15 May 2007

Appreciating Irony

Safe at home! Tel Aviv Lighting playing Petach Tikvah Pioneers as the sun sets.

The Hebrew words on the sign at the opening game of the season between the Petach Tikvah Pioneers and Modi'in Miracle reads "If you will it, it is no legend," a play on Herzl's words referring to the founding of the State of Israel.

My son, Ari Alexenberg, pitching for the Petach Tikva Pioneers. Below, Ari in his role as coach and manager Ken Holtzman at first game of the inagural season .

Championship game starting pitcher for the Modi'in Miracle, 6'7" Maximo Nelson, and batboy wearing tzitzit during singing of Hatikvah.

Ari high-fives Reynaldo Cruz as Petach Tikva Pioneers win 5-0

Experiencing Pro Baseball in Israel Through Digital Art

My proposed art exhibition, Homerun!, draws on digital technologies and popular culture to explore interrelationships between my Jewish, Israeli, and American identities integrated with my identity as a proud father of a southpaw pitcher for the Petach Tikva Pioneers. It is inspired by my son Ari the professional baseball player, not in the United States where Ari lives, but in Israel where his parents and siblings live.

My Son, the Southpaw Pitcher
Ari couldn’t play Little League baseball growing up in the States because games were on Shabbat and couldn’t play baseball during his childhood years in Israel because there was none. In a twist of irony, he began his professional career on the mound in Israel at age 45. His team’s manager was the famous Jewish Major League pitcher, Ken Holtzman, whose picture on a baseball card Ari has treasured since his childhood days in Teaneck. On 24 June 2007, the Pioneers faced the Modi'in Miracle in the opening game of the inaugural season of the Israel Baseball League in Petach Tikva, ten minutes away from my home.

Running Home: Exile and Irony
Ari explores the irony of realizing his American dream of becoming a professional baseball player in Petach Tikva of all places on his blog, http://www.alexenberg.blogspot.com/.

Ruth Weisberg, dean of the art school at University of Southern California, sent me her insightful paper, “Between Exile and Irony: Modernism, Postmodernism, and Jewish Thought,” that explores the dyanmic tension between exile and irony, and between identify and assimilation in Jewish life, and how these dichotomies play out in contemporary art and culture. It offers a theoretical framework for my response as an artist to Ari’s encounter with exile and irony and its complex twists.

In her book, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicultural Society, one of America's formost art writers, Lucy Lippard connects contemporary art with social and cultural contexts. She writes: "We are living today on a threshhold between a history of alienated displacement from and longing for home and the possiblility of a multicentered society that understands the reciprocal relationship between the two."

Bielicky and Me: Collaborative InfoArt
To add to the complexity of identies, I am collaborating with Czech-born Jewish artist Michael Bielicky in creating Homerun!. He is head of the department of infoart/digital media at the university of art and design attached to the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Kalsruhe, Germany, founding head of the media art program at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, and former horse-cab driver in New York's Central Park.

We are creating artworks to virtually transport museum visitors in New York to the exciting opening season of the Israel Baseball League (IBL) using new media technologies such as information visualization systems, motion capture tracking systems, interactive installations, computer graphics, digital photography, and immersive video. What better metaphor for dialogue through art between the world’s two largest Jewish communities than to experience the most loved American sport transported to Israel.

Most Loved American Sport in Israel
This innovative art exhibition will not only appeal to the large audience of American Jews who love baseball as well as to those who are art lovers, but to baseballs fans worldwide cheering for players from nine countries playing in Israel’s six professional baseball teams: Petach Tikva Pioneers, Modi’in Miracle, Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, Netanya Tigers, Ra’anana Express, and Tel Aviv Lightning.

The Petach Tikva Pioneers played the Modi’in Miracle in the opening game of the inaugural season. The artworks focus on these two teams because of their symbolic power in Jewish history. Petach Tikva symbolizes the resettlement of the Land of Israel in our times while Modi’in symbolizes the ancient town where the story of the miracle of Hanukah began.

Petach Tikva, named Gateway to Hope from a biblical passage in Hosea, was the first Jewish village in the country founded on the coastal plain in 1878 by a group of pioneers. The village has grown into a city of 180,000 souls and home to many hi-tech companies. Modi’in was the ancient hometown of the Hasmonean dynasty where the Maccabean revolt against oppressive foreign rulers began more than two millennia ago. Present-day Modi’in, founded in 1993, is a modern city of 70,000 people midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The artist's son Ari Alexenberg was pitcher and coach assisting Petach Tikva Pioneers managers Ken Holtzman, whose 15 year big league career included five World Series wins, and Tony Ferrara, former New York Yankees coach. The Modi'in Miracle team was managed by Art Shamsky, a major player for the “Miracle Mets” who won the 1969 World Series.

