt stating that they have just engaged in a "creative act." It also encourages them to purchase a print of the particular image chosen. I opt to read this as an ironic comment on art as status symbol and commercial product.

In contrast to Bell's prescribed interactions, Corey's contribution, "Spitting into the Wind," allows for various interactive experiences. Mounted on the wall, a row of white vertical boxes explores how touch drives our imagination and judgment. Each box is open at the bottom and invites participants to feel its contents. Within the narrow conceptual and literal confines of these boxes, invisible, fabricated narratives exist that are at the same time very real. Extending one's hand apprehensively and blindly into these realms of the unknown requires a certain trust. A sudden contact with material of various shapes, textures, warmth and flexibility can be quite unsettling and elicit strong visceral and psychological reactions. Becoming aware of one's responses to touch leads to the somewhat sobering realization of how instantaneous and irrational interpretation of sensory perception is.

Of course, participatory engagement with art is not entirely new territory. The closest parallel to these artists' particular kind of interactivity probably goes back to the 1970s, when Brazilian Lygia Clark (1920 - 1988) was one of the first artists to turn visitors into participants, stressing sensory experience and psychic responses to her interactive works. The difference to today may lie more in the audience than the artist or artwork. With the ubiquity of interactive features on our electronic equipment, we have come to expect to take an active role in shaping our perceptual experience. See Touch Hear gives participants just that chance - to complete and give life to art on their own terms.