New media has a leg up on the phantoms of the digital world — you know, those files you can’t hold in your hands and can’t feel and that exist only as a series of zeros and ones in an invisible cloud that is no cloud and is located nowhere. That might be oversimplifying the digital realm, but new media, which includes digital but is not limited to it, has substance. Video sculpture might require a projector, but it is still sculpture in the round. It has mass and takes up space. New-media installation art, too, is something one must negotiate in three dimensions. And the equipment used for the display of digital technology of all kinds, even when it’s state of the art, is driven by the analog power of electromotive force. If you happened to catch Currents: The Santa Fe International New Media Festival, which wrapped up at El Museo on June 26, then you know (or should know) this: New media is here to stay. And by “here” I mean really here, as in actually here in this place, as in “I can touch it and hopefully won’t break it.” The truth is, I thought I did break something while visiting Currents this year, but it turned out to be something that was already loose. I was holding the SyncDon II, designed by Akihito Ito and Issey Takahashi of Japan, when the bottom fell out. The SyncDon II is a gift-wrapped box that throbs to a heartbeat, records your heartbeat, and syncs your heartbeat with that of the person who was holding the box before you. The intention is to get you to experience the emotions of the previous holder. I felt nervous and wondered if that would extend to whoever was next in line. If so — and you’re reading this — I apologize.
Currents is in its seventh consecutive year as an annual festival, and it looked better than ever. Part of that is due to the nature of the work, and part of it is because of Currents founders and new-media artists Frank Ragano and Mariannah Amster, who have lots of expertise in new-media installation. “Mariannah designs the layout of the space,” Ragano told Pasatiempo. “This year, she did it so it feels very spacious and open, even though there’s so much going on. We never had so many wall pieces before. We’ve got like five wall pieces which, typically, would be five more installations. That’s one of the reasons it feels more spacious.”
Amster started out as a painter. She moved to video work and then to video installation. Ragano was in experimental dance theater before shifting to making art installations and then video installations. Each year since the founding of Currents in 2002, Amster and Ragano included their own video work in the event. But that stopped in 2010, when the growing festival moved into El Museo because it required more room than it had in smaller venues like Zane Bennett Contemporary Art and Salon Mar Graff. Now Amster and Ragano are focused on promoting the works of other artists, and it’s a full-time job. “I think of Currents as our piece,” he said.
The annual citywide festival offers new-media installations, outdoor installations, architectural mapping, animation, performance art, immersive full-dome video, an experimental documentary series, apps for mobile devices, Oculus Rift virtual-reality experiences, robotics, 3-D printing, and a heck of a lot more. It’s inclusive and community-oriented while still being international and mostly free. The main exhibit at El Museo (there are satellite shows all over town) is always free, and Amster and Ragano want to keep it that way. “That’s our hope. It’s almost like we’d rather just fold it up if we had to start charging,” he said. “But our funding is going up. Every year it goes up a little more. We got about five or six thousand in corporate support this year. We don’t usually get that. We get grants from foundations and individual donations.”
The Thoma Foundation is the event’s biggest donor. Carl and Marilynn Thoma have been collectors since 1975, focusing their interest in three areas: Spanish Colonial art, Japanese bamboo, and modern and contemporary art, including new media. They have a show, Mouse in the Machine, that’s up in conjunction with Currents; if you missed the festival, you can still see superlative examples by innovators in the field at Art House, the Thoma Foundation’s Santa Fe gallery. Mouse in the Machine shows through next spring.
The Thoma show is not the only exhibit in town that can still be seen. The Virtual Object, a show of 3-D printing, is on view at Form & Concept through Aug. 11, and David Richard Gallery got in on the act with Plugged In, an exhibit of new-media artists influenced by post-1960s abstraction and technology. Plugged In is up through July 4. In addition, during the festival run, Violet Crown Cinema hosted screenings of experimental documentary shorts, as did the Harwood Museum in Taos; the Institute of American Indian Arts Digital Dome presented video screenings as well. New Media New Mexico: Art, Science & Technology in the Land of Enchantment — a partnership that includes Currents, Central Features in Albuquerque, the Harwood, the University of New Mexico, Warehouse 1-10 in Magdalena, and the Roswell Museum and Art Center, among other organizations — highlights new media across the state, often with shows scheduled to coincide with one another. Currents was a primary influence in its formation. “We were ready to just put it away last year,” Ragano said of New Media New Mexico. He and Amster were instrumental in coming up with the joint marketing plan and concept for the project. “We had just three partners, but all of a sudden all these other people approached us and said, ‘Hey, we want to be part of that.’ So now it’s got its own life.”
Amster and Ragano, however, don’t tackle all of this alone. They are Currents’ only full-time staff, at least until festival time, when part-time staff becomes full time and volunteers and interns swarm in to help out. Head preparator Tim Jag, a painter and performance artist, is in charge of hanging all the projectors. “Since it’s the same routine every year, he’s gotten really fast,” Ragano said. “He was fast to begin with, but he’s gotten even faster. We have a lot of volunteers, but we also hired five people from Meow Wolf. Plus we have like eight interns.” For most of us, handling all of this would be a logistical nightmare. Factor in all the audio-video rentals, the travel and lodging arrangements for dozens of international artists, plus all of the marketing before, during, and after the event, and the total cost (about $200,000 this year) is more than justified. It really isn’t all that much for a festival of this size and breadth. It’s something you would expect to see in a much larger city than quaint, out-of-the-way Santa Fe. “It’s nothing — for a show this size that runs for three weeks,” Ragano said. “Mariannah and I don’t get paid very much. We get like $300 a week. When the money runs out, we just quit getting paid.”
