Saturday, February 23, 2019

I Want My Portable Obstruction Device!

by Matt Weston (writer), New York, May 06, 2007


Sunday, April 15th, was reportedly a beautiful day. I wouldn’t know.

I spent the afternoon scuttling from a cluster of outbuildings to a claustrophobic annex, from one dark enclosure to the next. I should have been breathing in fresh valley air or walking someone’s dog. Then again, there is a kind of giddy hedonism in remaining mostly indoors on days like those. And I had a solid excuse for turning my back on nature; I was going to the 2007 California Institute of Arts (Cal Arts) MFA Open Studios.

Naturally, the first standout piece was a student-produced video playing in the most cavernous studio. Once the voice-over, in an exaggerated monotone, named what I was seeing a “Portable Obstruction Device (POD)” meant to “automatically ensure your personal space is not infringed upon,” I knew I was right for having chosen darkness.

Stephanie Owens, a recent alumna of Cal Arts, created the Instructional Video for the Portable Obstruction Device and, by default, invented the POD. For all I know she may be flooding the U.S. Patent office with diagram-rich proposals. In her studio, at least, Ms. Owens’ sought to provoke rather than possess. Her short film parodied the vanilla, self-evident tone of instructional videos. Yet I think her real target was the idea of owning an object. Or, more to the point, the impossibility of ever really owning an object.

With the advent of Photoshop, ProTools, viral video streaming, and unquenchable user-to-user file swapping, these are boom years for copyright lawyers. The selfishness with which copyright-holders grasp onto their products or lyrics or brands or secret handshakes is amusing, not to mention self-defeating.

In 1998, Disney Corp. had to pressure former President Clinton to pass legislation granting Mickey Mouse (Mickey Mouse!) twenty-years of immunity from the public domain ghetto. If you don’t have that kind of clout, good luck to you. It’s open season on copyrights.

All of which made Owens’ video timely and hilarious. Here was a “product” – an exercise mat with straps and two creases forming a three-sided, portable shield designed to keep others in their space and out of yours – so ungainly, impractical, and ugly, no sane person would apply to patent it.

Going one-step further, say someone appropriates the video as a cut-away spoof for a sitcom on MySpace. Can Owens claim wrongful use of a product, or the likeness of a product, that never existed? Is the obviously fake instructional video for an obviously fake product worth protecting? The whole enterprise is laughable, and Instructional Video for the Portable Obstruction Device rightly brings it to an absurd conclusion.

Customization, no less laughable but central to how we relate to our possessions now, comes up in the Owens’ video briefly and most notably as the “junior size POD.” In the guise of doing “little science projects,” artist Michael Buítron showed that control over how an object is produced links form to function more profoundly than does customization.

Buítron’s “projects” were the mirrors lining the back wall of his studio. He silvered the mirrors himself using a chemical process called Tollen’s reagent. The process is used to test for aldehydes, and if the mixture isn’t diluted after the test, watch out: you could be playing with highly explosive fulminating silver.

With access to a chemistry lab at UCLA, Buítron could worry less about combusting and more about the finished product. Perhaps unknowingly, he transported the viewer to a time before the ease of shopping, when if you wanted a mirror you did the silvering or paid dearly to have it done, and the consequent risks of production wormed their way into how the final mirror looked and worked – whether through chips, bloats, or warping.

(Buítron plays a trick on the viewer here, too. Are we more impressed by how representative his mirrors are of the mechanically produced mirrors in our homes and public restrooms, or by the novelty of simply having made them?)

Scaled back from her Graduate Thesis show “Transport, Transform,” Heather Rasmussen turned shipping containers – objects too large to be made by hand – into playthings in her studio. By downsizing these hulking containers to hand-held, geometric pawns, she was like Godzilla playing Tetris on a busy container yard.

Godzilla imbued with her rational mind, of course. Rasmussen arranged the colored blocks in rows and columns according to satellite stills taken of shipyards at the Port of Los Angeles. To add to the spirit of the “game,” she tacked a tally sheet to her studio wall as a scorekeeping mechanism, as if to show which colors were “winning” or “losing.”

In reality, these multi-ton containers are color-coded to identify which shipping company each belongs to. Maritime trade is big business, and Rasmussen knows this as well as anyone. Her exhibit succeeds because it taps into what LEGO has always known: interacting with objects is fun.

And it’s supposed to be fun. Freed from proselytizing or ticking points off an agenda, Rasmussen invited us to remember when couches were forts and bathtubs were tugboats. Back when sharing our objects was a virtue.

More on Stephanie Owens:

More on Michael Buítron:

More on Heather Rasmussen:

About the Writer

Matt Weston is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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