Ben Dean

Ben Dean’s Account, 2002–2008, the exceptional installation that constituted his first solo show, is really two accounts—one a 16-mm color film, the other a gray-toned, computer-generated video—of three places. The Los Angeles –based artist selected locations in the San Francisco Bay Area that are emblematic of distinct urban-redevelopment episodes: Islais Landing, a former tidal bog that once served as a sewage channel and slaughterhouse dumping ground; San Francisco City Hall, a Beaux Arts monument whose harmonious proportions and massive domed rotunda are meant to pique municipal pride (and good civic behavior); and Pacific Shores Center, a 106-acre, 1.7-millionsquare-foot corporate complex, planned during the dot-com glut of the late 1990s and built on marshland south of the city. Using a vintage spring-wound camera, Dean shot a single take of each site and spliced them together; for the work’s second component, he digitally reconstructed the resulting film using three-dimensional computer-aided design software. In the installation, the two versions, each eleven minutes long, play side by side in loops.

But while this backstory is interesting, the work’s most remarkable aspect—and what makes it a worthy heir to the Structural films that inspired the artist—is the string of phenomenological upsets it induces at roller-coaster pace. The dual projection forces a continual brokering of two temporalities: the relative slowness of the projections themselves (filmed mostly in languid pans and gentle tilts) and the hypervigilant jumpiness necessary for the viewer to attend to both of them at once. That their subjects are nominally the same, and synchronized, only enhances the cognitive disconnect, and the ongoing spectatorial negotiations—moving back and forth between the two, noticing slight omissions and alterations—occasion nothing less urgent than a meditation on how to certify or trust mediated experience. Both accounts are insufficient. The film is flat-footed, its level sweeps occasionally punctuated by unexpected incident, such as a group of children on tour at City Hall, while the animation is pristine and airless, absent vegetation or human presence, its tense a kind of constant present. One is grainy, the other impossibly flawless.

Account has other valences, just as rich. The project’s temporal upheavals evoke the sites’ knotty histories, and one of its implicit themes is urban revitalization as an atoning for past (or future) wrongs, with places becoming objects of community or corporate aspiration that often have little to do with their former or overt functions. Islais Landing has been transformed into a public recreation area, its seedy past redeemed; Pacific Shores Center, which was not completed until after the tech bubble popped, and which still has vacancies, boasts not only flashy offices but also eco-friendly landscaping and design. Equally important is the work’s reflection on new media technology. Dean apparently never got the memo that CAD was supposed to make production easier: His frame-by-frame, in-the-round digital re-creation took five years to complete, and for all of its glossy sophistication is no less handcrafted than the catapult he custom-built to launch the camera for certain sequences of the film, or than the hundreds of pages of sketches and measurements and thousands of photographs he took at the three locations to ensure verisimilitude. Digital technology, in other words, is not for him an improvement on, or a substitute for, other means of representation, and the video is not an index or distillation of the film but an independent record. Six prints derived from the computer animation were also exhibited, presenting simulation in static form. Like the video, they are uniformly gray, superreal, immaculate—ex post facto Platonic ideals of the black-and-white photography whose phantom persists, here and elsewhere.

Lisa Turvey