exploring art and writing

Archive for the ‘Exhibition’ Category

A Little Book Review: Ruin Lust by Brian Dillon.

In Art, Books, Exhibition, Fine Arts on March 5, 2014 at 5:49 pm
Ruin Lust by Brian Dillon, 2014. Published by Tate to accompany the exhibition Ruin Lust at Tate Britain, 4th March - 18th May 2014.

Ruin Lust by Brian Dillon. Digital Image © Tate, London 2014. Published by Tate to accompany the exhibition Ruin Lust at Tate Britain, 4th March – 18th May 2014.

It’s very lazy of me to talk about a book when that book is about an exhibition. However, the exhibition’s in London and I am far away from there, with hardly a penny to my name. So I spent what pennies I do have on this charming little book.

It’s beautiful. It fits into a (large) pocket. It takes about half an hour to read from cover to cover. Perfect!

I was actually working when I discovered Ruin Lust. It appeared when I lifted another book out of a box that had just been delivered to the shop. Obviously, I had to stop working immediately and see what ‘ruin lust’ actually is.

Ruin lust – or ruinenlust – is a term coined by novelist Rose Macaulay in 1953 and refers to our ongoing fascination with remains, whether architectural, mechanical or otherwise, in both rural and urban settings. The author, Brian Dillon, explains that ruins “allow us to set ourselves loose in time, to hover among past, present and future” (p6). Perhaps this is why I get in such a sombre mood when I walk through the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey: there’s the tumult of the past to consider, beauty to admire, and the corrosive passage of time to acknowledge.

I’d have been happy to read this book if it was three times its actual length. Saying that, it’s a succinct introduction to an intriguing and visually alluring subject. But don’t take my word for it – go and see the exhibition at Tate Britain.

A superfluous afterthought:
My only real bug with Ruin Lust – this is where it gets petty – is Dillon’s reference to the Zone as “a derelict territory whose name derives from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker” (p41). Stalker is based on the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic, published in 1971. Although the screenplay was adapted by the brothers, I think it’s a bit cheeky to claim that the Zone originates from the film. I only say this because I’m sad that such a good book gets neglected so often!


The Exhibition Must Go On.

In Art, Exhibition, Fine Arts on August 16, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Laura Lillie at Howard Gardens Gallery, Cardiff 2012

The summer is nearly over. June’s smorgasbord of students, private views and liquor-soaked celebrations has dissipated. Now graduates, they hunt for employment, perhaps returning to the nest or living in packs in the city. But for a small handful of people the show is only just beginning: Masters students everywhere are preparing for their autumn exhibition.

Having forgotten how to make art myself I’ve decided to live vicariously through friends that have remained in art school. At this very moment I’m listening to a woman noisily scraping underglaze pencils across what can only be described as ‘plate-cones’ and watching another student tie and hang spherical bulges of latex from a shelf. At the moment we’re the only ones inhabiting the modest white cube gallery that we’re sitting in; in three weeks’ time it will be teeming with works of art, observers and free booze.

It’s a strange activity, exhibiting your work to tides of people. It can be exhilarating but it can leave you feeling exposed. When I ask one of the women, Laura Stevenson, how she feels about the impending exhibition she looks up from her ceramic plate-cones and grins. ‘Fiiiine! We’re miles ahead, it’ll be fine.’ Laura’s an artist after my own heart – expertly prepared – but there will no doubt be mania simmering in the warren of every art school. It’s just more expertly dealt with because the students are older, wiser, and more acclimatised to the way exhibiting makes you want to bang your head on the wall instead of hanging your painting on it.

The British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet.

