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Yesterday’s Noise

Artist Marisa Olson examines what gets left behind as we upgrade

By SIGALIT ZETOUNI
   “I always wanted to make art, but I’m actually related to one of the most famous French impressionists, and I was raised thinking that's what ‘real art’ was,” artist Marisa Olson told www.we-make-money-not-art.com in 2008. “It turns out I wasn't very good at that kind of art. So I stopped worrying about what was and wasn’t art and just focused on what I found interesting.”
   The New York-based Olson combines performance, video, sound, drawing and installation to address cultural history and the evolution of technology. Also a curator, critic and cultural theorist, she studied fine art at Goldsmiths College-London, the history of consciousness at UC Santa Cruz and rhetoric at UC Berkeley. Her work has been presented in major museums and art spaces nationally and internationally.
   In 2007, Olson created a performance video, “Golden Oldies,” commenting on the consumption and removal of new and outdated devices in relationship to the environment. In the 32-minute video, Olson established communication between analog equipment that included a boom box, a child's record player, vinyl records, VHS tapes, cassette tapes and CDs.  She posted an excerpt of her video on YouTube and wrote, “Like the garbage that piles up as we upgrade our phones and computers, the detritus accumulated in these efforts gets blindly swept aside in this ultimately fruitless effort.”
  Olson also investigated obsolete and defunct media in series of drawings called, “Monitor Tracings.” The artist performed Google searches for images of gadgets such as a Walkman, headphones, old telephones, Nintendos and radios. She traced the images directly off the computer monitor and onto office paper, using a mechanical pencil. The act of tracing was itself an upgrade, as the computer monitor replaced the camera obscura, overhead projector and other mechanical devices previously used to assist in drawing.
   In another series, “Time Capsules,” Olson created sculptures using cassette tapes painted in shimmering gold. The sculptures, reminiscent of minimal installations, were exhibited in site-specific assemblages resembling landfills or garbage piles, had become endangered units of time, rescued from elimination and painted gold in reclamation of their value.
   The “Time Capsules” series led to a broader body of work that addressed pollution produced by our upgrade consumer culture. Last spring, Olson had a solo exhibition at Bard College in New York. “Noise Pollution” exhibited works that dealt with concerns of increased informational “noise” and the largely hidden costs of technology on the natural environment. In “Monument to DJ Culture #2,” the artist created an installation of 63 gold-painted milk crates stacked seven crates high by three crates deep on a worn, warehouse pallet.
   In the show’s catalogue, curator Gene McHugh wrote, “The once ubiquitous music storage device, the milk crate, for instance, is rendered obsolete as one upgrades their music collection from vinyl to MP3. That, in turn, creates a lot of empty milk crates.”
   “The big thing for me, though, is reconciling my nostalgia for old media with the need to take responsibility for my own commodity fetishism,” Olson said in an interview in the same catalogue. “The work in this show is mostly about the garbage that gets piled up and forgotten each time we upgrade and I want to shine a light on that junk while also thinking about my own involvement in upgrade culture.”
   Last February, in New York’s Performance Space 122, Marisa Olson presented “Whew Age,” a performance that took on the clash of new age philosophy and the internet, mixing YouTube meditation videos and vintage relaxation tapes, musical jams and witty commentary. Olson played a guru-type character dressed in neon, futuristic yoga clothes and lead the audience through a series of relaxation techniques and visualization exercises that served as a platform to talk about climate change, the relationship of the body to the air we breathe and the role stress and anxiety play in our climate.
   Olson teaches new media at SUNY-Purchase and is also involved in organizing the New Media Lecture Series at the Neuberger Museum of Art. She is scheduled to speak at the School of the Art Institute on April 28 and at Columbia College Chicago on April 29. This summer, she will be teaching a class, “Performance Objects,” at Ox-Bow in Saugatuck, Michigan.

Published: April 05, 2010
Issue: 2010 Spring Green Issue