‘You’re Seeing the Machinery Operate’: Watch Artist Paul Pfeiffer Dissect the Nature of Mass Media in His Multi-Sensory Installations

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Sports arenas are more than just echo-ey chambers where world-class athletes and musicians take center stage. They are captivating settings filled with intense emotions, where the highest highs and lowest lows are on display for massive audiences, trained on every move. These captivating scenes are often projected onto television screens and internet channels, magnifying their impact as they are rewatched, shared, and analyzed over the course of time.

Paul Pfeiffer, an artist hailing from Honolulu and based in New York, centers his artistic expression on these dynamic spectacles, utilizing original footage from Hollywood movies, sporting events, concerts, and other cultural moments to create videos, sculptures, and photographs that reflect on the nature of mass media entertainment.

From his first experience at Madison Square Garden watching basketball players dominate the court in front of thousands of cheering fans, Pfeiffer has used his artistic practice to investigate the relationship between viewers and performers—those watching and those being watched. In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s digital series, Pfeiffer discusses the “transformative moment” of first watching such a grand event.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Paul Pfeiffer: Interrupting the Broadcast." © Art21, Inc. 2023.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Paul Pfeiffer: Interrupting the Broadcast.” © Art21, Inc. 2023.

“It was just the atmosphere, the drastic shifts in scale, the feeling of smallness when you’re a part of a crowd, but also the monumentality of the athletes,” he said.

When the artist was invited in the early 2000s to give a lecture at the University of Georgia, one of the top schools for college football in the United States, Pfeiffer leapt at the chance to take in a game. While there, instead of being drawn to the action on the field, he was focused on the (relatively small) marching band performing in a section of the stands. While cameras were trained on the players, Pfeiffer homed in on the band director, whose role in shaping the crowd was just as important as the team or coach. The director was leading his band to playAmerica the Beautiful” at a slower pace, in order to elicit more emotion from the crowd.

“You could literally see people start to cry as this happened,” the artist explained. “You’re seeing the machinery operate.” For Pfeiffer, this moment was akin to watching something like a “mass ritual” with the emotional weight of religion and people coming together united as one. 

“I think of art as the finger that points. To me, there’s a value of becoming more conscious of the manipulation. My agenda is in a way to call attention to that process of mediation.”

A new exhibition of Pfeiffer’s work titled “Paul Pfeiffer: Prologue to the Story of the Birth of Freedom” opens on November 12 at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles. The show explores the intricacies of collective awareness, furthering his insight into the distinctly American culture that “demonstrates how desire, heroism, and worship operate as part of the mechanisms of art, religion, politics, and nationhood.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Extended Play, below. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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