They do work other jobs despite a full-time commitment to running Currents. Amster works at Maya, a boutique shop for clothing and objects of art, and Ragano is a contractor, who, along with his business partner, built the infrastructure for the installation at Meow Wolf Art Complex: the framing, drywall, and electrical and fire-suppression systems. “It was blast,” he said. “That was my most favorite job.”
Well, one man’s Meow Wolf is another man’s Currents, which also looks like a blast to be involved in. While much of the new media on display is conceptual, it’s also a lot of fun without being all about the bells and whistles. Several pieces stood out. One, Nichos, is a knotted, branchless tree with small portals resembling holes poked out by woodpeckers that you can peer into. Inside are little scenes that seem like memories of things the tree has witnessed in its long life — a combination of miniature work, video, and holograms. A fiery red light illuminates the tree from within, as though it was burning inside. Nichos was created by Santa Fe-based artists Nate Metheny and Thor Sigstedt. Chicago-based artist Yuge Zhou, originally from Beijing, showed To Afar the Water Flows, a wall-mounted video sculpture of mind-boggling complexity and stunning visuals. It left me wondering how, exactly, a projection can so precisely fit all the contours of a sculpture with variable dimensions. The piece is a reconstruction of a city, pulsing with life and contrasted with the ebb and flow of life in the natural world. I was reminded of Zhou’s piece by another work in the show, Shanghai artist Yang Yongliang’s Rising Mist, a photographic scroll that incorporates video elements and appears, from a distance, to be a traditional Chinese landscape painting. Closer inspection reveals that every detail of Rising Mist is composed of man-made objects: electrical transmission towers made to look like trees on a misty mountaintop, for instance. The piece is part of Code and Noise, a small show of new media that was presented within the larger exhibition at El Museo. It was curated by Christine Duval, an independent curator and adviser, and is a traveling show that premiered at the Art Silicon Valley Fair in San Mateo, California, in 2015, and travels to Arena 1 in Los Angeles after Currents. “We’ve been wanting for a while to add an extra voice,” Ragano said. “Christine approached us.”
I also liked local artist August Muth’s Bloodless Reconquest, a holographic installation referencing Spain’s reassertion of control over its New Mexico colony 12 years after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. And, as an armchair theoretical physicist (yeah, right!), I was also impressed by Iowa artist Gillian Brown’s The Shape of the Universe, a video sculpture based on the idea of an expanding universe that contrasts sharply, but also suggestively, with the microcosmic, confined interior space in which it’s installed. Then, of course, there’s Stanley, making his third appearance at Currents in as many years. Stanley is a roving robot who bleeps and whirs as he negotiates his way around the exhibit. He was designed by local artist Michael Schippling and is too damned cute. Of course, I’m projecting (pun intended) human qualities onto an artificial machine. “Stanley is our mascot,” Ragano said.
Children love Stanley. Children love Currents, too. Amster and Ragano deserve kudos for actively engaging kids through local school and summer youth programs. Currents partnered with Littleglobe and the Youth Shelters and Family Services’ Access! program this year for workshops on new media. Littleglobe engages kids and adults in interdisciplinary, collaborative art projects, and Access! is a program for at-risk youth. “We set up this thing where Littleglobe would teach workshops once a week with the kids through the month of May, introducing them to AV equipment and getting them to make a piece for opening night,” Ragano said. “On opening night they had it projected on the ground outside and it blew me away, so we brought it inside.”
Not everything works out for the best, however. Dozens of projectors and video monitors and other equipment mean that, on occasion, there are glitches. But workers are always around to deal with technical problems as they arise.
With more and more artists signing on every year (the festival featured representatives from more than 35 countries in 2016), Currents feels less like a festival or fair and more like a major biennial. “What’s happening is that the artists come and they love it so much, because they all get a sense of community and family going on. We pay their airfare and put them in a hotel. Most places don’t even do that. The artists are going back and spreading the word, so it’s got a real international buzz now. It seems to be growing. The main thing we were most unhappy with this year — and it’s true every year, except for Saturday nights when we have music out here — there’s really not enough activity outside. We’re not getting a big enough crowd outside. If anything is really going to grow, it’s the outside thing if we can figure out how to do it.”
Currents saves on promotional and marketing costs by using less expensive alternatives than print media (except locally) — alternatives like Facebook and email blasts. “We also have $10,000 a month in Google AdWords and it’s free for life. They gave it to us as a grant. So we have several campaigns running on AdWords for the festival but also for Santa Fe. We have a Visit Santa Fe campaign we’ve got going. AdWords is an incredible resource. One of the things we think we can help the whole community with is, we’ve been talking about starting a very simple website called Alternative Santa Fe and list Currents, Meow Wolf, Axle, all the pop-up galleries, and even places to stay we think are cool. We just started talking with people about that.”
Santa Fe has its share of art fairs. Art Santa Fe, the International Folk Art Market, and Spanish Market are right around the corner, and Indian Market and the Indigenous Fine Art Market are not too far behind. Those are just a few of what the summer offers, but none of them are as dynamic and directly engaging as Currents. That’s partly because these fairs are geared largely toward collectors and the buying and selling of art, whereas Currents is tapping into a different kind of spirit, intent on engaging your senses as well as your mind, integrating real science and art in thought-provoking ways. Currents is Santa Fe’s Sputnik moment.