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Aernout Mik at MoMA: Something is Happening Here, But I Don't Know What It Is

Last weekend, when I stood for two hours with a crowd behind barricades watching the Secret Service and police accompany the First Couple's motorcade to the restaurant on Washington Place for date night, I thought about the video installations I had seen earlier in the week at MoMA by Aernout Mik. Like the Dutch artist's works that recreate and loop recognizable but ill-defined moments of a mediated police state, the action that I saw before me seemed equally generic. A helicopter flies overhead. Secret service personnel in suits, some with sunglasses, scan the crowd. The police stop a guy on a bicycle. Another lets a few residents and diners through the barricades. Car doors open and shut. If anyone has spent some of their lives watching breaking news on television, the unfolding crisis often contains within its boundaries long passages of lull and boredom. The events on Washington Place could have been the spectacle of any leader of a powerful state arriving at a previously undisclosed destination.

"Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?"
- Bob Dylan, Ballad Of A Thin Man, 1965

The exhibition of Mik's installations at MoMA, each individually sited within the museum in its own spatial configuration, invites a new look at broadcast news, as we've come to know it, and the types of spectacle crises we've come to accept as situation normal - crises of state legitimation, terrorism and civil disruption, boundary disputes and immigration, student unrest, and so forth. The action of these recreated spectacles does not begin and end as a traditional narrative; rather, the events loop, always seemingly on the verge of a high-end dramatic moment but then falling away again into repeated moments. The videos are silent, focusing our attention to contemplate the architectural space and the location of cameras. With Vacuum Room (2005), the surveillance cameras play an important part of the piece. When I was watching the President's security entourage, my consciousness had been heightened by seeing Mik's work, and so I easily located the security cams outside buildings.

The exhibition at MoMA is spread out throughout the museum, and each re-situates the viewer within the space. The configuration of aforementioned Vacuum Room, a multi-camera investigation of a political crisis, mirrors the sense of being in a chamber, while a new commissioned work on two screens, Schoolyard (2009), is sited along the corridor leading to the museum's cafe. Beyond the schoolyard, looking down at the edges of the screen, the viewer can see MoMA's own yard, the Sculpture Garden. Particularly effective is Scapegoat (2006), a one-screen installation evoking the tensions of a long hostage episode. Mik's videos allow and even encourage the viewer to scan the scene for clues and information.

The video below, produced by MoMA in conjunction with the exhibit, features the artist explaining the work (and he's very forthcoming, unlike many artists), and it shows how the museum has set up the installations.



So many of the scenes and images of this artist's videos have sadly become an unexamined part of our visual landscape. By looking at them, however, and reflecting on how we've come to see events of the world through the eyes of video cameras, the more likely we'll question our equally important assumptions about how we define reality.

Aernout Mik continues at MoMA through July 27.
Video from MoMA.
Image at top right by Walking Off the Big Apple.

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