LAWRENCE — Benjamin Rosenthal was sitting in his mother’s New York apartment, chatting away with someone on the Grindr app, when it occurred to him:
“I didn’t meet with this dude,” said Rosenthal, a University of Kansas Associate Professor of Visual Art, “but it got me thinking about the way in which LGBTQIA people reach out and access each other in these new spaces, which are radically different from the gay bar or community group or bath house," he said. "It’s a totally different way of interacting, and I was really interested in this engagement I had with this other person, who could have been a robot, who could have been considerably older or considerably younger — who knows? It was sort of interesting to realize this erotic encounter could happen through this space without actually knowing what’s on the other side. It’s all about imagination and fantasy and possibility.”
The text of that chat — though altered or “queered” in various ways — has made its way onto the soundtrack of one of Rosenthal’s recent video installation works, “of spectral glances [in] and [of] prophetic tremors, [not touching],” which will be the focal point of a solo exhibition opening July 27 and running through Sept. 22 at the Lawrence Arts Center. The show’s title, “slickly across the surface [of], [our] sensitive signals,” like the titles of Rosenthal’s individual works, reflects its subject matter: the fragmentary nature of queer self and sexuality in the 21st century.
Rosenthal will also exhibit some of the sculptures and drawings he has recently produced along with his video work, a process he says was enabled by the sizable Crossroads Kansas City, Mo., studio space granted him as part of a three-year Studios Inc. residency. With thousands of square feet of high-ceilinged space in which to work, he has been able to build large sculptures, some perhaps 10 feet in length, for the first time since graduate school.
“I really was not able to build objects until I came to this space, where I could work in a way that allowed me to look at them and work on video material at the same time,” he said. “It’s important to draw and build and make video, all at the same time, because they are all in conversation with each other, and sometimes I need to understand something urgently in a very tangible way that I can’t understand via the computer or drawing, and so an object gets made. I am able to explore those things in a much more spatial but also physical way that I have not been able to do for a long time.
“The reason this makes sense in that body of work is that they are all related to the body in some way, shape or form – the audience’s body, my body, to virtual bodies.”
Rosenthal’s video work can be dense, with layers upon layers of things going on. Rosenthal started much of his recent work with analog images created on equipment that revolutionized the video image a generation ago by some of the America’s first video art explorers. That was the result of a residency at Signal Culture in Owego, N.Y., a repository of 20th century, one-of-a-kind, artist-made tools like the Dave Jones raster scanner, wobbulators and signal generators — and art made with those tools — all of which Rosenthal used as inspiration for his current works.
Speaking about the 10-minute video loop titled “from this side of space to the other side of the signal” that will be in the upcoming show, Rosenthal explained how he created one aspect of the visual imagery.
“The Wobbulator is a tool so you can flip and twist the analog video signal in a cathode ray tube,” Rosenthal explained. “The TV is modified and prepared so that you can input different signals and/or sound, and it creates almost like a twisting sort of sensation. And that black-and-white footage is also being used as textures on top of 3-D animation, a layer of texture ... It becomes a moving skin.”
Then there are the bodies Rosenthal depicts on screen – robotic, at times genderless, futuristic.
“This is the first work that dealt with this idea of connection, across bodies and signals and technology, but also sort of a queer relationship to technology,” he said.
Describing “the erotic interaction” on screen, Rosenthal said, “there’s two bodies and they are sort of puncturing each other’s USB ports, which are embedded in their bodies, completely ignoring the genitalia. The genitalia is unimportant. For me, it’s a way of thinking outside of what a normative body or experience is like; asking ‘What does a future experience look like, and how might we look toward that as a way of addressing the present?’ If we can imagine a future in which all these distinctions don’t matter, I see that as a potentially utopian possibility.”
At another point in the video, multiple disembodied fingers wag at the viewer.
“They are fingers that look suspiciously like something else,” Rosenthal said. “And they are intended to sort of play with the ambiguity of bodies. I am interested in all the work in what bodies can become, or how they can engage in different ways than traditional cis hetero-normative relationships.”
Rosenthal wants to force audience members to react to his work physically, whether by making them move around and through it, or by stunning them with light, sound and intense imagery.
“I want the audience to engage with the work in that respect, where they are forced to question their understanding of what is happening,” Rosenthal said. “For instance, you can’t hear all the text that’s in the piece, because you’re affected by the light blaring in your face and the physicality of the sound. There’s a fragmentary nature to that that is also connected to the fragmentary nature of queer experience.
“We protect ourselves by being fragments in online, virtual spaces, so we can defy identification. One of the ways in which people engage in these new forms of communication is through fragmenting your body — not showing your face. It’s always a joke about the abundance of headless torsos. As a professor, I can’t go online in Lawrence as myself, have my face and image, because I am a recognizable figure, and that could be linked to my classroom or to a student, and the same thing goes for other professionals.
“It’s an important part of the queer technological experience. Since everything is accessible, and as much as things can be used to communicate, they can also be used as weapons. There are ways to out people. So people in the closet or on the edge of the closet, they are existing in this fragmented space. The fragmentary nature of how the audience experiences the work is, I think, deeply connected to that experience of existing."
Photo: Benjamin Rosenthal Credit: Rick Hellman / KU News Service