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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: October 15, 2014

“Opposing Gestures” at USM explores the act and process of human expression

Written by: Bob Keyes
Joseph Farbrook, "Human Nature," on view at USM-Gorham.

Joseph Farbrook, “Human Nature,” on view at USM-Gorham.

It took only one look at the Area Gallery at USM’s Portland campus for Joseph Farbrook to realize he was dealing with a difficult space.

“It’s not really a gallery,” Farbrook said kindly, seated on a sun-baked bench outside the Woodbury Campus Center. “It’s more like a big hallway in a way.”

The pass-through nature of the space drove the decision to feature Farbrook and collaborator Sama Alshaibi’s “Diatribes” in the Portland gallery. The video installation unfolds on TV monitors and is the centerpiece of a larger exhibition called “Opposing Gestures,” an all-digital interactive exploration of what Farbrook calls the “political, existential and personal dilemmas” that we encounter every day.

Through a variety of digital portals, “Opposing Gestures” shares the artists’ political views, and does so with the pretense that an individual’s expression, or gesture, can be symbolic of society. And while political views surface across the exhibition, its larger theme explores the act and process of human expression.

The exhibition is on view in Portland and Gorham through early December.

Joseph Farbrook, “Dancer,” electronic ink, on view at USM-Gorham.

Joseph Farbrook, “Dancer,” electronic ink, on view at USM-Gorham.

Gallery director Carolyn Eyler said USM wanted to do an all-digital exhibition featuring artists who are making timely, innovative and issue-oriented digital work that is not bogged down in technology.

Sometimes, digital art can be off-putting because it feels distant or disconnected from the viewer. It’s often hard to explain, and sometimes difficult for casual viewers to connect with.

Eyler chose Farbrook after consulting with art department faculty, because his work felt rooted in fine-art traditions, and Farbrook is both articulate and approachable.

“There are humanist queries in his art, and it looks familiar in some ways.” Eyler said. “He takes a casual approach to technology, which makes it easier for some people to access it.”

Farbrook, who lives in Boston, suggested including the work of Alshaibi. They worked together a decade ago and were interested in revisiting their earlier work.

Perhaps more compelling, Alshaibi taught at USM briefly several years ago, though she lives in Arizona now and works as associate professor of photography and video art at the University of Arizona.

Farbrook is associate professor of interactive media and game development at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

 Joseph Farbrook and Sama Alshaibi, from “Diatribes: A Decade Later,” on view at USM-Portland.

Joseph Farbrook and Sama Alshaibi, from “Diatribes: A Decade Later,” on view at USM-Portland.

In 2003, they made a piece called “Diatribes” in which they interviewed each other on camera about a number of topics, including the what was then America’s pending invasion of Iraq.

Their conversation was projected on four screens: One for each artist, one with images of protests and another dedicated to media cacophony.

Theirs was an interesting conversation, because of their backgrounds and viewpoints. Farbrook was born in the United States and is of German and Jewish descent. Alshaibi is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Iraq. Their conversation was anything but predictable.

This past summer, Farbook and Alshaibi got together to reprise “Diatribes.” They used the same format, and talked about their lives, their art and the state of the nation 10 years later. They call their current piece “Diatribes, A Decade Later.”

The two pieces are shown simultaneously in the Area Gallery in Portland.

For Farbrook, the videos make the best use of the Portland gallery space, which connects one area of the Woodbury Campus Center with another. The words and faces of the artists are projected on screens in the gallery, and viewers can choose to stop and listen or pass through.

Sama Alshaibi, "Sweep," a video on view at USM-Gorham.

Sama Alshaibi, “Sweep,” a video on view at USM-Gorham.

Those who choose to watch and listen will hear the artists respond to the work they’ve done since their initial collaboration, discuss elements of each other’s projects and search for the meaning of their work within the context of the larger issues at play in the world.

As part of “Diatribes,” USM has erected a Community Response Wall, in which viewers can respond to the Farbrook/Alshaibi collaboration by leaving their own viewpoints, thoughts and counter-arguments.

Gallery intern Caitlin Puchalski is coordinating the wall, which is available both in the gallery and online at

She asked for “respectful, well-thought out” responses to the work. “We wanted a space for the public and USM students to respond to the work. It’s an interactive exhibit, and it’s important that we offer a chance for people to respond,” Puchalski said.

Viewers can email written or visual replies to

In Gorham, the gallery features a sample of both artists’ recent works, including video installations, photography, animation and interactive video projections.


WHERE: USM Art Gallery, 37 College Ave., Gorham; and USM Area Gallery, Woodbury Campus Center, 35 Bedford St., Portland
WHEN: noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday in Gorham; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday in Portland
INFO: 207-780-5008 or

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