I have seen the future of the video art museum, and it is the H BOX.
Of course, when I see the H BOX, I also feel I'm looking at a phantom from the past, something from a never-released episode of "Lost in Space" in which this equally dorky/cool-looking intergalactic module drops from the sky and changes everyone's perspective. As I doubt that the French luxury house of Hermès, which has underwritten the H BOX, will quite appreciate the admiring connotation of that most American adjective "dorky," let's focus instead on the cool part. Beginning today at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, the H BOX, a mobile screening room built to present commissioned video art, arrives in the U.S. for the first time.
Unveiled at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in November 2007, the H BOX has so far been at the Tate Modern in London, as well as shows in Spain, Luxembourg and Japan. Its American debut runs through Sept. 27. It was designed by Portuguese artist-architect Didier Fiuza Faustino, financed by Hermès and built by a French company, Euro-Shelter, which branched out from its typical business of developing mobile medical units for military use.
The result? A retro-looking, Tomorrowland-ish construction, built of throwback substances of aluminum and acrylic plastics, that paradoxically conveys us forward into the aesthetics of the Digital Age. It's a classic feint, almost haiku:
Form looks backward while
functionalities take us
into the future.
If you get invited to an H BOX assembly party, I'd say, go. The gizmo would arrive at the courtyard or parking lot of your local museum in 117 pieces, give or take a part or two (H BOX artistic director Benjamin Weil isn't quite sure of the exact number). It comes with its own technician: I envision a fastidious Ferrari mechanic, sporting a clean, white jumpsuit -- a solemn version of Peter Sellers, circa 1965. The technician needs about three days to assemble the H BOX and, voilà, you've got the coolest video display instrument this side of Bill Viola.
As to what makes it go, Weil offers a deprecatory chuckle and describes another traditional technology where the past powers the future. "It's plug and play -- turn it on in the morning and turn it off at night, that's about it."
The unit -- which comfortably holds as many as 10 watchers at a time -- is at OCMA as the final element of a chronologically arranged presentation called "The Moving Image: Scan to Screen, Pixel to Projection." Organized by Karen Moss, the museum's deputy director for exhibitions and programs, it taps into the institution's extensive permanent collection of electronic media art and captures the development of the form over the last 50 years.
"This show starts with works by pioneers like John Baldessari and the Ant Farm collective . . . through '80s and '90s figures like Viola and Spalding Gray . . . and into the early days of the Internet Age," says Moss.
Hermès has commissioned 12 works so far for the H BOX, four a year, at 25,000 euros (currently equal to about $33,500) apiece. The videos are from three to 14 minutes each and are shown together as part of a loop that takes 90 minutes to run.
As Moss concisely puts it: "The H BOX is a punctuation mark on the history of video art so far."
Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Today-Sept. 27. $10, adults; $8, students; free, children younger than 12. (949) 759-1122, www.ocma.net