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August 25, 2023

How to Reworld Reality

Honor Fraser and Peter Wu+ discuss the power of hybrid exhibitions to model new ecosystems
Credit: Installation view of “Catalyst” at EPOCH Gallery, June 16-September 15, 2023. Courtesy of EPOCH, Los Angeles
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How to Reworld Reality
Catalyst” runs at Honor Fraser Gallery to August 26 and at EPOCH Gallery to September 15.

For a number of years, EPOCH and Honor Fraser Gallery have sought to make legible the human entanglement with emerging technologies. Based out of LA, their recent collaborative exhibition, “Catalyst,” explores the potential of virtual environments to recode the physical reality experienced by the visitor. This show unites a number of artists who specialize in using digital technology to imagine alternative ecologies. In the process, it replaces the senseless dislocation of the viewer that has come to characterize the digital installation with a new art of embodied immersion. As its physical installation comes to a close, Honor Fraser and Peter Wu+ reflect on the power of hybrid exhibitions to puncture seamless spectacle with April Baca.

Trulee Hall, Mermaid Mutations, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and EPOCH, Los Angeles

April Baca: The curatorial statement for “Catalyst” designates the position of each artist and their contributing works as an impetus to “accelerate change.” EPOCH’s virtual exhibition covers an incredible array of sites, affects, and identities that range from the obfuscation of physical human bodies in algorithmic learning systems (Auriea Harvey’s Slave Ship Diagram (2022) series and Carla Gannis’s short-form Virtues and Vices (2023)), rampant climate catastrophe (Caroline Sinders, The Rig, 01, 2023), and indeterminate or future forms (Tanya Aguiniga, Mi Nepantla (2023) and Trulee Hall, Mermaid Mutations (2023)). How does EPOCH seek to address change in a climate of tech solutionism? 

Peter Wu+: When setting out to create and curate “Catalyst,” the goal was to interweave speculative futures and transformative narratives. The virtual exhibition leads the viewer through divergent timelines and personal transformations, prompting an interplay of time and transformation, as well as the collective (re)imagining of our futures. The virtual environment of “Catalyst” exists within two speculative time frames: one envisioning a post-apocalyptic future Los Angeles, and the other rendering the yet-to-be-completed LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) building, designed to house its permanent collection in a pre-emptive future. 

The works of the seven participating artists explore pivotal moments of self-actualized transformation embedded within the merging temporalities of the exhibition. Tanya Aguiñiga’s contribution materializes as a dual-faced cave, occupying space between the embodied and the metaphysical. Carla Gannis’s work explodes the boundaries between her identity and those of her pantheon of avatars. Trulee Hall’s claymation envisions a transmuted utopia inhabited by evolved sexual beings, triggered by a cataclysmic flood. 

Auriea Harvey inverts historical narrative through technology while concurrently probing its inherent limitations. Bahareh Khoshooee’s #EverChangingFacade (Virtual Iteration) (2023) is a layered animated video sculpture that serves as a self-portrait of assumed and imagined identities from the perspective of a femme Iranian immigrant based in America. Caroline Sinders positions herself within a futuristic world accelerated by the climate crisis. Sammie Veeler converges timelines within her work, We Become Our Own Ancestors (2023), archiving her present, future, and former self, which she refers to as her “dead husband.” 

Together, these artists collectively divert the notion of technology as an all-encompassing solution by re-centering individual agency as the basis for meaningful change.
Caroline Sinders, The Rig, 01, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and EPOCH, Los Angeles

AB: While EPOCH’s earliest stagings were largely disentangled from LA-specific geographies, a continuous concern (and artistic intervention) into the relationship between modernist architecture, the museum, and ruin has remained. Why has architectural decay remained such a vital arena for experimentation?

PW+: The sense of abandonment that is inherent in late capitalist structures has always intrigued me. In various EPOCH exhibitions, I leverage metaphors of ruin and decay akin to those found in works of science fiction. This visual framework prompts the viewer to envision an alternative perception of our world. 

Many EPOCH exhibitions transpose physical architectural sites into speculative environments. This approach establishes a critical connection to real-world events, enabling the exhibitions to engage with socio-political issues unfolding in near-real time.

