Peter D’Agostino

Philadelphia Museum of Art

There was a great deal to recommend Peter D’Agostino’s interactive videodisc installation DOUBLE YOU (and X, Y, Z), 1987, besides its state-of-the-art technology. Installed in its own room, DOUBLE YOU was also a convincing piece of sculpture, with four 20-inch color monitors encased at about eye level in a white partition wall that zigzagged in an open W-like configuration. (This structural pun was paralleled by the work’s many other visual/verbal puns, including that of its title, which refers to, among other things, the children’s “alphabet song” and particle physics.) The monitors were programmed in pairs, with the same image shown simultaneously on the first and third monitors and a contrasting image on the second and fourth. A control monitor with a touch-sensitive screen was located to the far right of the other four, at about waist height. In order to “play” the game set up by the piece’s interactive mode, the viewer either stood directly at the control panel or moved continually from monitors to control each time the images came to a halt and a decision—X, Y, or Z—was demanded.

DOUBLE YOU’s conceptually sophisticated intellectual base derives from semiotics and cybernetics. Overlaying and enlivening its somewhat pedantic, “meta-instructional” format, however, was a charmingly simple theme—a child’s acquisition of language from babbling to songs—presented through multilayered, skillfully interwoven imagery. Composed of some 48,000 frames, the work was conceived as an “electronic book” of 52 chapters divided into four parts: Light/birth; Gravity/words; Strong force/sentences; Weak force/songs. Each stage of language development, from “cries at birth” to “songs sung at age two,” was paired with a physical phenomenon, thus metaphorically linking the acquisition of language to the organizational forces that underlie the universe—a nice conceit. The “book” also contained a prologue, an index (from which most of the chapters could be selected and sequenced by the viewer), and an epilogue.

The overall soundtrack was similarly complex (including a wonderful musical score composed by Jon Gibson). Its original impetus was the artist’s recording of his daughter’s birth cries, and it is her small, appealing voice that is heard in various stages of language mastery throughout the work. In chapter 3, for example, the phrase “I like soup” occurs on the soundtrack as the image of a woman spooning soup appears on one pair of monitors and a Campbell’s soup can (homage to Andy Warhol) plays on the other. The work concludes with the little girl singing the final verse of the “alphabet song,” inviting the viewer to join her next time, now that we’ve learned our ABC’s. (Surely someone considered the subtitle “Alphabet Soup” for this piece.)

DOUBLE YOU (and X, Y, Z) certainly consummates D’Agostino’s ongoing interest in the potential for multiple interpretation based on the reordering and juxtaposition of image and information. To this end—the creation of an Umberto Eco–like “open text” in which meaning can potentially be deconstructed and reconstructed by the viewer/participant—the interactive function worked reasonably well; and, given the piece’s developmental theme, its gamelike structure was also apt. However, have we not all been sufficiently reminded by now of the fluid, situational, and subjective nature of meaning dependent upon context and contiguity? This theme is hackneyed, although I very much liked D’Agostino’s visual treatment of it.

At the current moment, I find the idea of interactive video as a participatory device to be much more persuasive than any of its actual manifestations, which for the most part have been naive, even somewhat patronizing, on the order of “Oh, see Jane participate in the creative process.” Can the inherent passivity of video viewing be significantly disrupted simply by pushing buttons that intervene in and reconfigure the linearity of image/message flow? The viewer’s intervention at this level seems a bit too simplistic to be of more than dubious importance. And so, while I wait for the novelty of this technological advancement to transcend itself, I confess to remaining more interested in the artist’s decisions than in the spectator’s.

Reviewed by Paula Marincola.