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Talking points

At MASS MoCA, artists get serious and silly about social issues

NORTH ADAMS -- Artists have been trying to improve everybody's quality of life at least since Leonardo, with his designs for machines that would bend wooden beams, or even fly.

That was half a millennium ago. Nowadays artists attempt to deal with toxic waste, racism, homelessness, and other social problems. There are successes: Witness the creativity of dumps in Phoenix (designed by artists Michael Singer and Linnea Glatt) and in Hiroshima (by architect Yoshio Taniguchi), both so inventive and attractive that you might want to have your wedding reception there.

In "The Interventionists," at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, curator Nato Thompson shows how artists address -- and at times poke fun at -- the problems and politics of planet Earth.

Krzysztof Wodiczko's "Dis-Armor" does both. The contraption involves a complicated metal backpack and headgear. It looks ridiculous. Its purpose, though, is serious. The backpack includes video hardware that projects wearers' eyes and voices, so they can converse with people behind them. The intent is to facilitate conversations it would be hard to have face to face.

In addition to a bevy of internationally known individual artists, the show features groups, including subRosa, which defines itself as a "cyberfeminist art collective." The name is a tribute to revolutionary Rosas of history: Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Parks, Rosie the Riveter, and others. MASS MoCA's own history is the focus of the collective's byzantine project here, "Can You See Us Now? Ya Nos Pueden Ver?"

The piece links North Adams and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; each was home to an electrical plant (though the one in North Adams is long gone, replaced by the museum itself). Through the comparison, subRosa aims to point out aspects of the globalization of manufacturing. It does so through a faux archeological dig, where visitors lift trapdoors in the floor to discover things the two geographically disparate locations have in common. Once you've straightened up, you're invited to participate in a guilt trip by cutting out the label in your shirt that tells where it was made, pinning the label to a map of the world, and feeling awful if your clothes were constructed in some underdeveloped country.

Now, there's no doubt that a serious issue is being referenced here. But it's an open question whether a project as convoluted and conceptual as "Can You See Us Now?" is going to increase visitor awareness before visitors get bored and leave. And focusing on the "visual" in "visual arts" is not a bad way to illustrate global problems, unfashionable though it may be in 2004. In this case, paintings or photographs would probably have had a better shot at getting across the points subRosa wants to make. That would be a truly radical approach.

Thompson and Gregory Sholette have edited a goofy, comic-book-style catalog that is more fun and clearer than the actual show and frank about its fantasy elements. It's essential reading if you want to dig into the exhibition.

Sometimes "The Interventionists" seems like an overdose of Sunday school, with artist after artist earnestly showing off solutions to the world's problems. Sometimes it seems like an overdose of naughty political jokes. How else to explain the 3-foot inflatable golden penis on the "Management Leisure Suit" by a collective called the Yes Men?

Among other things, the Yes Men are a male version of sub

Rosa, also concerned with sweatshops. The phallus that inflates and deflates regularly is all viewers pay attention to, quite naturally. But the original suit, the catalog says, was part of a performance that also included a "video interface system" for employee surveillance and a device said to deliver electric shocks to workers not meeting their quotas. Thompson estimates that about 60 percent of what's here is -- or has been -- used for its intended purpose. Not Dre Wapenaar's enormous orange "Birthing Tent," which, Thompson says, "entered the world of art immediately" when Rotterdam's Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen snapped it up in 2003, the same year it was created. The "Birthing Tent" looks as if it has just landed from outer space. A large opening in the top provides a view of the stars (if the baby is considerate enough to arrive at night). There's a pool of water in the center where labor takes place, surrounded by benches for an audience of loved ones.

The "Birthing Tent" belongs to the "Nomads" section of "The Interventionists," the most interesting of the four sections into which Thompson has divided the show to give it some sort of order. The others are "The Experimental University"; "Reclaim the Streets"; and "Ready to Wear." Some artists and collectives show up in more than one part of the show, and the categorization of some works seems arbitrary.

Wodiczko, Lucy Orta, and Michael Rakowitz have designed shelters for homeless people that are among the most inventive and practical pieces in the exhibition. Wodiczko's "Homeless Vehicle" is a modified shopping cart. Useful by day in gathering bottles and cans to earn money, it also provides a place to sleep at night.

Orta was trained as a textile and fashion designer, got fed up with consumerism, and turned her talent toward political statements. Her "Refuge Wear" looks like an octopus, with a rounded tent at the center and "tentacles" that are one-person tents.

Rakowitz's "paraSITE," made of ordinary plastic bags and tape, attaches to a building's heating vents to provide a cozy ambience inside the wormlike structure. To date, Rakowitz has built and distributed 30 "paraSITES." He wrote to Thompson speculating on a paraSITic takeover: "Could we wake up one morning to find these encampments engulfing buildings like ivy?"

There's one artist missing from "The Interventionists." Steven Kurtz is a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a member of the Critical Art Ensemble, a group that opposes genetic engineering and corporate control of the food supply. Its "Free Range Grain" was going to be a laboratory in the museum, investigating the meanings of those squishy terms "organic" and "natural" -- until the FBI got wind of the project and confiscated Kurtz's lab equipment and bacteria samples. To the feds, he was a potential bioterrorist. He and other artists were called before a grand jury.

Among the responses from the media was an editorial in The Berkshire Eagle harrumphing that unless the feds had more substantial evidence than ordinary lab equipment and "bacteria such as is commonly found in household refrigerators," the FBI would end up looking "like the Keystone Kops -- or the Gestapo."

So instead of "Free Range Grain," Kurtz's designated gallery is filled with documentation of this incident. The one piece missing is getting more attention than the works that showed up. As everyone knows from cases including Karen Finley, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Chris Ofili, there's nothing like censorship to raise an artist's profile.

"The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere" is at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, through spring 2005.

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