Xbox activism

Pub date October 29, 2008
WriterGlen Helfand
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

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REVIEW The day after the last 2008 presidential debate, the stock market rollercoastered, however tenuously, to a high point, and oil prices plummeted. One would think those would be hopeful omens — on NPR, a woman interviewed on the street claimed lower gas prices were akin to a miracle. Yet the current ability to get the news the moment it happens — where would we be without e-alerts regarding daily Wall Street dramas? — has conditioned us to believe tomorrow might offer a radically different story. When OPEC calls an emergency meeting, and the US feds hold a global economic summit, who knows which side of the economic seesaw we’ll occupy at sunset?

Right now, you could say the economy is a form of conceptual art writ large, with real world implications. The numbers are based on shifts in mood and degrees of confidence, rather than anything you could really put your finger on (like cold hard cash). Apparently the idea that the earth’s thermostat is dialed up to a higher temperature is similarly conceptual. A surprising number of Americans — about 50 percent in a Pew Research Center poll taken last summer — believe there’s no such thing as global warming, and if there were, its causes cannot be scientifically determined. (Say bye-bye to the king penguin.)

Volatile situations have a way of generating free-floating cultural anxiety, and perhaps one of art’s jobs is to assuage it, or at least render it in unexpected terms and media. Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung’s Internet-based game project Gas Zappers does both. Using a colorful cast of characters wrested from online news outlets, it maintains a brash, interactive appeal as it tackles the implications of global warning and shifty petroleum economies. An animated digital collage, it takes two forms — a single-channel digital video, and a series of interactive computer games that can be viewed and played on a large flat screen monitor. It’s also accessible online.

The most attractive aspect of Gas Zappers‘ video version is its amped-up lucidity. Hung may be trafficking in environmental activism, but his vision of green takes on the gloriously corrosive hue of antifreeze. The piece is rendered in a color scheme you could describe as a toxic chemical rainbow. Art with social intent is often deemed didactic, but Hung steers clear of such charges with unabashed satire that plays like John Heartfield — the master of Hitler-hating WWII photomontage — meets South Park on YouTube.

Gas Zappers‘ appeal stems partly from the zeal with which Hung tosses cultural and political references. A polar bear, cast from its frozen habitat, navigates through a global landscape of energy issues — and celebrity spokespeople. Leonardo DiCaprio’s there, as is George W. Bush (as a barbecue grillmaster) and Al Gore (in a polar bear costume accessorized with Nobel bling). Al gags the prez on a compact fluorescent bulb and then sits on his face, issuing a forceful invitation: "Try my greenhouse gas, sucker."

Hung, who studied at San Francisco State University and showed an equally brash Internet-critique piece in Bay Area Now 3, is an artist of our moment. With this project, he has devised perhaps the perfect, time-filling, politically astute work for Berkeley tree-sitters — and those of us who wish we had the time and gumption to get up off our asses and make a difference.


Through Feb. 8, 2009

Berkeley Art Museum

2626 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-0808