Mike Germon and Chelsea Raflo have collaborated on “Space Aged,” at Beep Beep Gallery through September 7, and the distinction between their respective perspectives on science and history makes for a productively amusing tension — and for some downright wonderful one-liners. Their shared jokes are full of conceptual depths.
We’re living in an era in which the romance of the past is richer than ever (if ancient-history television programs such as “Secrets of the Dead” are any indication) but the luster of technology has come firmly down to earth from the far reaches of space. The Mars rover may still be uncovering secrets of the Red Planet, but the public shows no real sense of excitement, and a change of crews on the International Space Station usually doesn’t merit even a brief news item. By contrast, the launching of a new smartphone is covered in a depth formerly reserved for manned lunar missions. And Germon and Raflo have a great deal of fun with this shift in cultural attention.
Germon focuses on the disjunctures between the explosion of scientific knowledge in the past half-century and the relative level of popular interest in and understanding of that fact. The split is so absolute that the frequent use of divided layers in his collage images (one is titled “The Saint Bisected”) might be taken as a symbol of it. But in truth, it isn’t entirely clear what Germon is driving at in this new work.
Raflo’s comic videos, on the other hand, are deliciously on target, using the iconography of wi-fi and instant messaging to suggest fundamental changes in the way we live. “Act natural” appears repeatedly in the speech bubble of a mobile-phone message, reminding us that our day-to-day behavior is anything but given by nature.
“Surveillance Camera at the Museum of Grass” presents figures moving into and out of a gallery that exhibits rectangular plots of grass. The grass changes visibly in the course of the fast-forwarded footage, in which, for the most part, not much happens. A camera literally watches grass grow, an excellent metaphor for the ubiquitous surveillance that generally captures nothing except a lack of action.
In their collaborative installation in the back gallery, Raflo and Germon have combined her museum diorama and the paper-doll figures used in her animations with the raw materials of Germon’s collage: maps, art-history photos, et al. This meaningless assemblage of resonantly meaningful individual pictures provides some of the funniest, and most thought-provoking, parts of “Space Aged”: a medieval figure of the Virgin Mary with the “Act natural” mobile-phone speech bubble, for example.
Raflo has extended her range of vision and practice far more than Germon has — not that there’s anything wrong with sticking with something that works. Her videos are presented in elegant handmade wooden boxes that echo a past era of craft or a present era of elegantly understated design that stands in stark contrast to the glitzy qualities of the digital devices she parodies or ridicules in the videos. Some of the videos — “Music Box” and “Nightlight” in particular — also contain glimpses of the actual world of nature in which our technologically mediated lives still unfold, suggesting that, even if we move as mechanically as a figure in an antique music box, something more authentic may still be possible underneath all the artifice.