Walk into The Brink Gallery this week and you will find a room besieged by Apple iPads, laser lights, an air compressor tank and a giant crab claw, plus a variety of found artifacts, bright lights and popular toys. The hash of disparate objects is part of an exhibit called iClaw, created by artists Ben Bloch and Caroline Peters. The former owners of Missoula's Goatsilk Gallery have a reputation for eccentric, extremely conceptual, often puzzling shows, and iClaw is no exception.
The exhibit will juxtapose mass-produced technology like the iPad alongside homemade devices and original art. According to the artists, it serves as a commentary on pop culture, marketing, consumerism and desire—and not necessarily a negative commentary. It's more of an attempt to erase boundaries between functional devices made by Apple and more conventional art objects made by people like Bloch and Peters.
"Most of our work is exploratory," says Bloch. "Caroline and I are both interested in art that shows how people behave as opposed to making objects that are nice looking...We don't make judgments on whether people are good or bad or shallow or deep."
As an added twist to the consumerist exhibit, Bloch and Peters are giving away one free iPad to each person who buys one of two original paintings at the show. Bloch's landscape and Peters' more abstract piece are listed between $1,500 and $2,000 apiece.
"What I'm intrigued by is some people may find more value in the iPad and some people may find more value in the painting," says Peters. "It depends on the person. And we're saying that both of those responses are interesting."
Bloch and Peters specifically chose Apple products to be a part of the exhibit. While there may be debate about whether a Mac or PC performs better, Apple's attention to aesthetics makes it easier to, say, hang an iPad on a wall and call it art.
"I think a lot of the Apple stores are very highly designed and they almost look like galleries," says Peters. "We're just trying to get people to think about that, how things are marketed and what companies do to get a certain image across. And literally the iPad really is in some ways exactly parallel with a painting because of its shape and size and proportions."
Besides the iPads, the exhibit includes a first generation Macintosh computer, on display as a sort of vintage piece. Next to it will be a bag of coins that Bloch collected over 20 years, adding up to around $260—which just happens to be about the price of one share in Apple stock.
But the show isn't just about abstract ideas of consumerism and technology—it's also focused on pop cultural notions of entertainment. Some of the other displays include a couple of interactive experiments that look as if you'd find them in some sort of backwoods science museum. In one corner of the gallery a painting requires gallery viewers to shine lasers on it, giving it a more completed look. In another part of the room sits an air compressor with a glove made from a crab claw attached to it. People can put the glove on and release air through the compressor and out through the claw, all of which creates a sort of startling and creepy image and sensation.
"The compressed air causes these mysterious effects and the claw itself is kind of sinister," says Peters. "It's all sort of magical, and, hopefully, it will make people slightly afraid but also delighted. I think that's a neat aspect of entertainment."
The exhibit will also include part of their last project, titled Killin' It, an online series of self-help videos "for the 21st century" made in collaboration with another former local, Paul Crik. It's meant to be funny (something about it recalls the philosophical espousing of Jack Handy on "Saturday Night Live") but it's also meant to be sincere. And because its on YouTube and sites like "Everything is Terrible," Killin' It aims to feed into the viral video phenomenon. The whole idea is that using technology as part of making art, instead of separating the two.
"Galleries would probably be better off showing things that you would never expect to see in an art gallery," says Bloch. "It's cool when you change the context, like setting up a gallery as a clothing shop or giving away iPads. And the things that are in galleries should probably make their way more out into the public. Paintings and murals and sculptures that you find in galleries should be in department stores and supermarkets and Jack in the Box."
The artists admit some people may not like their ideas. After all, embracing pop culture—including viral YouTube videos and commercial technologies like the iPad—often seem like a rejection of our immediate surroundings. But in Goatsilk's world, nature, pop culture and consumerism aren't so easy to discern from one another. In fact, they'd prefer viewers quit trying to make such distinctions.
"The deeper we come to understand these things, even those we don't agree with, we're not so afraid of them," says Peters. "And it used to be that artists who were sort of before their time predicted the future. But now everyone knows the future date when the new Apple iPhone is supposed to come out. It's an interesting strategy by Apple. It's like the future already exists...waiting to be dropped on us."
Ben Bloch and Caroline Peter's iClaw exhibit opens at The Brink Gallery Friday, July 2, with a reception from 5–8 PM. Free.