Negotiating a balance between the personal and the impersonal, between what is properly the artist’s and what is borrowed from elsewhere, is undeniably vital to the success of contemporary art. The problem is not that this has gone unnoticed — critics of pastiche abound — rather the problem is that it is not up to the critics to change this balance; it is up to the artists.

In his show, up for the next two weeks on the second floor of the Sculpture Building on Edgewood, Andrew Maas ART ’11 takes the necessary first step in identifying this tension.

Maas’ small exhibit is comprised almost exclusively of video pieces that document what appear to be pointless performances. In one video Maas systematically unwraps old cigarette butts and uses the tobacco to roll a new cigarette, which he then smokes. In another, Maas slowly takes apart a stereo, unscrewing it at the corners until he can lift the front plate completely off. Then, once he has it in pieces, he puts green putty in place of one of the knobs and screws the whole thing back together. It is unchanged except for the new putty-orifice, which Maas then takes advantage of in a staged (and presumably failed) sexual act before walking off-screen.

Both pieces couldn’t be more futile. In the first, Maas ends up precisely where he began: with a cigarette butt that he can throw back into the receptacle from which he pilfered the butts that he used to make the very same cigarette. In the second, his entire project culminates in a failed attempt at consummating the stereo’s transformation. And yet, these seemingly empty or circular gestures reveal a strange paradox.

Maas makes the cigarette, works on the stereo, unscrews, unrolls, smokes, thrusts — in short, he performs tasks that aren’t circular. These are human tasks that, taken individually, look like they lead somewhere, but in both cases he ends up where he began. These are videos of an artist moving, making, changing, but their futility is such that they become impersonal, inorganic and formal. The pieces are about a real human procedure, but their staged failure makes the human mechanical.

Maas likens these two videos to circles that cut themselves out in the process of being made. This description is apt. But it may be easier to conceive of the pieces as circles drawn in ink that fades the moment it is applied. In watching Maas in the videos we see something human unfolding, but once they end, the human action is lost in the unnatural circularity. That is, unlike regular circles, which create a boundary that allows us to distinguish an inside from an outside once they have been drawn, these videos have no interior space, no forward narrative, no real development.

The tension here lies in the fact that the artist, the human, is so centrally located in something that is no longer personal at all. The pieces depend on him — the action literally revolves around him — but once they have been made, the artist is merely a character, a visual fixture dragged along in perpetuity.

This comes up even more clearly in the final video of the show: a film of Maas watching a video he appropriated from the internet. Here Maas’ body blocks the camera so that all we can see of the borrowed video is some light at the edges of the frame — the rest is taken up by the shadow of his outline. Maas then slowly moves back and forth, allowing more and then less of the borrowed imagery to come through.

It would be difficult to imagine a more succinct formulation of this question: when something is appropriated, how much should the artist block out, change, rearrange, in order to make something new and interesting, something for which he or she can make the claim of authorship? More generally, what is the correct balance between the personal and impersonal elements in art being made today?

These questions may be irresolvable, but Maas has taken an important step by making them explicit in his work.