In Exhibition, Fine Arts on December 6, 2011 at 2:24 pm

It looks like I’m not the only one who’s had thoughts of time on the brain recently. The British Art Show 7 (BAS7) also seemed to be concerned with the ticking clock. In this instance, however, the artists and curators were not just observing the linear passage of time but were considering it from all angles. Hence why they borrowed H. G. Wells’ title In the Days of the Comet for the show’s subtitle, as one of the two curators, Lisa Le Feuvre, explains in her essay Present Tense:

“BAS7 uses the motif of the comet to locate artists’ responses to our own uncertain and inconclusive times. Due to their looping, recurrent nature, comets are simultaneously of the past, present and future.”*

So in the BAS7 we are faced with art that addresses the future and the past whilst simultaneously confronting and existing in the present. Yikes.

Mick Peter, 'Moldenke Fiddles On' 2008-2009 © Mick Peter, Courtesy the Artist and Galerie Crèvecoeur

BAS7 is the most enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition that I’ve seen in a good while. I caught it on its final day in Plymouth, where it was pleasantly spread between five venues: The Slaughterhouse, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Plymouth Arts Centre, the Peninsula Arts Gallery and Plymouth College of Art. Consisting of 39 artists and artist groups, it has been held every five years since the first BAS in 1979, with each exhibition touring to various cities throughout the UK. The artists were all British or based in Britain, and the variety of work on display was vast; it consisted of sculpture, painting, film and video, sound, installation, performance and drawing, plus all the bits in-between.

Sarah Lucas, 'NUDS' © Sarah Lucas, Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles

There was a smattering of familiar names in BAS7. Charles Avery, Roger Hiorns, Sarah Lucas, Nathaniel Mellors and Wolfgang Tillmans to name but a few. I was unfamiliar with many of the artists (guilty as charged) but was particularly impressed by many of them. Elizabeth Price’s comically philosophical video overlaid with Ah-Ha’s Take On Me, Varda Caivano’s abstract paintings, David Nooman’s astonishing tapestry, Alasdair Gray’s bold drawings and Maaike Schoorel’s ghostly portaits; I could go on, and this isn’t even naming the artworks that really drew me in. I’m still contemplating those.

Alasdair Gray, 'Andrew Gray aged 7 and Inge's Patchwork Quilt' 2009 © Alasdair Gray, Courtesy the artist and Sorcha Dallas

BAS7 was certainly a lot to take in. I suppose that’s where the success of an exhibition such as this lies: in its variety. A show of this magnitude is going to contain art that causes you to recoil in horror, disgust or even worse, boredom and indifference. But there’ll also be work that entices and excites you, that hooks and reels you in. If you got the chance to experience the British Art Show 7, I hope it did both of these things. It’s way more fun if you see both sides of the coin.

Visit the British Art Show 7 website for more information and artist links.

*Page 21, British Art Show 7 Exhibition Catalogue, Hayward Publishing 2011

Welcome to the Google Art Project.

In Exhibition, Fine Arts, New Media on December 1, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Last time I wrote a blog it was on a paper napkin. This time it’s on a phone. So why do I keep forgetting to pack my pen and notebook, when previously they were as necessary a part of my daily luggage as my wallet and keys?

In all honesty, forgetting my notebook isn’t the travesty that it used to be. Typing, computers and portable digital devices are here to stay, providing solar flares don’t catch us out any time soon. I could go on about examples of the transformation of analogue to digital but my intention isn’t to patronise; everyone is aware of technology’s increasing omnipresence throughout the world. Our lives are hectic but more efficient, more communicative and yet isolated, and we can be introduced to experiences we may never have had the opportunity to see 10 years ago.

But can digital experiences really be as insightful and exciting as the genuine article? This is a question I continuously asked myself throughout my endeavours as a digital art student, and I have never reached a solid conclusion. Or rather, after considering both sides I was won over by the validity of each argument.

Above is Amit Sood’s TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) video for the Google Art Project: ‘building a museum of museums on the web.’ If you’ve got time, give it a watch – it’s pretty exciting. What with this and the TV/cinematic broadcasting of Leonardo da Vinci’s current exhibition at the National Gallery, it looks like the people upstairs are trying to make art more accessible to a wider audience.

The quandary we are left with is this: what can the digital presentation of an artwork offer us that the original cannot? And, of course, what are we missing when we look at, say, Chris Ofili’s No Woman, No Cry on a computer screen instead of in the flesh?