Consider the constructed environment of “Catalyst.” The 3D reconstruction of the upcoming LACMA building juxtaposed against the desolation of its surrounding landscape generates propositions about the future of our cultural institutions. The entire exhibition environment, along with the artworks it contains, prompts contemplation about the roles and responsibilities held by our cultural institutions, as well as the individuals and communities they intend to serve and represent.

Auriea Harvey, Black Conversation, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and EPOCH, Los Angeles

AB: Your LACMA series has modeled itself on the various physical transformations that the museum has undergone in recent years. Unlike “ECHOES” (2022) and “Phantom Limb (2021), which both explicitly centered LACMA’s demolition and excavation sites, “Catalyst” features a nearly untouched rendering of the museum’s forthcoming Peter Zumthor galleries. In navigating the exhibition space, I found it unnerving that the building itself appears pristine against its surrounding courtyard, which is in shambles, and the non-native palms and other ornamental foliage. Why has LACMA continued to serve as an integral site of inquisition for you? How do the works in this show engage with (or disrupt?) the insularity of the galleries themselves? 

PW+: I had a specific intention for the interior of the forthcoming building: to embody a tomb-like quality that contrasts with its entropic surrounding cityscape. I’m glad that the environment succeeded in capturing that unnerving feeling you experienced. 

With EPOCH’s LACMA series, the intention is to capture the dynamic shifts within a city undergoing transformation. The initial purpose of the permanent museum is to display historical antiquities. However, through the deliberate omission of traditional artifacts and the inclusion of experiential works by artists not typically featured in such spaces, the series poses the question of whether these cultural institutions really contribute to meaningful transformation within the communities they are meant to serve, or whether they are perpetuating the cycle of historical colonization. 

Bahareh Khoshooee, #EverChanging Facade (Virtual Iteration), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and EPOCH, Los Angeles

AB: What responsibility do you believe cultural institutions bear in times of catastrophe and in what ways do you see “Catalyst” staging this call to action? Can you elaborate on what institutional responsibility might or can encompass? I’m reminded, for instance, of the briefly lived institutional outcries of allyship that emerged in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and the tangible decisions that museums and galleries did or did not take (the latter being more prevalent) that aligned with those claims. 

PW+: Black Lives Matter illuminated the inequities entrenched within our public institutions, leading to a shift in our collective awareness regarding representation across all sectors. As a community, we must strive collaboratively to monitor and address these inequalities. This involves ensuring ethical practices and the recruitment of individuals from diverse perspectives, granting them the chance to guide the trajectory of our institutions toward substantial transformation.

While many of EPOCH’s exhibitions lean towards the speculative, they function as visual metaphors for the actual social, political, and ecological ruin that surrounds many of us. 

“Catalyst,” and the overarching LACMA series, underscores a pressing call to bridge historical divides, and proposes a re-envisioning of these institutions in order that they might authentically represent the communities they serve. As we immerse ourselves in “Catalyst” and experience the works of the artists — from Carla Gannis’s Virtues and Vices (2023) to Auriea Harvey’s Black Conversation (2023) — what unfurls is a poignant urgency to transform these spaces into embodiments of our shared humanity and ensure that the echoes of past injustices are not only confronted and acknowledged but also systematically dismantled.

Carla Gannis, Virtues and Vices, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and EPOCH, Los Angeles

AB: “Catalyst” situates itself as the culmination of EPOCH’s LACMA campus triptych. The virtual exhibition serves as a two-fold site-specific response that encompasses both Zumthor’s outward investment in place-based design and EPOCH’s responding intervention in said model. Where do you see Honor Fraser Gallery situated within this conversation and what new questions or throughlines have been generated in exhibiting a show that meditates on the museum in a contemporary art gallery?  

Honor Fraser: Exhibiting a show that meditates on the museum in a contemporary art gallery was an opportunity to extend to the public a previously unseen digital “reality" of LACMA’s structure. 

This exhibition allows viewers to realize a virtually curated version of the finished museum before LACMA has had the ability to. 

