Gathering five works from a group of young, socially engaged international artists, “Acting Out: Social Experiments in Video,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, focuses on the shifting interactions that establish the differences and similarities between people throughout the world.
Curator Jen Mergel says though the subjects range from young kids in Croatia to teens at about the age when they might get conscripted into the Israeli army, to the elderly in a small Scottish town, there is a similarity.
“The fundamental human relationships that are revealed — what isolates or connects us — really cross any national or political or cultural boundaries,” she says. “You could speak any language, come to the show, and still get the most fundamental message in each of the works; the dynamics between us, they really do define us.”
In each of the five pieces on display, she explains, the artists “engage non-actors in challenging situations and record them, in an effort to get a sense of how their reactions within these challenging situations might give us a glimpse into the complex dynamics in our political and personal relationships.”
Among the works, a broad range of tone and subject matter play out, from pop culture to politics to poetry and symbolism.
In “He Who Laughs Last Laughs Longest,” artist Phil Collins (not the one of “Sussudio” fame) plays with our ideas of reality TV, engaging a group of citizens from the small Scottish town where TV was invented in an exhausting laughing competition. Joanna Billings’ “Magical World” features Croatian children learning how to sing a song in English. Venezuelan artist Javier Tellez’s “Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those Who See” updates the old parable “The Blind Man and the Elephant,” inviting a group of blind people to share their interpretations of touching an elephant.
“Unlike a documentary, or reality television, or even social science,” says Mergel, “these artists are specifically choosing situations that they know will have some poignant resonance and be able to remain open ended, layered and complex ... They aren’t looking for neat conclusions or short answers. They really are trying to reveal complexities, not answer questions.”
It’s within the emotional intensity of the unscripted participants’ reactions that the drama and tension of human social interaction plays out. In the laughing contest, “the piece runs for the length of the longest laugh,” Mergel explains. “You’re feeling this excruciating transition from what should be a natural expression of release, into one that’s forced, into something almost painful and hysterical. It’s really sort of revealing to us how such a medium can alter our own behaviors or emotions.”
‘Acting Out: Social Experiments in Video’
Through Oct. 18
Institute of Contemporary Art
100 Northern Ave., Boston
MBTA: Red Line to South Station