[Written as notes to accompany an installation in The Box, a video exhibition space at the Wexner Center for the Arts, in May 2010.]

DRIVE THRU (Gretchen Skogerson, 2006)

What chance does light have against the darkness? The history of illumination is a story of miracles conjured to stave off the devouring night. As if at war with darkness, the modern metropolis has conquered the night and obliterated the sky. The concept of “light pollution” has emerged in recent decades to describe the monotonous glow emanating from cityscapes, a development that has caused the starry night to truly disappear from our environs and can affect physical and psychological health.

And, of course, modern advances in illumination are inseparable from the concerns of advertising. Which brings us to Gretchen Skogerson’s gleaming high-definition video DRIVE THRU, a strikingly composed study of the fluorescent lights that were exposed in outdoor signage in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in Miami in 2004. As Skogerson’s title indicates (and the persistent ambient soundtrack of traffic noises buttresses), these are signs mainly meant to be read by drivers and passengers in motorized vehicles. It’s not hard to see how the car culture that began in the early 20th century is the single-most important factor in the proliferation of light pollution.

Unlike noble neon (where the light is the message itself), most advertising signage uses fluorescent lights for functional rather than decorative purposes. But after an encounter with a natural disaster, the content of these signs was wafted off and only the pure, message-less light remained. Exposing the blankness of the structures behind the street signs, these steadfast bulbs, both defiant and desolate, indicate absence even more powerfully than an uninterrupted stretch of dark void would. Skogerson shows the emptiness of both darkness and light—contrary to the mythological metaphors—and, as a result, those two cosmic players engage in a dialogue, instead of a competition, once again. It’s important that Skogerson emphasizes negative space as much as the lights themselves. Skillfully showcasing the lights’ undefined state of being, she alternates abstracted or fragmented views of the surrounding environments with those that are more fully representational.

DRIVE THRU’s primarily ambient (but crafted) soundtrack of passing vehicles and the occasional appearance of a human figure on screen provide a sense of the rush to return to business as usual. The unprotected lighting serves as hidden-in-plain-sight memento mori of the recent natural disaster. The irrelevance of the mercury vapor emanations to the inhabitants of these spaces points to another metamorphosis that the former signs have undergone. One historical definition of art argues that it can serve no functional purpose, and these signs, now divested of their messages and purpose, have become accidental works of art. Their form has become their content. Skogerson’s unblinking but sensitive compositions enhance the echoes of Dan Flavin, the great champion of fluorescent aesthetics, and his minimalist progenitors. Malevich at the mini-mall. It’s enough to make one long for a world where it wouldn’t take a natural disaster for artwork to be as ubiquitous on a city street as a fast food sign.

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Gretchen Skogerson (born 1970) lives in New York City and teaches at MassArt. Her video work regularly screens at such venues as the New York Film Festival and the International Film Festival Rotterdam. DRIVE THRU was included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, along with Not Yet Titled, an accompanying installation by Skogerson of reconstructed fluorescent lighting displays in front of Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory. She recently created a tripartite installation for the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh.

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Gretchen Skogerson
DRIVE THRU, 2006
20 mins., HD video

© The Ohio State University/Wexner Center for the Arts. Reproduced by permission.

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 DRIVE THRU   (Gretchen Skogerson, 2006)