While my initial viewing of Dina Kelberman’s Cloud Formation at the Cave Gallery in Detroit impressed me with its clever culling and co-opting of media, (see part 1 of this review for a detailed description of the show), Kelberman’s eerie and arresting clouds, which are actually screencaps of title credits from old movies and television shows, also provide an opportune moment to reflect on our relationship with media.
The day I saw Cloud Formations I remained in the Cave Gallery for over an hour, transfixed by the clouds, but also perhaps a little fearful of leaving because once I returned to my life of haphazard internet searching and lazy binge watching, I worried I wouldn’t being able to stop seeing. If I really paid attention to the media I consumed with the same sensibilities that Kelberman’s work inspires, it would be madness. But maybe it’s madness to be so desensitized as well. Whether it’s a pop up ad or the interface of a website we frequent, a great deal of media has become invisible to us because we willfully ignore it. This is where the seemingly sentient nature of Kelberman’s Clouds becomes almost scary. As they flit and flutter, expand and contract, these clouds become poltergeists of forgotten visual media that have returned to remind us, to quote a favorite film of mine, they’re here.
Though I try to believe that there is no harm in what we’re doing when we produce and consume so much media, I have to wonder if looking so much and so often actually stopping us from seeing? Cloud Formations made me think so. When I think of all the words and images that pop up as I sail the ocean of media I encounter each day—words I see but do not read, images that do not register because they serve only as filler or backdrop—I think what is this doing to my brain? Are these messy, shape-shifting clouds what an MRI of my brain might look like on an ordinary day of internet searching or television viewing? Or perhaps these are the visual pollution that results from our endless consumption of media? Or maybe I’m not worried about this at all. Maybe I’m so happily sailing by all these aesthetically packaged digital things that I could care less about what the consequences are, if there are any.
Wolgang Welch aptly describes our desensitization to media, despite the aesthetic care given to everything we consume, in his book Undoing Aesthetics. But he begins his argument by first pointing out the economic drive behind aesthetics. According to Welch, aesthetics “renders even the unsaleable saleable.” This makes me think of Kelberman’s selection of title credits because aren’t these essentially the label on the canned good of media? It’s so interesting how we easily dismiss aesthetic work when the product of artistic labor is driven by economic purpose. The same is true for advertisements and billboards.
Welch reminds us that if we see the same images “however impressively they may be arranged and intended” over and over, they lose their power, regardless of their aesthetics. This inability of images to move us could cause ethical issues when we think about images from the news, which is where Welch takes his argument next. Applied to title credits, however, this also highlights how design can fail to engage us when we become accustomed to its patterns.
Welch also points out another problem that was already plaguing digital media: “the free mobility and weightlessness of bodies and images:”
Everything is an object for possible electronic manipulation, and within the media ‘manipulation’ is no longer a normative, but practically a descriptive term. Whatever enters the realm of television steps into a realm of transformability instead of constancy. If there is a ‘lightness of being’ anywhere, then it is in the electronic realm.
In other words, digital media doesn’t seem very real to us anyway since we know how easily it can be manipulated. In Cloud Formations, Kelberman has made manifest Welch’s claim by carefully manipulating media’s aesthetic wrapper, but she subverts his claim by attempting to use her own aesthetics to undo our desensitization. The focus on the formal aspects of color and shape that initially inspired these clouds reinvigorates an otherwise mundane digital discard into something alien. Their oddly organic, yet orderly forms combine the remnants of a planned media landscape with intentional human distortion. It is as if Kelberman is undoing the undoing of aesthetics.
But these works are not unattractive; they are quite beautiful, almost serene in their inexorableness. They are more like paintings than videos. Their compositions, gestural smudges, and arresting color palettes remind me of Impressionist paintings—what Monet saw in water lilies, Kelberman sees in title credits. However, Impressionist paintings were not just celebrations of light and color either. The Impressionists were keenly aware of the modernization of their world. Their paintings offered social commentary as they depicted the new middle class crowding waterfronts and factory smokestacks poking out of horizons of dappled trees and hazy mountains. While it’s easy to simply admire Kelberman’s clouds, they also cleverly comment on our digitally saturated age, drawing our attention to its excess with smudges of color.
And yet these video don’t really remind me of landscape paintings; they remind me of still life paintings. It’s something about their centered arrangement and forced sense of presentation. Years ago while I was studying painting, I became enamored with the still life, how unnaturally the staged tables propped up their plates of fish and skulls and lemon rinds for display. These works were not the most important ones of their time (those were of people), but in their intimate scope they could still showcase a painter’s prowess as well as highlight symbolic imagery from the culture.
Kelberman’s Cloud Formations are like platters serving up the momento mori of our digital lives. The clouds are not figures, but the title credits they are made of contain the remnants of human lives; they symbolize the human desire to be entertained. But these words and images cannot stay still. They flutter and dance and scatter. They are attention-seeking ghosts, they are unnatural forest fires, they are electrical storms caused by climate change. They are what we made them. And we will make more of them. Our aesthetic digital objects will be like dragonflies with their very brief lives. They will offer us mid-century chairs and will quote us low insurance rates. They will impress us with their use of font and hide their fine print. They will pop and slide and fade and roll. Will we notice how beautiful and sinister they are? Or will we just wait for Kelberman to do that for us?
Jennifer Metsker received an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan. She also studied Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her poetry has appeared in many journals and can be found most recently in The Seattle Review, alice blue review, Whiskey Island, and Nightblock (forthcoming). She also has had art writing featured on arthopper.com and in the UM Museum of Art magazine. She currently teaches writing at the Stamps School of Art and Design.
 Welsch, Wolfgang. Undoing Aesthetics. London: Sage Publications, 1997.