I find a clip on YouTube called 64 Frames per Second (fps). The artwork comprises footage of a white mouse running in slow motion on a wheel; the film itself swirls high above the image of the rodent projected on a wall, and back through a 16 mm projector. On the facing wall is a video of a polar bear swimming laps underwater in a pool. Conceptual art is all about ideas, and watching the 1:15 minute clip I admit I’m stumped; I haven’t a clue what the concept is. My immediate thought wraps around the ever-familiar predator and prey discourse, and just as quickly dismissed since lab mice and polar bears don’t exactly exist in the same habitat. So I decide to go to the source and shoot the artist an email; I ask, Why a mouse? Why a polar bear? In other words what were you saying?
In the mid-1990s the two animals conspired to get Michael Oliveri to thinking about science and art, about the transformation of the former into the latter, through the prism of scale: the largest white mammal and the smallest. Oliveri spent “hundreds of hours” at the San Francisco zoo, filming a polar bear endlessly treading back and forth; he later took a pet store mouse—standing in for a lab mouse—and put him in a cage with an ‘exercise’ wheel connected to a carousel slide projector. With every rotation the mouse made, the wheel tripped the projector, advancing slides made from the video of the polar bear. In essence the art installation mimicked a scientific experiment; the mouse’s movement mimicked the pacing polar bear, both caged animals spending their lives going nowhere at all.
He then increased the complexity of the piece in the plural. Mouse and Polar Bear became Mice and Polar Bears. He dipped two-dozen mice in non-toxic saline dyes. The colorful creatures ran on six separate wheels, triggering six projectors that too projected slides of anxiety-ridden polar bears; the slides were now tinted to correspond to the mice’s colors. The conversation, however, was diverted. To his consternation the artist saw in Mice and Polar Bears, thanks to the multi-hued mice, not an exploration of the boundary between science and art but a form of entertainment, “a kind of miniature circus.”
By the late nineties Oliveri had had enough of working with live animals, of using them in his installations; he had also been doing other projects involving fish and chickens. He was exhausted from their daily upkeep and the cleaning and the finding homes for them once the shows had ended. But there was something he felt more keenly. He tells me, the “animals had a real effect on my soul”; he could no longer “justify” their use. In his effort to continue the dialogue without the mice’s actual presence 64 fps was born.
(Image: 64 fps, 2000, courtesy of Michael Oliveri, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)