Chris Ofili 'No Woman, No Cry' (1998) © Victoria Miro Gallery, London. Photo: Tate Photography

What Next For The Body? The Inbetween Time Festival of Live Art and Intrigue at Arnolfini, Bristol.

In Exhibition, Fine Arts, Performance on January 7, 2011 at 9:35 pm

It was with high hopes that I arrived at Arnolfini on Thursday to gain my first experience of the Inbetween Time Festival of Live Art and Intrigue, with the subtitle and theme What Next For The Body? Whilst I don’t pretend to be able to review an entire festival based on its opening night, I can attempt to interpret it and the actions performed within it as a taster for the rest of the week.

To begin I’ll set the scene: Arnolfini, as ever, had a warm and bustling atmosphere inside and it was a welcome haven from the hackling cold. The bar in particular had a wonderful buzz and was filled with students and families alike, with a dimly lit chic but casual feel to the seating and bar. On this occasion the weather called for a winter warmer – perfectly made hot chocolate with a much-welcome shot of rum.

Drinks consumed and sufficiently toasty we made our way into the main foyer where two artists, Jones and Llyr, were about to embark on their first collaborative performance, A Mouthful of Feathers. 

Jones, an Arnolfini Associate and Llyr, a member of Random People and joint-founder of Showroom (both organisations are currently proving to be quite elusive – my research continues!)

A crowd had gathered around the small table at which both artists’ sat. Wearing underwear in the form of white vests and white pants and donning garish, imitative Native American head-gear, the two faced each other with scowls that comically contradicted their appearance and situation. Sitting between them on the table was a large jar of what looked like a certain well-known peanut confectionary brand; throughout the performance these sweets would be plucked from the jar by both Jones and Llyr before being placed in their mouths and sucked for a brief period prior to discarding. They then proceeded to spit and salivate on the white cloth that covered the table, resulting in a childlike ‘watercolour’ of shades that matched their rainbow headdresses. Throughout the duration of the performance one would gaze at the other, the stare being returned with apparent, and it must be said often unconvincing, animosity.

Described in the booklet as “a bold, queer performance exploring play, pleasure, spit and disgust”, Llyr and Jones certainly achieved this in regards to the visual aesthetic of the performance, perhaps to the point of over-compensation. And whether they endured “the limits of their own revulsions” I find doubtful, unless they truly detested the treats on which they were sucking.

The metaphors are blatant for all to see here, but for every one of my comments on the perhaps disappointing starkness of such a performance, as the evening progressed I found very few objections to their actions. I retain the belief that simple, repeated actions often portray messages far more succinctly and so, when durational, they allow the audience to experience an artwork with more intensity and integrity, irrespective of whether they decide to subsequently adore or despise it.

And so I found myself interested in the two men and their relationship, both to each other and to their resources, so to speak. The childlike aspects of the artwork’s appearance – the brash rainbow colours, the sweets, and Jones’ and Llyr’s matching garb – when infused with the queer innuendo’s that these characteristics were also pervaded with, became humorous in their irony. The stoic façade being maintained by each of them added to this joviality as the intimacy of excreting saliva, typically repelling in such a public environment, saturated into the tablecloth until the two bodies had essentially met and mingled.

As Jones’ and Llyr’s performance unfolded visitors had the opportunity to meander through Arnolfini to view the rest of What Next For The Body? The exhibition guide is there for viewers to pick up on entering Gallery 1, where Kira O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet’s artwork Refolding (Laboratory Architectures) can be found alongside The Inbetween Time Lounge.

Kira O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet, ‘Refolding (Laboratory Architectures)’

The guide begins with an appropriately meaningful and yet elusive quote from American poet Mark Doty’s Lament-Heaven (1995): “Isn’t everything so shadowed/By its own brevity/We can barely tell the thing from its elegy?”, some Baudrillard-esque sentiments that told me I’d have to put my thinking cap on.

