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Exhibit curated by CCRI professor examines digital communication

February 15, 2021

Community College of Rhode Island Adjunct Art Professor Brian O’Malley is exploring the world’s reliance on digital communication during the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on our relationships through a unique multimedia exhibit at the Newport Art Museum. 

Digital Breath: Video and Sound Art in the Age of Global Connectivity is on display from now through June 6 and puts an eclectic spin on the way people have been forced to connect with one another over the past year amidst the COVID-19 outbreak – everything from socially-distanced get-togethers to virtual workday collaborations using a variety of communication technology platforms.

The exhibit – curated by O’Malley – features video, audio, and animation components submitted by seven different artists, including O’Malley and CCRI Assistant Professor Daniel O’Neill, and offers fresh and diverse perspectives exploring the theme of “breath” during the pandemic. 

Described by O’Malley as a “an audio and visual chamber ensemble,” the exhibit’s concept and title is inspired by the poem, “Breath,” by the late Mark Strand, specifically the closing line, which reads, “that breath is what I give them when I send my love.”

“That line reminds us to revisit the very breath we take as we join together to make the world stronger at this unprecedented moment,” O’Malley said.

“The poem is timely and relatable right now in that we are sending our love to one another through digital messaging or via digital platforms. That is our ‘digital breath.’ The pieces featured in this exhibit also speak on where we are headed in this digital world and how the pandemic has further pushed us toward that, perhaps even sooner than we anticipated.”

The exhibit space at the Newport Art Museum, according to O’Malley, is designed to ensure the pieces work “in harmony” with one another. “I want the visitor to feel like they are walking into an orchestra,” he said. Artists featured in Digital Breath include Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, Steven Subotnick, John Devault, Lauren Mantecón, and Andrea Pérez Bessin, all of whom are addressing the concept of “digital breath,” O’Malley said, “and what it means as we enter a new year challenged by COVID.”

Matthew, a photography professor at the University of Rhode Island and the director of the URI Center for the Humanities, has had her work displayed at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. An award-winning independent animator, Subotnick teaches animation at RISD; Bessin, a printmaker and mixed media artist, focuses on what she describes as “the instability of gender through the fragmentation of the body” in her work; and Mantecón, an abstract painter who lives and works in New Mexico, has won several awards displaying her artwork in museums and galleries throughout the world. DeVault, an East Providence-based musician, produced his own work the exhibit and contributed audio effects to several other pieces.

Among the prominent works on display is O’Neill’s video projection piece, “Crossroads,” which he describes as a “circular narrative” in which the characters are trapped in malfunctioning loops speaking past each other as if they were trapped in a Zoom meeting, a feeling, O’Malley says, all too familiar for those who’ve had to adjust to remote interactions during the pandemic. He describes O’Neill’s production as a “strange juxtaposition of people being boxed into spaces.” 

“When you walk into our exhibit, you will be immersed in the concept of ‘digital breath,’” O’Malley said. “We’re featuring electronic media in a variety of formats, and what you see from the moment you walk in really sets the tone for the entire experience.

“We’ve survived almost an entire year of virtual meetings, Zoom calls, and not seeing one another. The intimacy we normally experience has been taken away from us, and the work on display here really speaks to what we’re all going through at the moment.” 

The Newport Art Museum is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am–4 pm and Sunday from noon–5 pm. Visit newportartmuseum.org or call 401-848-8200 for more information.

O’Malley also hopes in 2021 to revive his Rhode Island Independent Animators (RIIA), which he launched last February pre-COVID. The pandemic forced the cancelation of five of his scheduled six events. The RIAA offers independent animators the opportunity to showcase their work to new audiences in a fresh, cinematic landscape.

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