In 1958, German artist Wolf Vostell incorporated a television set into his installation The Black Room Cycle and, in effect, new media art was born. In the decades that followed, new media has grown to encompass art that incorporates a multitude of modern technologies, including computer animation, gaming technology, video art, 3D printed objects, robotics, biotechnology, and much more. Another aspect that differentiates it from older mediums is its interactivity. So when you come to Currents New Media 2019, Santa Fe’s annual new media art expo, you won’t just be an observer, you’ll also be an interface.

Currents is an international festival that showcases art embracing the cutting edge of technology. The exhibition fills about 25,000 square feet (of the 30,000 square-foot space) with immersive sound environments, multimedia performances, virtual reality environments, video projection, video sculpture, and a series of experimental documentaries. As in past years, the main exhibition takes place at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe in the Railyard and runs from Friday, June 7, through Sunday, June 23. Still, it’s a citywide event, with partner programs and related exhibits at galleries and other locations across town.

The main exhibition features works by 95 artists chosen from 560 applicants, including artists from France, Sweden, the Netherlands, England, Canada, and the United States. About 35 of them plan to attend. Approximately four dozen associated events take place over the festival’s 17-day run — for example, performances, artist talks, and workshops.

Started by Frank Ragano and Mariannah Amster, founders of Parallel Studios (which produces the event), Currents began its life at the Center for Contemporary Arts in 2002. Only eight artists were included. Ragano and Amster put on the festival only occasionally until 2010, when it moved into a June time slot at El Museo, and it’s been a yearly event ever since. It’s also grown to prominence as the city’s first big cultural event of the summer. Last year, it resulted in more than $1.1 million in estimated tourist spending in town.

“We’ve got people coming in from all over the world to see this thing,” Ragano said. “We’ve got people from Abu Dhabi and all over the place calling us, wanting to be involved.”

Amster, who’s 71, began her art career as a painter before moving into video work and video installation. Ragano, 67, was in experimental dance theater before shifting his interest to art and video. In the early years of the festival, they included their own video projects, but that stopped when Currents became an annual event. Now they’re focused on promoting the work of other artists. “I think of Currents as our piece,” Ragano told Pasatiempo in 2016.

Currents is charging admission for the first time this year, $5 per person for anyone 21 or older. If you’re 20 and younger, there’s no charge.

“Part of our mission has always been accessibility,” Amster said. “We feel like, if the kids are free, it’s not a big ask. We’re trying to find that middle ground of survival while still keeping our mission intact.”

“Of course, if somebody comes and says, ‘I can’t pay,’ we’re going to let them in,” Ragano added. “We had a homeless guy a couple of years ago, and when he left, he took what little bit of change he had in his pocket and put it in the donation box.”

Amster said that Currents pays for the artists’ travel expenses, lodging, and shipping of equipment. As the show has expanded its footprint over the years, costs have grown. This year, it cost about $275,000, much of that funded through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (as well as by donations). “We’re always counting pennies,” Ragano said, “but we always make it.”

While some artists’ projects are tech-heavy, Currents has never felt like walking into a Sharper Image store. The emphasis is on the art in most cases, with the tech components in service to aesthetic experiences. But sometimes it’s hard not to be taken in by the technical ingenuity.

San Francisco-based artist Neil Mendoza will present two pieces. His Robotic Voice Activated Word Kicking Machine takes a visitor’s spoken words and converts them to text that appears on a virtual screen, where the words pile up in a heap and get booted by a robotic foot. His Antivanity Mirror is a robotic mirror that pivots so as not to allow viewers to look at themselves. In a statement, he calls it “the perfect gift for the selfie lover in your life!”

Brooklyn-based artist Yihan Chen’s Emotions On Line is a wearable device that generates sound when retractable strings are pulled from a custom-built mechanism. The sounds change depending on how far the strings can be extended, so the experience is different for each wearer. Chen wears the device in a performance starting at 6:30 p.m. on opening night. She repeats the performance from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 8, and again that night from 8 p.m. to midnight.

Local artist Jamie Hamilton’s Echo Chamber is a glass and aluminum vitrine (or display case) illuminated by LEDs. As viewers gaze into the light sculpture, they’re presented with a view of a haunting, infinite landscape.

In Jersey City-based Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s RE-ANIMATED, the artist took 3D scans of plant and animal specimens in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as well as audio recordings of the extinct Kaua‘i ‘o-‘o- bird’s song. He also conducted interviews with ornithologist H. Douglas Pratt and converted them, along with the scans and birdsong, into a virtual environment. The result is a primal habitat in which he explores ideas of extinction and ecological preservation.

It’s heady stuff, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the following pages, Pasatiempo takes a look at some of the highlights of this year’s festival, all of which are in the main exhibit unless otherwise noted. ◀

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