Throughout December, San Francisco-based artist JD Beltran's public video projection Portal (2011) is visible in the evenings in downtown San Jose, at the intersection of Almaden Boulevard and East San Fernando Street. Projected from the median onto the windowless exterior of a twelve-story AT&T building, Beltran's video draws on the local discovery of fossilized remains from a 14,000-year-old juvenile Columbian mammoth, now known as Lupe. Portal mines this recent discovery to explore our relationship to time and place through a collection of morphing images visible in the space of a red light.
Commissioned by the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose as a public project to compliment the exhibit Mammoth Discovery!, which explores Lupe's discovery, this project also includes Beltran's short film Journey (2011), visible on a flat screen in the City Windows Gallery at San Jose City Hall. Both the video and the film can be viewed in transit. Each offers an astonishing realization about the public space in which they are viewed. This urban environment was once roamed by mammoths, among other extinct animals, such as Saber-toothed Cats and American Mastodons, prior to the most recent prehistoric glacial episode known as the Pleistocene Epoch.
This Ice Age didn't occur in some remote locale, accessible to us only through a dusty textbook, but rather, it occurred here. The tusk found in the sandy banks of the Guadalupe River in 2005, by San Jose resident Roger Castillo while out walking his dog, collapses the distance between our understanding of history and our experience of it. Beltran's film and video challenge the viewer to reconsider their surroundings in this context and offer a glimpse of the uncanny reality embedded in the Bay Area landscape.
still from Portal
Portal is a composite video of digital stills and moving images that loops every three minutes and three seconds. The images segue from a fiery sun (4.5 billion years old and visible to us every day) to a sundial (first thought to have been invented 3,500 years ago) to the first clock to the first digital clock to the iPhone, and continuing on to explore time through similar relationships. The last half of the video samples images of eyes from ancient paintings to silent films to today. A subtle thread runs through Beltran's choices and illuminates our expectations around globalism and advancing technologies as a way of life. A note on the project website, alongside a smartphone image, indicates a decline in the once ubiquitous wristwatch. Once commonplace, it has been made nearly obsolete. Over time, everything in our surroundings changes -- and our sense of permanence, we are reminded, is but a brief moment in the larger scheme of things.
still from Portal
Beltran, a self-professed new media artist who "was working with technology before it was called new media," is quick to dispense credit on her partner and collaborator Scott Minneman, an inventor of interactive technologies and co-founder of Onomy Labs. Other recent collaborative projects include The Magic Story Table (2009), an installation that allows viewers to navigate an interactive map that plots personal narratives from various locales. Stories are presented as audio tripped by the viewer's manipulation of projected images. (The San Francisco iteration of this project is currently on view at Intersection for the Arts as part of Here Be Dragons, through January 14, 2012.) Beltran also credits her young son Sebastien as essential to the success of her interactive projects and notes, "His perspective counters my thinking that I know everything already."
A sign at the southwest corner of the intersection that hosts Portal provides succinct information about the project for those who find the work on foot. The website is presented alongside a QR tag, those quirky little scan codes that convey information via smartphones. Even a year ago, this technology would have seemed foreign, but now it can be found everywhere. In a short span of time, these modern day symbols will pass from ubiquity to antiquity, much like the Columbian mammoth.
Is there a hint of humor in Beltran's placement of Portal at the juncture of a traffic light, where time often seems to move at a glacial pace? For viewers who come to the work accidentally the visual display might seem unreal, much like the discovery of a prehistoric fossil on an otherwise unremarkable day. Suddenly time at a red light feels like time well spent.
Portal is visible nightly from 7pm to midnight, seven days a week, throughout December 2011. For more information visit cdm.org/portal. To learn more about Lupe, watch KQED Quest's video Science on the SPOT: Lupe the Mammoth Comes to Life.