October 27, 2017

The artist’s role amidst tremendous change and upheaval

Every other week, as part of its launch, the Arts Research Institute will feature a faculty member engaged in research and creative scholarship. This week, we highlight Bob Paris, Associate Professor in the Department of Kinetic Imaging.

Bob Paris never went to art school. It’s his background in journalism that led him to a career in electronic arts, namely socially-engaged video and media production. His web-based projects attempt to communicate truths about America’s social and political ills, but not through distant, fact-based narratives, to which audiences often turn a blind eye. Referring to a skepticism that emerged with the rise of social media, Paris recalls, “I thought more and more people aren’t watching full-length films, or reading full books. How do you communicate with people in a way that might actually make an impact?”

Satire is one. Take for instance Paris’s collaboratively-driven Cluster Project, a web gallery and ongoing blog of multimedia artworks exploring weapons, war, civilian casualties, and pop culture. The Project uses crooked wit to critique society’s normalization of military violence and help stir the masses from apathy or numbness. It also loops into various social media channels, to draw more attention than a website could alone.

“I’ve tried to use a lot of the same strategies you would if you were selling a product online,” says Paris, but not towards the same end. Unlike commercial companies vying for people’s attention – feeding into what he calls “a culture that elevates consumption and entertainment, and bludgeons our capacity for common struggle” – Paris intends to use the same consumer-oriented methods to battle human estrangement.

Poignancy is another means. Disturbance Cycle, Paris’s project on the 1992 L.A. riots, debuted almost a decade ago as a 5-room, 20-television electronic exhibition highlighting scenes from television coverage of the events. Paris and a group of collaborators recently engaged in the labor-intensive process of adapting this dark, immersive gallery experience for the web. But why?

“We have certain issues in our country that are never repaired, or addressed, or healed,” Paris notes. “They come up when the tension is too much and we have problems, and then they fade off. These issues seem to emerge in the media only when they reach catastrophic form, at which point they become media spectacle, consumed as a kind of morbid entertainment and quickly forgotten.”

Disturbance Cycle, then, is an attempt to challenge the “historical amnesia” about issues like police violence and systemic racism that are again at the forefront today. It also is meant to reach a broader audience—those that might not necessarily attend art galleries or visit political sites, but to whom the issues are incredibly pertinent.