Volume 19 | Issue 27 | November 17 - 23, 2006

Art Domantay

Artist Nina Katchadourian peering through her spyglass.

In ‘Office Semaphore,’ it’s business as unusual

By Harry Newman

For the next two months, visitors to Chase Manhattan Plaza in Lower Manhattan may be surprised by a bright blue tourist telescope — complete with observation guide — standing at the northeast corner of Liberty and William Streets. Rather than designating a recently discovered historical landmark, the telescope is part of “Office Semaphore,” a new interactive, site-specific art installation by Nina Katchadourian, which opens this weekend.

In development for a year and a half, “Office Semaphore” explores the limits of urban communication and involves participants in a unique form of puzzle-solving based on the old nautical system of flag signaling — the semaphore — used by ships at sea to convey urgent messages to one another. It is part sculpture, part performance, and part cryptography all at once, part pure fantasy and part reality slightly reconfigured.

It begins with the telescope. Instead of the pictures and names of buildings one would expect to find, the observation guide shows a series of twelve common office objects in twelve different arrangements of three. Each arrangement, according to the guide, corresponds to a phrase of semaphore (either real or invented) such as “I require a tug” or “keep clear of me” or “negotiations are underway.”

The telescope is locked into place and focused on a window in an office building some distance away where a set of the same objects is displayed. At different intervals, the display is changed to another of the twelve messages to reveal something about the person in the office. This isn’t a performer, but a lawyer volunteering to participate in the installation as part of his workday. Through a kind of mediated voyeurism, the changes give the viewer below a glimpse into his personality. There is no set time or number of changes or pre-determined order to the messages. They are supposed to reflect his mood at any given moment.

Katchadourian, whose pieces have seen throughout the U.S. and Europe since the early 1990s, works in many different media from video to photography to sound installation to public art works. She often plays with observation and the expectations of urban reality as well as with systems of communications. “Office Semaphore” is the second of four works by her to be exhibited in New York through early spring 2007. It is presented by the Public Art Fund as part of its “In the Public Realm” program. The installation is free and open to the public through January 14th.

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