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Acting Out

Until October 18

Institute of Contemporary Art

Admission Free with MIT ID

Video has become a trendy form of art. For one, seemingly ridiculous YouTube productions can silently generate millions of views, transforming the meaning of “expression” and “reality” along the way. And now, five artists from around the world confront this hot new medium by using it as an apparatus to study human interactions and cultural inclinations. The product of their combined efforts is Acting Out, a collection of social experiments captured on video and filtered through an artistic lens. It’s now playing on the fourth floor of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA).

For each video in Acting Out, the artists gathered real people to participate in a specific activity; what you see is what unfolded before the camera. Four of the five videos have their own viewing rooms: dark, bare cubicles with nothing but the video projected on a wall and the occasional pillow and bench. This sacred ambience naturally channels audience reflection.

While the individual works vary in theme and technique, each artist manages to be uniquely provocative. Take Johanna Billing’s Magical World (2005): The video captures a group of Croatian children, assembled to learn an old American song, “Magical World.” This portrait of uncertainty towards westernization is composed of one child’s wary glance, another’s anxious lip biting, and the lead singer’s accented but persevering English.

The artist also alternates images of the melancholic rehearsal room with those of this neo-independent country. Suddenly, the wall is flooded with sights of worn-out infrastructure, outdated cars, and humble street corners. With that, Billing leaves you pondering about developing nations’ attitude towards growth and Western ideals. Phil Collins’ he who laughs last laughs longest (2006) simulates the television camera’s power to manipulate people’s natural expressions. Here, Collins takes a familiar idea — the dehumanizing effect of televised competitions — and ironically uses a fake setup to prove a symptom of reality. Other works in the exhibition play with language, sound, texture, and space; and explore the blind’s sensations, the brutal game of conquest, and the perennial battle between “them” and “us.” It’s not an easy dish to digest.

Acting Out is one of a kind. It’s dynamic with videos ranging in length from 7 to 27 minutes, moods ranging from mellow to disturbing, and the soundtrack flowing from despondent instrumentals to its total absence save for honest voices. Every work is raw; penetrating details are in-your-face. The videos have no clear beginning or ending — they loop as if everything is just a slice of regular life.

In this perpetual age of reality TV, “real” has become relative. These “social experiments” are staged, but not scripted, and exactly how real these videos are is hard to say. But as in any experiment, the art comes from the design. And the works in Acting Out are refreshing designs for platforms that magnify the parts of society easily neglected or misunderstood. The question of whether every element is completely natural does not undermine the works’ bursting liveliness of thought.

Acting Out: Social Experiments in Video is definitely worth a trip to the ICA. Even if all the heart-racing themes presented speak nothing to you as of yet, go just to see how far people have pushed the boundaries of art. If you are an MIT affiliate, a valid ID gets you in free, while everyone else gets in free every Thursday 5–9 p.m. Acting Out will be showing until October 18.