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By manipulating sound and images, ‘Derivative Presence’ raises serious questions

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A visual loop mined from YouTube by artists Yasmina Chavez and Javier Sanchez projects onto mirrors and reflects back into the gallery space.
Photo: Yasmina Chavez
Dawn-Michelle Baude

‘Dervative Presence’

Four stars

Derivative Presence Through June 21. Videos at TastySpace Gallery; Soundtracks in the Xeric Garden at the Majorie Barrick Museum.

It’s easy to stand in the Xeric Garden at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum and feel superior to the idiots on the soundtrack. Take, for example, the guilt-ridden woman admitting to eating a messy cupcake. Or the lonely man in mid-winter Minnesota, paranoid about the creepy chemicals in the fog. The pothead having a careless Siri dialogue is almost as pathetic as the failed raw-food chef, whose jicama-sushi creation (oops!) apparently falls apart during the recording. Their stories are so lame, so sentimental and mawkish, that they’re riveting. Two-hours worth of riveting.

The soundtrack is the creation of Yasmina Chavez (a Greenspun Media Group employee) and Javier Sanchez, whose Derivative Presence exhibition delivers simultaneous installations at UNLV and TastySpace Gallery. One is all sound, no image; the other is all image, no sound. Chavez and Sanchez cut gems from the so-bad-it’s-good YouTube trove into separate visual and aural loops. The effect is weirdly evocative—the sound in the garden conjures the image in the gallery, and vice versa. Who can listen to the remarkably inept singer of devotional lyrics without imagining him sincerely strumming the guitar in his bedroom? Is it possible to watch the angry young woman without imagining the harsh words spit from her thin, taut mouth?

Derivative Presence is partly a search for an absent image or voice, an effect intensified by the installation sites. At UNLV, three birdhouse speakers project the soundtrack into a charming desert setting of acacia and yucca, lizard and beetle. Experiencing disembodied voices in open air is disorienting, as if ghosts flit among the cacti. Where’s that gun shot and “Oh man” coming from?

By contrast, the TastySpace gallery is tightly enclosed and intimate. Using cables and mirrors, the artists installed a provocative viewing space in which images and shadows multiply in a 30-minute layered video. The viewer’s image reflects among the talking heads hopelessly trying to communicate. While the outdoor installation allows the audience to distance itself from the soundtrack, the indoor installation plants us smack-dab inside—no longer marveling at the subjects’ idiocy, but a part of it.

Derivative Presence reaches deep into our cultural moment, tapping into our collective narcissism as well as our collective angst. It raises issues about our psychic relationship with digital media at a time when technology is so pervasive that an AI takeover is apparently visible on the horizon. Given the possibility of downloading digital selves, what meaning does “presence” have now and in the future? For the YouTube subjects of Chavez’s and Sanchez’s Derivative Presence, it’s enough to be measured by subscribers, likes and views.

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