Mark Allen's Top Ten for October 11th, 2004:
New York, USA

4. Don Ritter's "Vox Populi"
(Jack the Pelican Gallery, Williamsburg, Brooklyn - until Oct. 17th)

So I wandered into Jack the Pelican gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn this week. I've seen some pretty good work there on occasion on some of my escapist strolls. Anyway, in the back room of the gallery from now until October 17th is this great multi-media installation by Don Ritter and it's called "Vox Populi."

The installation consists of this elevated podium under some spotlights with a live microphone and a teleprompter screen with a scrolling, pre-written speech (you can choose from Martin Luther King, George W. Bush, Adolph Hitler or John F. Kennedy) - all ready for you to walk up to and start speaking. In front of the podium, on the wall, is projected an ingeniously seamless series of streaming videos of a crowd (sometimes viewed from far back, sometimes close-up) that are relentlessly shouting for you to "Speak! C'mon! Speech! Say your mind!" that kind of overlap each other in a deafening crowd roar - and their actions change according to different signals being given off from the microphone and the podium and the sound in the room. Apparently if you start speaking they shut up and sit there and watch you judgingly, and if you start to stammer or take too many gaps, they "Boo!" or deplore you to not give up. I think if you make it all the way through one of the speeches they burst out in roars of applause... but if you don't complete it they call you a quitter.

I say apparently because... well, I lost my nerve all alone there in the gallery on a sunny October afternoon... caught by surprise by the exhibition and knowing that the person working in the front office would be able to hear me loud and clear if I got up and started speaking. I was caught unaware, and I chickened out.

Maybe I'll go back. One of the reasons it freaked me out so much was I was literally feeling the tension, all alone back there, the tension you felt in middle school before you had to stand in front of English class and give an oral report and you had to go first because your name started with "A," or that tension you felt backstage on the opening night of that play you're in where you're praying you don't vomit on your choked-out opening line, or that awful feeling before you go on stage at that terrible club in Berlin that the dipshit, K-holed club promoter back in NYC booked you and your go-go dancing friends at, even though you just found out you're getting paid almost 1/4th of what was agreed on and you did some drug earlier that you shouldn't have and then you had some drinks to counteract it and you're praying for the music to cue so your nervous, nauseous, high, enraged, jet lagged ass doesn't just drop dead right there on the spot behind the jizz-stenched black curtain with the sequin fist and eagle pattern on it.

Ritter's work literally channeled all those past experiences and others right there alone in that room with nothing but electronics. I literally had sweaty palms. Would the guy working in the gallery office hear me? Should I be embarrassed? Is he used to hearing people do this all day? What if I make a mistake!? Gawrsh!

I noticed as I moved closer to the podium, that the people in the video projection started shouting and employing me even more to "...get up! Speak your mind!" and when I reached way up and tapped the mic a few times (to see if it worked), they amazingly shut up and just stared. Spooky. As soon as I didn't step up and start talking into the microphone, they started to "Boo!" and again harassed me to give a speech. The way it seems to work is different crowd sequences (using the same crowd of actors) are programmed to kind of fade in and out of each other very quickly according to what response is needed. And the sound they make is really overwhelming.

The only other artists that come to mind are Richard Serra, who in the 1960's and 70's created huge metal sculptures inside giant rooms... sculptures out of heavy flat slabs of rusted metal that leaned precariously against each other and tilted at really odd angles, or seemed to barley be able to stand up by themselves, looking like they might topple over on top of you if you walked too close to them. His goal, among others, was to create psychic "tension" in a room, which was as much a sculptural medium to work with as the metal itself.

Here is a link with all the info you need about the Don Ritter "Vox Populi" installation at Jack the Pelican gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I highly recommend going... facing your fears and speaking your mind. Try to picture the guy working way up in the front office naked.