review: electronic pacific

In order to attend the opening reception of Electronic Pacific (July 12-August 17 at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco) I had to take two busses, cross congested one-way streets, and hoof past leather shops and infamous gay bars to finally arrive in the garden courtyard of SOMArts Cultural Center. While en route, I conjured an internalized map of San Francisco from memory storage, since the digitized map of San Francisco queued up on my cellphone had sadly died. The protruding shape of San Francisco, wedged between the bay and the massive expanse of the Pacific Ocean, serves as one potential node of activity and transcultural exchange among the matrix of cities and nations that pepper the Pacific.

Jenny Odell, Shipping Containers
Jenny Odell, Shipping Containers

These two modes of thinking, of cartography and of the digitalized world, and of one’s effect on the other, proved a clear way to chart the courses of Electronic Pacific; each work builds off of the changing space of the cartographic in the electronic age and vice versa, in terms of cultural, mercantile, and linguistic exchange.

Video work by Laura Hyunjhee Kim
Video work by Lauren Hyunjhee Kim

Three converted shipping containers separate the large open floor plan of SOMArts. Offering potential docking harbors to experience the video works of artists Laura Hyunjhee Kim and Marya Krogstad, the shipping containers cleverly carve the isolation necessary to sync/sink in to time-based video work and cement a visual marker for the theme of the show. Utilized by Jenny Odell in her collage photography, the shipping container is an iconic image in the Bay Area; huge ships containing multicolored lego blocks of these containers sail underneath the Golden Gate Bridge everyday, and the shipyards in Oakland are unforgettable otherworldly landscapes of cranes and stacked containers. The containers serve as a symbol of our prolonged mercantile and commodity exchange route along the Pacific Ocean. Odell uses images culled from Google Maps to create landscapes populated entirely by shipping containers, ships, and trains, highlighting the beautiful but archaic leftovers of the industrial age, still used to transport the majority of our goods. Pilfering from the watchful eye of Google Maps as they trace the movements of our goods throughout their trade routes, Odell presents a very literal cartography of the trade route, plucking and tracking the shipping containers en route and divorcing them from their trajectory to be static next to one another on a plane color field.

Juan-Luna Avila
Juan-Luna Avin

Stretching across the back wall of the gallery, Juan Luna-Avin’s silhouettes of 60 dislocated countries along the Pacific Rim appear jumbled upon the open face of the wall and littered with highlighter-neon color blocks, which list the chaotic names, logos and characters of punk bands that appeared throughout the region. Masking the expansive separation of countries as culturally diverse as Mexico, Japan and Indonesia by creating a localized guessing game, (who is that band? I know them! Who knew China had such a vibrant punk scene?) suggests a tracing of influences, a track-back history detailing the type of independent, DIY exchange that occurs within subcultures and gives new relevance to the notion of the punk “movement” towards diaspora. His mapping of space is extremely personal, linked to the type of identity-as-collection practice of fandom, hitched to the universality of music-genre affiliations beyond apparent cultural disparity. Liberating countries from geographical subordination to an all-knowing West, this style of mapping marks value through subcultural capital, rather than through accounts of trade, political power and capital investment.

Works ready for the .gif paleolithic wall conceived by An Xiao
Works ready for the .gif paleolithic wall conceived by An Xiao

An Xiao’s work on the adjacent wall maps temporality and the relative half life of media objects of the digital age. Inviting viewers to create their own paleolithic cave drawing on awkward pieces of cut stone, the artist prompts the monumentalization of cultural catalysts in the form of cat .gifs. During 6-9pm on the opening night, viewers wielding a selection of primary colored paint-markers designed and drew on rock shards which would accrete to a wall installation, each stone hung by the artist (in attendance) over the course of the night. Tracking the immediacy of representation in cultures of the past (Xiao cites the paleolithic practice of using torch-light to animate ancient cave-paintings) to contemporary culture, Xiao creates a humorous map of differentiation in the understanding of time and in the relative incongruity in cultures along a historic timeline.

Setting up in Vailala Urale and Sam McWilliam's tattoo booth
Setting up in Vaimaila Urale and Sam McWilliam’s tattoo booth

With an altogether more committal approach to the participatory, the consistent electric buzz of a tattoo gun charged Electronic Pacific’s opening night with anticipatory anxiety. This was attributable to Sam McWilliams’ performance of Vaimaila Urale’s piece Typeface. Urale created pieces of tattoo flash to be applied permanently on willing visitors. The tattoo designs consisted of patterns of non-alphanumerical keyboard characters: backslashes, forward-slashes and parentheses, referencing the rhythmic visual patterning of Polynesian tribal tattoo compositions. What is incredible (in addition to the way that a tattoo gun changes the gallery space entirely) is the ease with which the comparison is made: the designs transition between their references of tribal tattoos and early ASCII compositions with incredible smoothness. The language of body decoration and the language of ASCII similarly use symbols to represent more universal ideologies.

Trans-oceanic cultural exchange becomes mapped through Electronic Pacific and it’s exhibiting artists by way of their literal shipment between and amongst countries on a broad, nebulous, mercantile/commodity/capital level, through levels of communities by the tracing of fandoms of punk bands throughout regions far flung and seemingly culturally disparate, and through the hyper-local accession of bodily design, relating, too, to a larger cultural ideology, but an incredibly personal arrangement of symbology on the skin, and through the haptic embodiment and relay of emotion felt through the collaboration and corroboration created by the works in the show.

Electronic Pacific will be on view until August 17 at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco, 934 Brannan St. (between 8th & 9th). The show is curated by SOMArts curator and gallery director, Justin Hoover and features artists Juan-Luna Avin, JD Beltran, Thom Faulders, gal*in_dog aka Guillermo Galindo, Lynn Marie Kirby, Allison Leigh Holt, Laura Hyunjhee Kim, Marya Krogstad, Scott Minneman, Jenny Odell, Lizabeth Eva Rossof, Vaimaila Urale, Ai Weiwei, An Xiao, Li Xiaofei and Huang Xiaopeng.

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