My knowledge of O’Reilly’s previous work alludes to the body, flesh and biochemistry. It is not surprising, then, to find her showing work in an exhibition that is concerned with “the conditions and outcomes of the body breaking down in the face of political, sociological, technological, scientific and environmental upheaval” (exhibition guide). The same goes for bioartist Willet, whose various projects all seem to refer to contemporary biotechnology and the political discourse surrounding it.

Whilst the work they are presenting to the audience in Arnolfini no doubt began as performative actions, we are presented with two large photographic images only. What they lack in quantity they more than make up for in quality, however; the images, both of O’Reilly and Willet tangled in the sterile white lab coats of their surrounding ‘bio’ environment, are stunning in quality and composition.

The guide reads that the laboratory coats “create molecular-like structures”, sometshing that I failed to perceive (perhaps because my knowledge of molecular structures is extremely limited), but I could certainly appreciate the structure of their forms as they entangled themselves amidst the laboratory. There are further nods to the simulative-reproduction ideas of Baudrillard when you turn from the first wall-mounted image to the second photograph, placed before you in a slightly ominous ‘light-box’, in which we see them straddling in the first photograph. Here we can experience both the physical object and its simulacrum, a neat echo to Doty’s quote.

Moving up the stairs to Gallery 2 leads to Zoran Todorovic’s Warmth (2009). As an installation it is striking; on entering the gallery you are faced with several piles of ‘merchandise’, in this case blankets constructed of human hair obtained from various salons, prisons and military barracks. Each blanket is for sale at the price of £100, a reiteration that we ourselves consist of sellable and tradable goods. Mounted on each wall is a monitor showing footage of the hair being cut and collected, although I will admit I felt a sense of slight disappointment on realising that each screen was showing the same footage (several of them were also not working – this did not necessarily impact on the meaning and quality Todorovic’s piece as a whole but it certainly diminished my initial experience of it). In spite of this, I could not suppress my fascination with the tactile, literally human aspects of the blankets and the corporeal history that each one was constructed of.

Zoran Todorovic, ‘Warmth’

If the connotations of Todorovic’s Warmth/Toplina seemed potent in its enquiry regarding ‘what next for the body?’ then Teresa Margolles’ 37 Cuerpos (37 Bodies) and Aire (Air) intensified the direct relationship between audience and external bodies even further. Margolles’ Mexican background and her career origins as a forensic morgue technician have provided ammunition for her artistic explorations. In the exhibition guide her work is described as exploring “the life of the body after death…[and how] in Mexico thousands of people are affected by the violence resulting from the international trade in illegal drugs”.

This brutality is subtly encompassed in 37 Cuerpos (2007) and Aire (2003), the former being 1240cm of discarded autopsy thread, previously used to stitch together the bodies of those whose lives had met a violent end. When I first viewed the connected pieces of string I was unfamiliar with the context, although I assumed from the stained thread that it had been used for some visceral purpose. Spanning the length of the enormous third gallery the train of thread was simultaneously inconspicuous and obtrusive as it sliced the space in half, characteristics not inappropriate considering Margolles’ intended context. Like the surreptitious and yet violently obtrusive threads that make up the Mexican drugs trade, and in accordance with the private nature of the morgue, 37 Cuerpos embodies the polarities of discreetness and flagrancy, but also of grief.

Teresa Margolles, ’37 Cuerpos’

The morbidity and political slant of the subject matter continues in Aire. In a small room two cooling systems circulate disinfected and recycled water into the air, water that was once used to hygienically cleanse bodies prior to autopsy. Whilst this morbidity appeared to be too invasive for some, tap water is often recycled from such sources. By putting autopsy water in an air humidifier, Margolles seems to be expanding further on ideas that express quietness and yet hint at insidiousness. Her use of “vapour as a metaphor for the absent body” and “as a reminder of mortality and the rituals of death” (exhibition guide) reflects the influence of a culture infiltrated by uncertainty and violence.

