Art: Control Freak

Robert Derr's video installation Remote Control lacks 'something new'

Before the video came the performance: On Nov. 15, Robert Ladislas Derr arrived from Columbus, roped off a section of Fountain Square and walked around in a mirrored suit and cameras. He followed the directions of "viewers" who were at the performance or elsewhere, who called Derr's cell phone and told him what to do, where to walk, what to tape.

Standing in front of the aftermath of that performance — the video installation Remote Control: Cincinnati, now skulking along at the Art Academy of Cincinnati's Pearlman Gallery (1212 Jackson St.) — I ask myself a question: At what point does the avant-garde become pedestrian? And then, is there a time when artists — especially video artists — will finally pull out of that hammered-in conquest of banal street scenes?

I say banal because Derr's video is not visually interesting and because we've seen it a hundred times before in, say, Ed Ruscha's photographs and paintings of the 1970s or in Vito Acconci's Following Piece, both of which, at the time, were new, important and incredibly intelligent. But in the rehashing of ideas and images, my questions remain. More importantly, who cares?

To an extent, though, it's OK to give Derr some credit. His performance is not just about watching nothing exciting happen on a rainy, random Wednesday in Cincinnati; it's about relinquishing control. Derr put his performance into the hands of the visitors.

There is an element of chance implicit here, an element of covert surprise. That could be exciting!

And yet from the video it's clear that no one took advantage of that element of excitement or the power Derr gave his audience. The screen that hangs in Pearlman Gallery is divided into four moving images — all four from Derr's cameras, regurgitating exactly what he saw on Nov. 15. It's Fountain Square. It's retail and commerce. It's men in dark suits. It's dreary rain. It's average, average, average. It's fussy. It's stale.

The installation itself is all wrong. The screen is far too small and congested for the viewer to have the opportunity to question his/her space, an idea that the artist obviously wants us to pursue.

First, the moving images seem so minor (in scale and otherwise), and they wage a losing battle with the other, more exciting exhibition in the gallery, She Said, He Said. It's difficult to know when one stops and the other begins. At least it is when you first walk inside. From second glance and beyond, it's easy to tell the difference.

Derr used ropes to lock himself inside a space during his performance, and he has brought those ropes to the gallery. The idea of reusing them is interesting — when we step into these ropes (often set up in movie theaters or outside clubs) we again relinquish our control. We line up. We behave according to the rules of the ropes, the rules of the venue.

Unfortunately, the exhibition doesn't carry through with this idea. The ropes instead look like an accident, or something waiting to be put away, bungled up as they are, underneath the video screen. The viewer never actually has to relinquish control.

So the mirrored suit (unseen in the video) and the performance itself lend Derr a little Dada flare. The rote images call up 1970s conceptualism. The video is very Marshall McLuhan — the TV as the "global village" that allows all to unite.

But where, dare I ask, is the something new in Remote Control? How am I supposed to review something that has given up its content to its precedents? Grade C-

REMOTE CONTROL is on view at the Art Academy's Pearlman Gallery through Dec. 15.

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