This engaging experience intertwines the goals of all art spaces, galleries, and museums by presenting a thought-provoking exhibition that makes space for artistic vision. The limitless potential of digital art, with the addition of virtual reality, allows for the curation of physical places that wouldn’t otherwise exist, so why not reimagine the largest art museum in the West? Contemplating an art space while in a different one is a transcendent concept — one Honor Fraser brings to life within the installation of the “Catalyst” exhibition.

Installation view of “Catalyst” at Honor Fraser Gallery, June 16-August 26, 2023. Photography by Setta Studios

AB: I’m struck by the hybridity of the exhibition and the play on material contrasts — notably, how the use of a sheer, ephemeral fabric contrasts the physical heaviness of the Oculus headsets, and then of course the more obvious presence/non-presence of neighboring viewers when engaging with the virtual exhibition. For me, one of the most striking aspects of EPOCH’s exhibitions has been the profound sense of solitude that viewers encounter in the exhibition space. This is disrupted in the hybrid presentation because the viewer is (generally) constantly aware of others nearby. How does this model of physical engagement expand on, or disrupt, a strictly virtual and remote form of viewing? 

HF: The collaboration between virtual and physical space has many intentions. The material contrasts between the ephemeral fabric and the heaviness of the headset was an intentional component in the exhibition’s experience. The form of the flowing cloth mimics the outline of LACMA's structure, playing with the softness of the material and composition in relation to the inevitable hardness of the physical construction. This applies also to the viewers’ sensory experience of virtual reality — feeling a softness to the nature of the digital, surrounded by a sunset illuminating overgrown flora, while also feeling the weighted presence of the headset that imitates the rougher post-apocalyptic structure of the curated building itself. 

This installation utilizes multiple senses to create an experience that is intentionally in-body

The experience is peaceful in its entirety, requiring no physical movement to explore the virtual space. The installation is equipped with multiple VR viewing spaces to allow for simultaneous participation, but I have found that the presence of others doesn’t disrupt the individual experience owing to the recorded sounds of Los Angeles being played throughout the space and within the headset.

PW+: My close friend, Claudio Carbone, shared a perceptive observation following his experience of the “Catalyst” installation at Honor Fraser. As individuals engage with EPOCH’s exhibitions from the comfort of their homes, often utilizing their computers or mobile devices, a layered history of usage becomes intertwined with these tools. Our computers, frequently employed for professional tasks or email communication, and our phones, which are primarily dedicated to social media interactions, bestow a distinct context upon the experience of the virtual exhibitions. However, when the artwork is recontextualized within the physical installation, a palpable presentness emerges. This transition allows us to disengage from the weight of our home devices and truly immerse ourselves in the experience.

Tanya Aguiñiga, Mi Nepantla, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and EPOCH, Los Angeles

AB: “Catalyst” is both a stand-alone exhibition and a conceptual complement to Honor’s concurrent exhibition, “We Are They: Glitch Ecology and the Thickness of Now.” The use of the glitch as a conceptual and technological tactic is foregrounded in both shows with many of the artworks proving slippery, phantasmal, and invested in the fissures between organic and technological embodiment. Many of the artists featured in “Catalyst” visualize this explicitly via AI-generated avatars, amorphously rendered sites, and disembodied narratives. What other connections do you see between “Catalyst” and “We Are They”? How have the two exhibitions served as expansions of one another?    

HF: The two exhibitions are beautiful companions and accentuate an ecological spirit that is becoming increasingly recognizable across creative and political ecosystems worldwide. They also showcase just how much influence the surrounding environment has on the cultural and technological landscape of Los Angeles. In some ways, the exhibitions function as two sides of the same conceptual coin in this regard. “Catalyst,” with its more legible use of “emerging technologies” such as VR and projection mapping, notably made and innovated in California, give shape to a type of futuristic knowledge production that is perhaps more poetically and metaphorically gestured to in “We Are They.”

