Much of American Modernism occurred by way of New Mexico with artists experimenting outside of the confines of the academy. This sense of freedom and play continued through the second half of the 20th century as artists engaged in the light, space, and color of the desert environment. These art movements are now codified into history, and today artists in New Mexico are still sharpening contemporary art’s cutting edge.
Mariannah Amster and Frank Ragano, the founders and directors of the CURRENTS New Media Festival and Parallel Studios, arrived in New Mexico in 1989 and 1996 respectively, met one another, and started organizing pop-up showcases featuring video and digital art. In 2002, the CURRENTS Festival debuted at the Center for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Santa Fe. It comprised eight digital artists, including Woody and Steina Vasulka, founders of The Kitchen. CURRENTS continued semi-regularly at different locations: form & concept, Art Santa Fe, Shack Obscura (presented by Klaudia Marr Gallery), and Salon Mar Graff Gallery in the nearby village of Tesuque.
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In 2010, CURRENTS and El Museo Cultural formed a partnership and the festival expanded to show the work of 50 artists from across the United States, as well as 22 local high school artists. CURRENTS had been operating at this scale for 10 consecutive years until 2020, at which point the festival moved entirely online and then shifted to a hybrid format in 2021. This year, CURRENTS will take place as a full-scale, in-person festival across the city of Santa Fe, showing 75 artists at CURRENTS 826 (their year-round exhibition space), the Santa Fe Fairgrounds, CCA, SITE Santa Fe, and form & concept.
Reflecting on the arc of CURRENTS’s 20-year history, Amster and Ragano each have a sense of pride for the past and excitement about the future. As new media artists themselves, they approach everything with curiosity and strive to bring a spirit of openness to Santa Fe by presenting an international array of contemporary new media work. And, while CURRENTS is an international festival, they feel strongly that the local communities in New Mexico should be the ones who chiefly benefit from it.
For example, there is an abundance of job opportunities in the area since putting together a production of this size requires a robust crew of people. Affordable tickets, as well as venues throughout the city, also benefit the community. But this sense of accessibility is also achieved in the way Amster and Ragano design the experience. “We emphasize the experience and even if it’s challenging work it still is in a context that allows people to relax,” says Amster about making the festival inviting to visitors coming from any background. Ragano adds, “When people come in, if they’ve never seen work like this before, they get it. People don’t feel stupid.”
It’s important that viewers never feel alienated by the works, which is not unusual when it comes to encountering contemporary art. But this kind of intentional experience-crafting does not happen at the expense of presenting work that challenges the viewer, either. Ragano and Amster are mostly interested in curating a festival that is visceral, that makes visitors “feel alive.” And sometimes that kind of artwork also deals with difficult themes.
Two artworks stand out as encompassing the ethos of being both accessible and thought-provoking. Artist Young-min Choi has two experiential works in the festival: “Chordal Distance” (in collaboration with Sylvan Zheng) — a musical installation that requires two viewers to interact with the work to produce music together — and “Cloud Mirror” — an interactive video installation that produces a reflection of the viewer synced to the viewer’s breathing — seek to connect the viewer back to themselves and to one another by using tech as the vehicle for interactivity. For Choi, when presenting technology-based work, the participatory element is of prime importance. Since technological progress has often favored profit at all costs, she believes that new media art has the power to subvert this by allowing people to make their own meaning through interaction.
In “Acequia Madre” by Albuquerque-based artist Ruben Olguin, viewers are prompted to seriously consider their relationship to the land they’re on and the human impact on it over the centuries. The work is a multimedia installation comprising adobe bricks and video projections. The video sequence shows the history of water access in the Santa Fe area and the processes, natural and artificial, that have altered those waterways.
Also on view is Tivon Rice’s video screening “Models for Environmental Literacy” (2020), which follows three artificial intelligence entities trained on different language-based datasets (made up of novels, non-fiction books, and reports on climate change) making their way through different virtual landscapes. The voiceover narration is provided by AI, which was co-written by Rice. The video itself is beautiful, but at times unsettling when you stop to think that the voice and the words are partially robot-generated.
As the world grows increasingly virtual with seemingly no time to pause to think about potential consequences, providing a dedicated space to encounter and question advanced technology through art in a comfortable environment seems vital. Art can help articulate the human experience, re-presenting it back to ourselves, so that we might find meaning in our relationships with each other and our collective reality. CURRENTS achieves this mission with thoughtfulness, elegance, and clarity, balancing on that cutting edge between today and our very present future.