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Renée Green: Shifting mental spaces

Renée Green is shown before an image from her feature film, +Endless Dreams and Water Between.+
Renée Green is shown before an image from her feature film, +Endless Dreams and Water Between.+
Photo: Len Rubenstein

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Spectrvm.

Renée Green, an internationally known artist and filmmaker and director of MIT’s Program in Art, Culture + Technology (ACT), describes her career as an “artistic and cultural exploration of what has been done and what can now be made or imagined in a transcultural world.”

Incorporating books, fabrics, photographs, historical objects, audio, video, and other technologies, Green’s work has been surveyed in two solo retrospectives and is in the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) permanent collection. For 25 years, she has received steady critical praise in the U.S. and Europe for her installations, digital media, architecture and sound-based works, as well as for her published writing on art, culture and technology.

In a review of Green’s gallery installation, “Partially Buried Shed” (2000), The New York Times praised the multimedia environment as a “surround of still and moving images…shifting mental spaces [that show] individuals contributing to, acting against, and lost within the flux of history.”

In 2010, MoMA commissioned Green to produce a “Media Lounge” — a new space that would give visitors individual access to the museum’s growing film and video archive and provide MoMA with flexibility to move the Lounge to accommodate large exhibitions or events. The commission became an “exploration of impermanence — of how people relate to spaces that can be temporarily inhabited,” Green says. “Viewers come and go. The Lounge might end up in a hallway or under the stairs. It’s a migratory system.”

The Lounge looks like a cluster of colorful voting booths, each one equipped with two chairs and an iPad. The moveable booths adapt easily anywhere in the museum, a design that reflects Green’s interest in human adaptation across cultures, time, and place.

Finding art in cultural flux

Critics have long praised Green’s individual artworks for their conceptual or philosophical power. But her skill in combining transmedia elements to communicate transcultural experience does not arise from theory: She has lived it, traveling extensively throughout the U.S., Mexico and Europe, teaching and producing artworks that delve broadly into materials and ideas that unify multiple perspectives.

Her early works evoked pairs of conflicting perspectives — colonizer and colonized; black and white; male and female — to be experienced simultaneously. For “Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile” (1994), Green designed toile, a 17th-century patterned French cloth, as a white background on which pink flowers alternate with pink vignettes of black Haitian revolutionaries hanging French officers. Toile installs as a formal parlor with matching chair, lamp, wallpaper and a shapely female manikin wearing a suit. A visitor to this little stage may feel both attracted to its “civilized” coziness and appalled at its cruel imagery.

In recent years, Green has increasingly designed environments where history, culture, memory, and technology seem utterly fluid. Works now in progress in the MoMA Media Lounge to be developed in phases are film essays and editing “Other Planes of There,” a book of her writing on artistic practice, culture and other topics.

Green came to MIT in 2011. The Institute is “unlike any other place in the world — a research university that specializes in science and has a historic commitment to visual studies,” she says. “It’s an environment that encourages curiosity, empirical testing, and creative exploration.”

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