The final performance that I came across prior to my regretful absconding of the nights events was Jordan McKenzie’s Drawing Breath. This was the most physically interactive and intimate piece of the whole night, a status maintained by a limit on how many members of the audience were allowed access to the room at any given time. After repeatedly marking brown paper with charcoal, McKenzie proceeded to blow into the paper until a balloon had formed, which he then slammed into the wall, causing it to form a dusty pattern as it exploded. He then approached an individual member of the audience, unbuttoned his shirt and placed their hand on his respiring chest, only to retreat and repeat the process for two hours.

Drawing Breath appeared to be an enquiry into the act of breathing, of its necessity, its repetitiveness, and of the transience in the intake of a single breath. Whilst I will admit that I found the performance slightly rigid and uncomfortable – in particular when he took my hand in order to lay it on his chest – it was also a very fitting way to end a night of pondering such a loaded topic as the current and future state of the human body. The simplicity of such universally organic actions was a soft reminder that we all, for now, begin purely as flesh and blood. Whilst this may be perceived as wonderful by some or as naïve or even crude by others, as we journey further into the twenty-first century it is a subject that will grow in technological complexity and philosophical ambiguity. Let us hope that artworks such as those found in What Next For The Body? and the following Inbetween Time festival will aid us in comprehending both where we now stand and where we are heading.

Jordan McKenzie, ‘Drawing Breath’

Ras Goffa Bobby Sands, The Bobby Sands Memorial Race.

In Exhibition, Performance on November 1, 2009 at 8:35 pm

It can be difficult when considering a politically concerned piece of art to identify an appropriate reaction, or should I say a reaction that one feels is appropriate. In this case I am referring specifically to Ras Goffa Bobby Sands, or The Bobby sands Memorial Race, a  multi-disciplinary piece performed at Chapter Arts Centre by contemporary Welsh dancer/artist Eddie Ladd, with music composed by Guto Puw and a responsive sound environment constructed by multi-media artist Nick Rothwell.

My prior knowledge of the 1981 Hunger Strike that took place in HM Prison Maze was, I must admit, nigh on non-existent, a fact that I see no point in hiding; I have no one but myself to blame for my own ignorance. It was refreshing, then, to leave a performance feeling not only creatively (and, I must add, physically) inspired, but also to have something historical to consider. Since researching Bobby Sands and the political context that Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom was steeped in at the time, I am amazed at how I have never heard the strikes being discussed or referred to; either I am brilliant at ignoring matters or schools really are wasting our time. However, I’m not writing this to offer a political analysis or even to submit a political opinion, and by saying this I am in no way denying that the context of such a piece is imperative to the experience of it;  I am merely guarding others against an unsophisticated political analysis. I study art and am concerned with how myself and others experience and interpret works, be they political statements or pretty pictures, or both; I am still learning in this field as well, but as an artwork I can honestly say that I found The Bobby Sands Memorial Race a deeply affecting and beautifully constructed piece of art.

When the performance began I had a few concerns inkling away at the back of my mind; Rothwell’s laser beams were gleaming towards the audience through slowly emerging, hissing bellows of smoke, followed by Eddie Ladd emerging to run laps around the stage; by doing this the audience was placed at the beginning of something extremely physical and mental as themes of exhaustion, and also of an endless circle, an entrapment, came into play (symbolised neatly, if not intentionally, in the soon-to-be constant whirring cycle of the 12 ft running machine). The inkling I was referring to was quickly dashed away: as Ladd slid through the smoke and underneath the thin beams of light I got a sense not necessarily of cliched visuals but perhaps of distracting ones; however, as the running track geared up and began its process – and as Ladd, portraying Bobby Sands, began hers – the piece obtained the rhythm and grit that seemed more analogous to Sands 66 day struggle.