With its range of mediums, materials, and more-than-human subjects, “We Are They” embraces the end of the world as we know it by reclaiming the glitch as a subversive tool for coalition building. Woven together, the two exhibitions nurture a constellation of ideas found at the nexus of ancient and emerging technologies.
Sammie Veeler, Miss Sammie, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and EPOCH, Los Angeles

AB: What was the impetus to using Oculus headsets in the gallery as a mode of visitor engagement? Contrary to their immersive virtual settings, these headsets tend to result in a heightened awareness of one’s own physical body and material surroundings. From the act of refastening an ill-fitting headband to a heightened awareness of shared high-touch surfaces (for immunocompromised individuals and those at a higher risk of contracting Covid) headsets tend to anchor the viewer within their own corporeality. What is the pertinence of a hybrid virtual-physical experience against these conditions? Does the fabric pathway created specifically for “Catalyst” serve as an extension of this? 

HF: The fabric pathway created for “Catalyst” physically extends the virtual reality experience and creates a smoother transition between viewers’ real-life setting and the VR installation. The hanging cloth wraps around the gallery space surrounding each headset, softening the visual switch and allowing people to participate in a more immersive experience.

AB: Speculative geographies, space, and time have been a cornerstone of each of EPOCH’s exhibitions. While many of its earliest iterations occupied indistinct landscapes, such as the abstract white geometries of “End Demo” (2020) or the idyllic mountain range of “Labyrinth” (2020), the LACMA triptych imagines a post-catastrophic Los Angeles that is largely devoid of human and animal life. Rather than rendering utopias, many of the gallery’s iterations imagine ruin and architectural detritus as a means of considering the function and possibilities of art institutions in perilous times. How does Honor Fraser approach these concerns and how are they evoked within “Catalyst”?  

HF: We support artist projects like EPOCH and exhibitions like “Catalyst” because they underscore the power of creative thinking and collaboration in the face of unimaginable precarity. 

There are many things that a gallery is good at doing and there are many things that an art institution simply cannot accomplish alone. 

Our recent programming has been trying to take stock of these affordances, and we will continue to work with artists who meet the anxieties of the world with compassion and fortitude.

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Honor Fraser is the founder of Honor Fraser Gallery in Culver City, California. She moved to the West Coast in 1998 to attend the University of Southern California. Upon graduating, she worked for Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills before opening a project space near Venice Beach in 2008. Throughout her career, Fraser has represented emerging and established artists, while mounting thematic group exhibitions and art historical surveys with artists such as Miriam Schapiro, Howardena Pindell, Morris Louis, and Andy Warhol. In 2019, Fraser began to move away from the traditional models of gallery/artist representation, and redirected gallery resources towards more experimental, interdisciplinary, and project-based exhibitions. Today, the gallery works with local and international artists, curators, and scholars to foster alternative perspectives on traditional art practices, and to examine our cultural entanglement with emerging technologies. Fraser is involved with organizations benefiting education and the arts.

Peter Wu+ is a Los Angeles-based artist whose practice is characterized by a keen engagement with the role of technology in shaping our perceptions of reality, identity, and history. Utilizing modeling and rendering software, 3D printing, projection mapping, and machine learning, Wu+ creates thought-provoking artworks and immersive environments that address the complexities of our technologically-driven society. In 2020, Wu+ founded EPOCH, an artist-run virtual exhibition space that serves as a platform to showcase and disseminate contemporary digital art practices. With a focus on community building and inclusivity, EPOCH represents a significant contribution to the field of contemporary art and its engagement with digital technologies. In 2022, Wu+ was the recipient of the Eyebeam Fractal Fellowship. He was awarded the COLA Individual Artist Fellowship and a commission for the Public Art Division with the LAWA Art Program, which remains on view until October 2023. Wu+ has spoken at prominent art institutions including the ArtCenter College of Design, USC Roski School of Art and Design, Christie’s LA, and Frieze Art Fair. He received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and his BFA from the University of Windsor.

April Baca is a Los Angeles-based writer, educator, and curator. Baca currently facilitates courses as a lecturer in Art History and Global Cultures at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB). Her research focuses on contemporary visual media with an emphasis on queer Latina ontologies and forums created for connection, community, and pleasure online. Xe has published in myriad scholarly journals and art publications including Art Journal, The Journal of Curatorial Studies, and X-TRA. Baca holds a BA in Art History, an MA in Curatorial Practices, and is currently a doctoral student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA.

Catalyst” runs at Honor Fraser Gallery to August 26 and at EPOCH Gallery to September 15.