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I am Kathleen Forde, artistic director of Borusan Contemporary in Istanbul and an independent curator in New York, and today I am going to be talking about artist Ben Rubin’s public art commission by Landmarks for The University of Texas at Austin, called And That’s The Way It Is.
There is a concept that Ben Rubin references when speaking about his work that I really like and is certainly in line with the public artwork he is projecting here onto the UT Austin College of Communication building.
The notion he points to is one of distanced reading, which is a strategy proposed by the Italian literary scholar Franco Moretti.
The idea here is that by looking at text in the aggregate and thinking about it statistically or as a network of connections or patterns of repetitions that there are layers of the text you can’t see as you are simply reading it, but become apparent when you use some kind of a lens – for Ben these powerful lenses are various kinds of algorithms and data mining.
Especially in work with text this is a powerful experience if successful. In my opinion, Ben has pulled this off exquisitely often, and again here in Austin.
So, I think I’ll start with giving a brief background on Ben and then I’ll go into a further description of the work.
Ben is a Boston born, New York City dwelling artist. He has worked closely with major figures across the landscape of contemporary culture, including composer Steve Reich, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Renzo Piano, performers like Laurie Anderson and Arto Lindsay, theorists, Bruno Latour and Paul Virilio, and artists, including Ann Hamilton and Beryl Korot.
He also frequently collaborates with UCLA statistician Mark Hansen. He has taught at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, as well as the Bard MFA program and the Yale School of Art.
In addition to the work for Austin, Rubin has created large-scale public artworks for The New York Times building, for the city of San Jose, the Minneapolis Public Library, and the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in upstate New York.
The piece he created for Austin is called And That’s The Way It Is. It derives its title from Walter Cronkite’s famous sign off on the nightly news from his time on air with this program from the early 1960s until 1981. And That’s The Way It Is is a large-scale video projection of a size of approximately 120 by 42 feet.
Ben’s departure point for this work is rooted in his first encounters with world events, as a child of the 70’s, through the news on television, in particular through the evening news broadcasts of the then three major networks: ABC World News Tonight, The NBC Nightly News, and Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News.
In tandem with the ubiquitous Internet, television is still by and large the way most Americans learn about world and local events. Statistically, TV is still the predominant way we access the news.
And That’s The Way It Is pulls fragments from current TV news broadcasts of each particular day as well as texts from the Cronkite archive and reduces them to fragments of text. Rubin’s software – developed in collaboration with statistician Mark Hansen and data artist Jer Thorp – then scans the text for patterns and links between them and recombines these fragments in a series of different compositions.
These compositions are transformed into something akin to a scene of text lasting two or three minutes. Each is then projected onto the UT Austin, College of Communication, CMA building.
The projected texts come from two sources. The first is the Walter Cronkite archival news broadcast texts when he was atCBS. All of these texts are in Courier typeface, like a typewriter, which helps distinguish them from the recent news feeds, which are in Verdana, a Sans Serif type.
To quote Rubin, he says, “This process of breaking down and recomposing the news, exposing patterns of language and expression, helps me to watch TV news with fresh eyes and ears.”
As I expect the audience of Austin will agree, not only does this work open our eyes and ears in a fresh way, but a thoughtful one, too. It encourages us to do something that is rare in a contemporary context where there is always too much to read, too much to look at and to process. It encourages to look harder. To look from a distance . . . And That’s The Way It Is!
American, born 1964
A pioneering figure in contemporary media art, Ben Rubin’s work communicates patterns of information, thought, and language via electronic media. Whether creating a work of intimate or monumental scale, he composes algorithms and computational systems, often relying upon a selected data source to generate nonlinear results. The transformation of the familiar into the unexpected, captured through gracefully simplified forms, results in works that are quietly provocative and that gently turn viewer into participant.
Visible every evening in the Walter Cronkite Plaza, And That’s The Way It Is projects an interwoven grid of text from two sources: closed caption transcripts of five live network news streams and archival transcripts of CBS Evening News broadcasts from the Cronkite era, including those housed at the university’s Briscoe Center for American History. Rubin’s software scans for various patterns in speech and grammatical constructions then selects the sequences of text. The artist visually distinguishes these sources by using two typefaces that evoke the technologies of their respective eras: Courier represents the Cronkite material, and Verdana is used for the live broadcasts.
And That’s The Way It Is translates the spoken language of televised evening news into written fragments. The layering of information—textual and visual, contemporary and historical—engages the viewer in multiple ways: cerebrally, as a distilled source of information, or viscerally, as a purely visual experience of luminescent crescendos and diminuendos. The speed and immediacy of live fragments heightens the viewer’s anticipation from one composition to the next, while the insertion of historical phrases activates a dialogue between the past and the present. Projected on an architectural scale, the work offers streams of language that suggest the media-based activities transpiring behind the façade of the communication building.
Location: CMA, Walter Cronkite Plaza