This was where the running began. Sands, who was an enthusiastic runner throughout his life, is personified by Ladd on this monster of a running machine, stretching across the stage and issuing unsettling hissing and clunking noises that don’t cease until the end of the piece. My mind was fooled at one point into believing that I was watching a character in forward motion on still ground, as if a world were passing them by. And the faster Ladd ran the more I empathized with her exertion, and the more I sympathised with Sands’. Towards the end, when the running machine begins to slacken pace, the gradual calm that ensues feels more like an absence rather than a peaceful quiet as we are fully drawn into the characters deterioration. Ladd’s quick and nimble movements prior to this not only emphasise the slowness of these last moments but also reinforce the passionate emotions that Sands and his inmates must have felt regarding their cause.

Throughout the performance we hear various monologues, including the first-hand account of Sands’ fellow republican prisoner Laurence McKeown, as well as information provided by Sands’ latest biographer Denis O’Hearn and a new poem by Welsh poet Menna Elfyn; the former two are successful providers of context and keep the mind trained towards the purpose of the piece. The most effective excerpts of monologue, however, are the softly read words of Bobby himself read by performance artist Andre Stitt; the words, which are taken fromThe Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cripple and the Comms that were smuggled in and out of Maze, are calm and stead-fast in comparison to the stamping of Ladd’s feet thumping on the running machine. Here you get a direct sense of Sands’ character rather than just a feel for the general situation encompassing him; when these words are spoken the piece becomes suddenly personal and you begin to realise that, as Ladd’s dance begins to meander and stall, you are watching a representation of something that was far more of a struggle than even this performance helps you to imagine. This does not belittle Ladd’s performance in any way; her motions are consummate physical actions to such soft words.

Ladd’s performance, when combined with the chiming discord of Puw and Rothwell’s sounds and sensor beams, builds up to a fantastic climax of movement as well as one of struggle; at one point massive multiple shadows leap in all directions as Ladd begins the final fight, creating a disorienting feeling of overbearing, unstoppable and arduous motion. This climatic build-up ultimately transforms, however, into a subdued and slow crawl towards the final resolution; a crawl parallel to the line of salt lain out in recognition of its power to stall death, a line that has poured away over the edge of the running machine. And like the salt, Ladd finishes the performance lain on the floor; only when the motion stops are we sure that Bobby Sands’, and of course Eddie Ladd’s, exertions are over. Overall a visually appealing, technically impressive and thought-provoking piece that is more than just a pretty picture.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: The House Of Books Has No Windows.

