Becoming Aware of the Bubble

A review of Wendy Richmond’s 'Alone in Public' at the RISD Museum.

Sitting in front of Wendy Richmond’s new piece “Alone in Public” in the RISD Museum is an experience both of watching and of being watched. Three black-and-white video projections surround the small seating area in the museum’s New Media Gallery. The videos were filmed by friends and acquaintances of the artist in public spaces, mostly coffee shops and libraries, using the cameras embedded in laptop computers. The projections capture their behaviors while they use their computers. Looking somewhat like a silent Skype staring contest, the videos draw attention to gestures such as the small eye movements created by reading, the touching of the face when thinking, the leaning back to sigh in frustration — gestures that are repeated and begin to overlap from different figures on the various screens. Ambient, wordless sound from the public spaces accompanies the piece.

I spoke to Richmond about her role with this work, which was to edit out the more self-aware moments for these people, in order to focus on the moments when the subjects forget they are being taped and go to work on a task. That happened within just thirty seconds, Richmond said. The piece also acts as a monologue for these people’s private moments in public. At the same time, the people were all communicating in some way — drawing, writing, or reading on the computer — and so the piece, while it films only one person at a time, can be seen as a dialogue between them and the object of their communication. And as the viewer sits where the computer would be, the piece then becomes a dialogue with the viewer, watched and watching.

Before going to the space, I anticipated being overwhelmed by the public-private tension of “Alone in Public.” Years ago, I walked away shattered from a Rineke Dijkstra piece called “Annemiek” at MFA Boston, confronted by my rude intrusion into the private world of that video’s young subject. Instead, “Alone in Public” is a comforting space. The viewer becomes aware of the mundanity of public activity on computers, and of the devices’ ubiquity for a large section of the American population. Blown up to a large size, the low-resolution videos fall apart, and these people become people that I know, in repeated gesture, even a reflection of myself.

Other great art events in Providence now:

RISD Graduate Thesis Exhibition. Standouts include Nicole Aquillano (ceramics), Peter Croteau (photography), Yoorim Kim (printmaking/sculpture). The show is very strong and deserves repeated viewings. Open daily noon-5 p.m., through June 2. Free. RI Convention Center, Exhibit Hall A, 1 Sabin St., Providence.

Kathy Halper “Friend Me.” Also dealing with the public/private, her work explores Halper’s changed relationship with her children after friending them on Facebook. Open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. Craftland Gallery, 235 Westminster St., Providence, 272-4285,