Max Dean

Since the ’70s, Max Dean’s interactive installations have solicited the active participation of viewers, calling on them to perform (or refrain from performing) particular actions that will determine the outcome of a changing work. Those who take part assume a level of responsibility for how the piece plays out; for example, in As Yet Untitled, 1992–95, viewers could temporarily stop a robot from shredding old photographs. Dean’s recent installation, Sneeze, 2000, continued in this vein but thwarted the viewer’s control once it had been established.

Sneeze bears all of Dean’s trademarks: cutting-edge technology, interactivity, and elegant design. An aluminum lectern with two microphones stood near a large pane of glass; viewers could sit in chairs on one side of the “window” or stand at the lectern on the other side. Speaking into the microphones caused a series of six still images to appear consecutively on the glass, which was specially engineered so that they appeared dearly on both sides of the pane at once. Each microphone triggered its own sequence of images: Using the right microphone called forth images of a man photographed from the back in an interior; he is seen wallung to a desk drawer and pulling out some files. The still images are then replaced by a moving DVD image, in which the camera doses in eerily on the back of the man’s neck. Speaking into the left microphone initiated a still seauence in which the same man, hand over face and apparently in distress, is walking outside; the DVD then shows the man falling to the ground and lapsing into a seizure. Though the viewer might continue to speak into the microphones after the sequence of still scenes has given way to the moving image, this DVD segment is not voice activated. Dean sets it up so that, in both sequences, the viewer loses control of the work at the moment of greatest vulnerability for the subject.

Though no sneeze occurs in Sneeze, the work revolves around just such a sudden loss of control—and, perhaps unintentionally, the possibility for pleasure in this suspended state. While in As Yet Untitled the moral gravity is felt when viewers become conscious of their ability to control the fate of the photographs, viewers of Sneeze feel the strongest sense of responsibility at the moment when control is lost.

In another conceptual twist, the visitor at the microphones looked at the stills and moving images in reverse; viewers on the other side of the glass saw the images the right way around. Like the lowly character behind the Great Oz, the person at the microphone effectively manufactured the experience (including the many stops and starts that resulted from not speaking continuously) for people on the other side. At the end of each DVD segment, an electrical process within the glass made the screen transparent for ten seconds, so that the viewers could see each other.

Another, less obviously interactive work, Avery Stranded (After Babbitt), 2000, was based on an 1853 daguerreotype by Platt D. Babbitt documenting an actual event. As the viewer approached, a static image on a small LCD screen showed a man stranded on a rock in midstream close to the edge of Niagara Falls; when the viewer turned away from the screen, a tripped sensor set the image into motion, and poor Avery gets swept over the falls. Also on display were Dean’s robotic chair models from the “As Yet Unrealized” series, 1984–2000, and The Robotic Chair, 2000, an animated but realistic short film that shows a simple chair collapsing and then putting itself back together. Unlike Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), a film infatuated with machines and the revolutionary social potential of their interface with humanity, Dean’s take is measured and reflexive. Although he employs state-of-the-art technology, it’s never fetishized for its own sake; it is used as a means by which to explore the power (and, sometimes, the helplessness) of the spectator.

Lisa Gabrielle Mark