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DVD review: 'Worldspirit' by Alex Grey

Recently I had occasion to put on an "eye candy" DVD at a weekend party with some friends. I initially chose a DVD of video feedback called Time Trapping: Currents, an indie produced DVD that captures a range of video feedback experiences, edited together to create a nice hour-long presentation. Not everyone at the party understood how video feedback worked; as I explained, it's simply "the effect that can be acheived by plugging a video camera into a TV monitor, then pointing the camera directly into the monitor, creating a closed loop" (very similar to audio feedback, in which a live microphone is placed next to the speaker that is broadcasting the microphone's signal).

I don't have any clips of Time Trapping: Currents available, but you can get a good sense of what video feedback looks like by checking out this video clip:

Now apparently the video feedback was a little too "flashy flashy" seizure-inducing for the calm night we were experiencing, so I opted to put in an entirely different style of "eye candy." I chose a DVD called Worldspirit, a multimedia presentation by Alex Grey and musician Kenji Williams. The DVD comes with multiple options for viewing: you can watch the original live presentation, in which Grey delivers a lecture whilst Williams plays New Age-ish music and multiple projection screens display Grey's paintings. This version is not as "eye candy"-esque given that a) you cut away to Grey and Williams a lot, and b) you have to listen to a Grey lecture, which I don't find particularly engaging. Instead, we chose the option to simply watch the paintings go by, and naturally, we had our own soundtrack dialed in so that we didn't have to listen to New Age-ish music.

At one point, I was chatting with two young gentlemen who had no familiarity with Grey's work whatsoever, and it was enjoyable to discuss the context of Grey's paintings; the fact that the DVD presentation was clearly focusing on close-up sections of Grey's large paintings much more often (it seemed) than on the entirety of these individual paintings (for better or worse); the continuity of imagery across the paintings being displayed; and the fact that Grey clearly has a meaning and a message in mind, which is certainly - as always with any body of artwork - open to interpretation, but Grey's signature, practically his imprimatur, is the very specific spiritual undercurrent that infuses his work. I found myself at one point describing the Sacred Mirrors to these two young gentlemen as a macro- and micro- view of the spiritual nature of the human state, and marveling that such a description didn't itself put me off Grey's work, given my own blazing, inherent skepticism and borderline nihilism. But the conversation was delightful; Grey's work remains quite provocative to me, and it was enjoyable to view it with a couple smart fellows who'd never before experienced it.

However, at one point the gents had to leave, and I found myself watching the video alone. Suddenly a new chapter came on, which was completely unfamiliar to me; I know I'd put this video on at other such events, but hadn't paid close attention before. This chapter was a stark departure from what I'd seen before; it was definitely not simply a presentation of Grey's paintings. I had no idea what I was looking at initially; I thought at first that I was looking at some kind of bad computer animation, like a cheap subpar Mind's Eye knockoff, but something about the chapter struck me as worth a closer examination. Soon I recognized something quite familiar, the tell tale signature of video feedback; and after close examination, I realized I was watching a dancer in a relatively elaborate costume interacting with a full scale video feedback installation.

You can see some of what I'm describing in this trailer for Worldspirit. Everything before the video feedback is previewed in the first three minutes, and then at the 3:15 mark, you can see snippets of the video feedback piece, although to be clear, this is a snippet from the live presentation track which intercuts the piece with lecture snippets and doesn't really do it justice the way the full on, full screen version does:

What's remarkable about this piece, aside from the sheer beauty of it, is that it stands in stark contrast to the body of Grey's painted work, and even his earlier performance work, in one respect: video feedback is a beautiful phenomenon, but it's impossible to ascribe or prescribe meaning to the results. It's simply a very beautiful thing to look at. I knew a crazy prankster years ago who had a video feedback rig set up in his living room. He had a projection screen, a projector in a mount, and a video camera rigged up underneath the projector, so that the image that the camera was delivering to the projector was the same image that the projector was projecting - that's the feedback loop. But this prankster had built a mechanized rig for the camera that allowed us to utilize a remote control to move the camera forward and backward on a track, tilt it up and down, and spin it clockwise and counterclockwise. A separate remote allowed us to manipulate the projector's color and tint settings. With these two remotes, you could essentially explore waves of video feedback for hours upon hours. And when people chose to stand in front of the screen and interact with it, their own images would cycle into the feedback and if the camera rotated properly, you could see mirror images of these dancers, or upside down dancers interacting with their right side up counterparts. It was magic.

And Grey was demonstrating this magic to the crowd in full regalia, so to speak.

Eventually that chapter ended, and we went about our business. Soon paintings surfaced again, and then finally the DVD ended. As I was watching the closing credits, though, I found myself laughing despite myself. Here I thought Grey had managed to perpetrate a piece of art, this video feedback piece, where his own desire to ascribe or prescribe meaning was no longer relevant. But to my surprise and ultimate delight, I was wrong, for the credits listed an "Aura Dancer" - and clearly the word "Aura" itself was enough to open up vistas of meaning that had no direct correspondence to the feedback itself. He was reverse engineering meaning for that piece, and even though it was a little disappointing, it was also a little clever.

And there's certainly no good reason not to snag this DVD, if you do find yourself in occasional need of "eye candy."

Posted By Scotto at 2007-09-20 09:23:10 permalink | comments
Tags: worldspirit alex grey
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