Spirituality in a Ground Ball Coming Down the Infield
The art exhibition will not only invite museum visitors to explore sociological dimensions of dialogue between the Jews of America and Israel and historic dimensions of Zionist pioneering linked to the Hanukah miracle, but to explore religious dimensions that find spiritual significance in every facet of life. The preeminent Jewish thinker of the 20th century, Rav Soloveitchik, teaches that Judaism does not confine itself to the synagogue, but penetrates into every nook and cranny of life. “The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop for the religious life." Museum visitors can ponder the significance of “the baseball field” added to the Rav’s list of places.

In addition to using baseball as a metaphor for different aspects of Jewish experience, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, invites us to make baseball a full part of our spiritual quest. "It is not enough for the Jew to rest content with his own spiritual ascent, the elevation of his soul in closeness to G-d, he must also strive to draw spirituality down into the world and into every part of it – the world of his work and his social life – until not only do they not distract him from his pursuit of G-d, but they become a full part of it."

In his acclaimed novel, City of God, E. L. Doctorow echoes the thoughts of Rabbis Soloveitchik and Schneerson. "If there is a religious agency in our lives, it has to appear in the manner of our times. Not from on high, but a revelation that hides itself in our culture, it will be ground-level, on the street, it’ll be coming down the avenue in the traffic, hard to tell apart from anything else." How about looking for spirituality in a ground ball coming down the infield.

Perhaps, we should keep our eyes on the outfield in Petach Tikva (literally Opening to Hope) watching for the Messiah. "Not until there is baseball in Israel will the Messiah come!" These are the words of an American-born yeshiva student in Jerusalem to an American writer in Philip Roth's novel, The Counterlife, published twenty years before the opening game of the Israel Baseball League's inaugural season. The yeshiva student couples his longing for the Messiah with his longing to play center field for the Jerusalem Giants.

The Artworks

Playing Ball: Becoming an Avatar at Bat
Visitors will be drawn into participating in a virtual baseball game being played at the home field of the Petach Tikva Pioneers. Body-motion sensors in the museum will track visitors’ movements and body shapes and transform them into avatars (virtual images of the visitors). The visitors watch their avatars as diaphanous bodies moving within video projections of a ballgame on a semicircular wall that gives them the feeling of being surrounded by the action on the field and in the stands. Visitors can simulate actions of players by gesturing and moving about on an Astroturf baseball diamond covering the gallery floor while simultaneously watching their avatars interacting with professional baseball players engaged in a game in Israel. The virtual players will be surrounded by a sound environment created from ambient sounds recorded at the games.

Playing Artist: Creating Digital Collages
Museum visitors will be able to create digital collages by accessing images from a large database of action photographs from the games, of interactions between teammates, of players’ dialogue with fans, of players’ encounters with life in Israel, of players teaching baseball to Israeli children, etc. Using a custom computer program, a number of museum visitors can simultaneously create digital collages from images projected from above onto a long white table. They can organize these dynamic and multifaceted images in aesthetic forms appropriated from baseball cards, Talmud pages, comic strips, and film storyboards merged with minimal texts in Hebrew and the other languages of the players. Exemplary digital collages created by the artists will be printed out as digital paintings on canvas to stimulate the imagination of the museum visitors.

Seeing Stats: Encountering an InfoOrganism
Baseball fans love to talk stats. They enthusiastically quote statistics about their favorite team. The stats of all the players, teams, and games of the inaugural IBL season will be transformed into dynamic visualizations. The continually changing image of the stats programmed as moving colorful patterns will form an information visualization that appears like a living organism pulsating in an ethereal vapor projected on a fog screen. Digital visualization of information, a rapidly developing area of computer science, will be used for creating an infoesthetic artwork that reveals mathematical patterns of the entire season’s baseball games. The statistical data will be transformed by a dedicated software program into a spiraling visual image in which players and teams are represented by forms and colors in flux. It will be projected on a screen of fog suspending in the middle of a darkened room. This virtual organism will present an infoesthetic portrait of baseball in Israel during the summer of 2007, in the Hebrew calendar 5767. It will compress the whole baseball season into a single pulsating InfoOrganism that transforms data into a virtual sculpture of aesthetic and conceptual power.

Seeing Icons: Watching Cascading Stars
Free floating portraits of IBL stars interspersed with symbolic icons from the realms of baseball and life in Israel will be projected cascading down the walls in the corners of the gallery and on the outer fa├žade of the museum building during nighttime hours. Visitors to the exhibition and strollers passing by on the street will see independent images floating down from the ceiling to floor and from the top of the building to the street below.

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