Something’s wrong with the lobby at 400 South Peoria Street and it’s Bryan Volta’s fault. His project, Surrogate, is housed there, and now the perfectly reasonable institutional facility, home to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts programs, has lost its clean-lined design and standardized school-coloring to growths: blackish, handmade, asymmetrical growths. They jut out from the walls, disconcerting in the way that surveillance videos cameras should be but aren’t, the way warts on a toad shouldn’t be but are. They’re awkward and obstinate. They’re a challenge.
The technical aspects of the work are explained clearly in Volta’s statement: “black and white 16mm footage… overlay[ed with] a second exposure of the same location but with different vantage points,” scanned, printed, and “treated with black Cinefoil and then crinkled into 3 dimensional objects.” Conceptually, the work “comes from feeling increasingly disconnected with our physical world… the installation activates the gallery space by instigating a dialogue on substitutions of physical reality.” Volta’s motivation is humanism, but he’s careful to avoid saying too much. It’s right at the key point of the process—the crumbling—that Volta says least.
But the crumbling, that frustrated gesture—what are we to make of it? Technology has been scrupulously layered, Benjamin and Warhol carefully invoked, and then at the last minute, the entire serial effort is cast aside in a frantic, last minute appeal to humanism. It’s as if Volta can’t quite bring himself to believe in the coldness of a modern technological world, proficient as he with its devices. The sudden shift from distanced manipulation to emphatic individuality is disconcerting. Volta is a tall, tall doctor in a white, white coat bending down to look at your badly burned hand, turning fingers over, saying quietly, “Oh, yes, I know how that feels.”
Perhaps this is what’s wrong with the lobby. It’s by definition a conduit, at best a gathering space for people on their way to spaces that are more real because of their capacity for seriousness or diversions. The lobby’s role is functional: a (preferably warm) buffer space that effectively disappears, and we, as we walk through it, become similarly insubstantial, as we are in elevators and waiting rooms. Volta’s pieces work against that blankness, insisting on the concrete reality of the space and of us as we pass through it. Look up from your phone, you’ll see the crumbled Surrogate prints hovering above you, reminders of moments in time and space that have disappeared into untraversable blankness. Or better yet, do as Volta himself might do: take a picture of the work and apply a disfiguring number of image filters. Then smash the screen.
Mirrors, fractured identities, selfies—the war of physical reality vs. its image is long over. But there are pockets of resistance, an insurgency of the body and the flesh, that keep us alive. These works belong to that moment. For that, for disrupting the lobby and reminding us, however temporarily, of our own selves, we should be grateful.