Joel Holmberg: You’ll Never Know If You Don’t Ask Yourself at Atlanta Contemporary

Joel Holmberg’s newest installation, You’ll Never Know If You Don’t Ask Yourself, expands our understanding of what it means to watch, witness, and experience information through the infinite cyclical stream of live media coverage within the institutional parameters of the art gallery. Currently on view at the Atlanta Contemporary, Holmberg’s display is simple and striking, consisting of six videos that emanate short clips culled from CNN broadcasts, which are interrupted by the artist’s own brief filmic clusters.

Joel Holmberg. Installation view, <i>You’ll Never Know If You Don’t Ask Yourself</i>, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Joel Holmberg. You’ll Never Know If You Don’t Ask Yourself, 2015; installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Holmberg’s television installation of collated newsbytes, ripped from the unstoppable stream of American televisual experience, reminds us just how even and formulaic the rhythms of media news items are. Short, awkward cuts of eyewitness accounts and interviews—ranging from the horrific (the aftermath of a local murder) to the mundane (a rescue mission for a sandwich)—turn the formulaic scripts of news stories into a disturbing meditation on the ways in which we as a technologically advanced society absorb information. Holmberg’s precise employment of sharp edits and cuts disrupts the durational flow of the projected content—testimony is cut off abruptly, leaving the viewer with a collections of words that reveal the surreal, violent, sensationalist nature of news programming.

By refusing to sustain the camera’s collected data, Holmberg forces us to recognize the underlying tempo of traditional media coverage as a current of constant information that never resolves, concludes, or coheres. The experience is both frustrating and fascinating; the eye and ear struggle to pin down the language and scenes while the experience covers over the gaps that viewers may seek to reify. Standing in front of Holmberg’s work is akin to watching a beautifully choreographed seizure in real time.

The staging of You’ll Never Know at the Atlanta Contemporary resonates with Holmberg’s extended engagement with the power and objectives of mass media and its troubling relationship with popular culture. Bits of serious and silly clips are removed from their original contexts, turning the simplicity and directness often associated with television programming into profound absurdities. The repetition of certain phrases such as “We are working to distract…” and “Now you’re in my living room…” are pulled apart by the broken explosions of interviewees exclaiming “Sandwiches!!” and “That’s a pearl!” The cacophony of footage leaves voices estranged and without direction, yelling at a public that cannot discern between serious news and mind-numbing distraction.

Joel Holmberg. <i>You’ll Never Know If You Don’t Ask Yourself</i>, 2015 (detail). Courtesy of the artist and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Joel Holmberg. You’ll Never Know If You Don’t Ask Yourself, 2015 (detail). Courtesy of the Artist and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

The mood oscillates between humorous and anxious, as if the voices are begging for attention that we cannot give. Harnessing the temporal and optical characteristics of video as a medium, Holmberg constructs an environment that, while disorienting, does not negate the process of aesthetic contemplation completely. Instead, the artist finds a way to slip between the datafuge to create a tightly woven and tailored space for his own visual film language. Neither presented as a documentary nor as a film essay, Holmberg’s videos are crystalline experiments with the motility of moving images, burying themselves in the power of the camera’s eye to control our own—to seize, ground, and then ultimately destabilize images within the rectangular screen. By doing so, You’ll Never Know is less about what we are seeing than how we are seeing. The piece asks us to pinpoint the difficulty in attuning one’s eye to image a regime or aesthetic contemplation when given the choice.

In the aftermath of the horrific and surreal events in Paris this month, Holmberg’s work touches a nerve as we all look desperately into our personal technology machines, searching for information, explanations, solidarity, or a place to unload our anger and misunderstandings. Bearing witness through the pocket-sized televisual screen is part and parcel of the way Western society has come to mediate and create meaning over the past decade—the results of which have played out in contradictory ways. Are we entering a new moment of collective connectivity, where politics and possibility emanate over the beat of a Wi-Fi connection, or have we lost the older, embodied, tactile forms of connection altogether as we mindlessly “like,” “share,” and “reply” from the comfort of our desk chairs?

Holmberg’s installation forces a reckoning between what the televisual engineers organize for us and an aware form of beholding that renders these forms of information dissemination as bizarre, uncanny, and perhaps unsuitable for a newer, growing, and more demanding audience.

Joel Holmberg: You’ll Never Know If You Don’t Ask Yourself is on view at the Atlanta Center for Contemporary Art through December 31, 2015.