4406-4812 by Mark Tribe (2014)
4406-4812 by Mark Tribe (2014)

Anyone familiar with Mark Tribe’s past work may find “Plein Air” curiously depeopled, aestheticized, and bloodless. The New York–based new media artist is best known for transforming strong words and agitating bodies into performance and video art. Past projects have focused on radical political speeches, clashes between protesters and police, and training exercises for U.S. separatist militias. By contrast, “Plein Air” began as a commissioned response to the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s collection of 19th-century landscape paintings. The resulting nine digitally composited and manipulated images, all printed on large, irregular-shaped aluminum panels, depict anonymous, empty stretches of terrain as seen by a robot eye flying thousands of feet above the earth. While there is an element of ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy here—think of drones, and what drones do—“Plein Air” provides a much slower burn than Tribe’s human-scaled work.

For his earlier “Port Huron Project” (2006-2008), Tribe hired actors to recreate famous New Left speeches from the Vietnam era. Stand-ins for Coretta Scott King, Angela Davis, and Cesar Chavez read transcriptions of these speeches on the sites where they were first delivered. Audiences were mixed: Some had come for the art, and realized they were witnessing reenactments; others were simply passersby, no doubt bewildered by references to decades-old wars and assassinations in critiques that still sounded fresh. The gulf between then and now, between a political climate in which revolution seemed possible and one in which the total victory of consumer culture has bred indifference, was conveyed by powerful spectacle.

Visitors to “Plein Air” will find that Tribe has switched from staging spectacles to crafting puzzles. While Chief Curator Phillip Brookman brought Tribe in to respond to paintings by Asher Durand and John Frederick Kensett in the museum’s permanent collection, Tribe chose not to consider any particular Hudson River School artist or subject. In fact, it’s hard to say what exactly Tribe’s been looking at: He’s not saying. “The images do depict specific locations,” Tribe tells Washington City Paper via email, “but the locations don’t have any particular historical or contemporary significance.”

The titles won’t help, either. Each piece is tagged with two or more four-digit numbers—which, it turns out, are time stamps from image capture files. For “Plein Air,” Tribe has used geospatial analysis and simulation software to turn data gathered by drones into composite virtual landscapes. The resulting digital images look nothing like traditional landscapes painted outdoors. Instead of offering romantic immersion in unspoiled natural abundance, Tribe’s pieces feel more like artifacts from a military reconnaissance mission. They present unremarkable anywheres—desert canyons, verdant hills, and mysterious craggy terrain dotted by patches of snow and ice.

Mind you, even those few details can be misleading. “3747-3780,” for example, shows a large, mountainous area as seen from high in the sky; the most distant peaks and valleys are ringed in atmospheric haze. This haze, of course, is an invention—as are the modulations of color from olive green, to bleached earth, to snow. None of that information is based on data. Even the play of light and shadow across these geographic features is arbitrary, selected by the artist for purely aesthetic reasons and generated by software.

The longer viewers spend with the show, the greater the gulf between these images and reality appears. In a photograph, one might expect more sharp details and contrasts to appear in the foreground. In Tribe’s pieces, certain features are singled out for meticulous rendering; others appear pixilated or hazy—but the areas of tight focus occur randomly, irrespective of how near or far away they might be.

The irregular polygonal panels—curious rhombuses and parallelograms with occasional protrusions and cut-ins—hint at the fact that overlapping images are stitched together to create each piece. Yet only “4406-4812” really drives home the discontinuous nature of Tribe’s experiment. Four or five separate rectangles collide, creating a radial shape, and containing a buckling, topsy-turvy world with multiple horizon lines. It’s as if the eye of a drone rotated, midflight, looking from back to front as it passed high over mountain ranges, and translated the data from that journey into an impossible planet.

Ultimately, “Plein Air” is inherently political—not because of the places it shows us, but because of the ways in which these images were fabricated, methods that are now being used for all sorts of purposes, from combat surveillance to real estate and agriculture. Drones and imaging software don’t just record the appearance of reality, but instead generate a scaled, digital replacement for it. The unspoiled natural world is traded in for a completely mastered simulation, a stage set for whatever the user wants to do.

In a sense, the Hudson River School artists performed a similar operation. Americans in the 19th century saw themselves as exceptional, granted an entire continent by God and duty-bound to occupy it. This attitude helped justify war with Mexico, the displacement and genocide of Native Americans, and the absurd “doomed race” trope. Their paintings not only described the beauty of the natural world, but also served as an invitation for Americans to become conquerors.

For “Plein Air,” Tribe has switched his focal length, zooming out from acts of resistance on the ground to broadly survey the global machinations of people in power. His new images may seem quiet and abstracted, but they emerge from technological processes that have rapidly transformed everything from landscape architecture to how soldiers might destroy buildings in distant lands that they will never see. Tribe’s broader point might be that we never actually see anything without the political pressures of the present moment and the mediation of our own desires and wills. As the artist himself has said: “Reality is a representation.”

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