ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tiny twigs flutter from a landscape of trees, then magically coalesce into a sketch of the viewer’s face.
The interactive work of Colombian video artist Javier Villegas, “Herbacious” redefines our dependence on oxygen-producing plants through a mirrored image. Like magnet and iron, the reconstructed face appears when the visitor steps into the camera’s view. Villegas’ animated landscape rearranges itself into a portrait, then sways gently in the breeze when the viewer leaves.
Yet some Americans still view Latin America as somewhat backward, especially when it comes to technology.
“Digital Latin America” aims to shatter that stereotype with exhibitions of cutting-edge art from seven countries. These are artists who choose pixels over paint.
The event grew from the Latin American Forum at the 2012 Eighteenth International Symposium of Electronic Art, sponsored by Albuquerque’s 516 ARTS. Its offshoot will gather 16 juried/invitational artists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, the Navajo Nation, Peru and the United States.
516 ARTS will host the core of the exhibit, with satellite shows at the University of New Mexico Art Museum and the Albuquerque Museum. The work uses video, photography, the Internet and lighting as tools creating both interactive and reactive art.
Digital technology has consumed everyday life in Latin America as well as the United States, 516 ARTS project manager Teresa Buscemi said.
“One of the first things most people do when they get up is check their phone,” she said. “How else can we use these objects and processes? It’s taking something that’s already in our culture and repurposing it.”
Born in Santiago, Chile, UNM professor of electronic art Claudia X. Valdes is known for her exploration of the history of American nuclear arms. The 9/11 attacks triggered Valdes’ childhood apocalyptic fears, catalyzing nearly a decade of work.
“My sister was living in New York at the time,” she said. “Her subway route to Columbia University went under the Twin Towers and I didn’t know what had happened to her all day.”
Curators selected Valdes’ 2002 piece “In the Dream of the Planet” for inclusion in the exhibition. She based the video on the 1983 TV film “The Day After,” a post-apocalyptic dramatization seen by more than 100 million viewers.
The film depicts a fictional war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact that escalates into a full-scale nuclear attack between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although unaware of it at the time it aired, Valdes said she was riveted by a more recent screening.
“It was extremely compelling and emotionally moving for me,” she said. “It was quite a controversial film when it was released. People debated whether or not to let their children see it. ABC set up a hotline with counselors.”
Valdes compressed the two-hour film to 56 seconds, repeating it six times.
“In each of these iterations I did some editing and interventions that allowed me to extract elements within the film,” she said.
She distilled the results into themes of media reaction, the military and human response.
“You see a number of scenes where people are gathered around the TV as the war is unfolding. It’s kind of like a flashback experience and a virtual experience of the world being destroyed,” she said.
Other artists use new technology to subvert the old.
Always fascinated by the photography of Edward Curtis, Santa Fe-based Diné artist Will Wilson has taken the photographer’s antiquated technology and viewpoint and updated both. While Curtis was often criticized for staging, manipulating and romanticizing his images of “the vanishing race,” Wilson redresses the whitewash through what he terms his “augmented reality.”
He uses tintypes, scans the image using special software, then downloads the results onto a free application. The results are something of a tease: old, dark imagery that at first glance dates to the 19th century, contradicted by sitters wearing sunglasses and hoodies – even a Yankees’ baseball cap.
“There’s things about (tintype) you can’t really control,” Wilson said. “It responds to different atmospheric conditions. It’s a really mercurial process. There’s something about that wet suspension that makes the details sharp; the grain is really tiny. They always have these aberrations.”
For the last two years, Wilson has manned a tintype photo booth at the Santa Fe Indian Market. During the weekend of Aug. 2-3, he’ll conduct a tintype workshop at the Harwood Art Centers’ Sixth Street Studio in Albuquerque.
516 ARTS curators also are hanging two of Wilson’s 55-by-44-inch portraits in the exhibition. Wilson teaches at Santa Fe Community College and the Institute of American Indian Arts.