In Exhibition, New Media on October 8, 2009 at 2:11 pm
‘New Media’ is a term that has become more and more popular over the last five decades. In one sense it is ambiguous; we know that it refers to technology but in what time and environment does this term become applicable? In another sense, it is a convenient way to sum up a massive part of Western culture and society today, saturated as it is with the digital imagery of the mass media, our immersion in global networks and our familial, augmented state of mind and body with our own Personal Computers; New Media may consist of machines, but it thrives on human beings. The extreme and fast-paced technological developments of the twentieth century, detrimental to war, medicine, media, leisure and therefore, inevitably, art, have made New Media to today’s Western generation the norm, if not blasé, through constant exposure.
The term ‘New Media’ is defined by Timothy Allen Jackson in his essay Towards a New Media Aesthetic as “technologies including all types of computers and other communication devices using microprocessors, digital audio and video, local and global networks” (Jackson, in Trend, 2001:352). This apparent state of omnipresence can be used to an artist’s advantage, allowing them to rise up to the challenge of using and creating New Media that self-critiques and consequently possesses meaning, even if only by emphasising such nonchalant attitudes. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s exhibition The House Of Books Has No Windows is an example of this self-analysis through now proverbial technologies, but to understand the How and Why certain theories must first be considered.
Writers and theorists have formed an ever hyper-sensitive ‘environment’ that is ultimately receptive to a media with such drastic social implications. Vannevar Bush, in his essay ‘As We May Think’ acknowledged in 1945 that the technologies that “enabled man to manipulate…that record [of ideas] so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual” (Bush, in Trend, 2001:10) were causing a kind of over-accumulation of knowledge due to mountainous amounts of findings that exceeded the limits of a human brain. He created the analogous Memex, “a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanised private file and library” (Bush, in Trend, 2001:11). I will not go on to describe Memex; all you need to do is recall today’s Personal Computer or Notebook, perhaps change a few of the buttons for levers, and there you have it: the prophesised PC, with, most importantly, an encyclopaedic ‘trail’ of near-infinite capacity that is formed and selected by association, or as it is known today, the internet. It is the un-indexed, associative and therefore human characteristic, the possibility to positively expand the human state, that links Bush’s analogy not only to other ideas – Donna Haraway’s hopes of synthesis between human/machine in her Manifesto For Cyborgs being one of the prominent optimistic theories – but also, I believe, to New Media artworks such as those in the Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller exhibition.
To begin with, The Muriel Lake Incident, although not a piece that acutely augments our conscious intelligence to the extent that Memex and cyborg are technically capable of, is interactive in a way that does seem to broaden our sense of hearing to a point that temporarily increases our mind’s capacity. With something as familiar as film and sound I thought that the reactions it provoked were quite an achievement: surprise, initially, when you stand and put the set of headphones on and feel Cardiff and Miller’s binaural script and soundtrack enveloping your ears at an uncannily close proximity (your mind begins to imagine that you are in a much larger, cinematic room with different resonance, different acoustics and different company); concentration on the tiny screen contained within its own miniature cinema space (a concentration that is sometimes disguised as distraction in the virtual characters conversation and popcorn munching in your right ear); an eventual grasp of the film-noir-style plot and, when the final event resounds, physical reactions of, firstly, looking around to remind yourself that a crowd of people aren’t really charging out of the room; secondly, jumping in surprise and thirdly, looking round again to make sure there isn’t a crazy man behind you.
The success of the piece relies on our minds’ accepting the binaural soundtrack as a reality in our current physical space, not just as a virtual narrative. Our own inner ‘surround sound’ is expanded to the drastic, all-encompassing level of the cinema space; you could either look at it as suddenly having ten ears or as your head temporarily becoming a large, populated room. At first I understood my enjoyment of the piece to be akin to enjoying a cinematic film; what were Cardiff and Miller trying to get across in such a piece? I couldn’t perceive any meaning as such, but after several more views and some afterthought I realised that the joke was on me, whether the artists intended it or not; playfully – and willingly – I was tricked into becoming, even more so than I already am, a cyborg of the ‘minute’ kind, the kind where the machine creeps up, seemingly apolitically, and for a while makes me feel enhanced. By “taking us to different worlds…to experience things in a more multi-dimensional way” Cardiff and Miller are ‘wiring us up’ to be one small step above just being human. This involvement with the piece that stems from our physical interactions with it is used on a similar level, but in a different way, in The Dark Pool.
‘[Old Woman:] People call it the oracle because they want to have something to believe in. There is no proof that it says anything or shows them anything but their reflections.’ (Cardiff, 2001:60)
This is an excerpt from ‘Soundtrack #3’ from The Dark Pool, part of a collection of narratives, mostly fictitious, that are triggered by floor sensors as you walk through and around the installation. The space and objects seem semi-fictitious themselves; part studio, part fantastical laboratory, dark and theatrical, there are speakers, gramophones, books, ornaments, wardrobes, plus multitudes more that would take a few slow, vigilant trips round to even notice; these things build up the layers of the room and give it a realism that would otherwise be overruled by the theatricality of the lighting and the absurdity of its contents. As lived in as the space may appear, however, Cardiff and Miller’s soundtracks are dependant on the route that the viewer decides to take, so like The Muriel Lake Incident there is interaction, but in this case the technology relies on us to come into being. There was a kind of joy in realising that we were triggering the scripts and music; all sorts of possibilities opened up regarding composition, people were jumping up and down, back and forth, running, sitting down, sticking their head between speakers. I’m sure everyone will have had a go on the Wishing Machine in the corner; it is the sort of space that you must be able to physically play with to enjoy it. Despite this, though, the darker undertones of the piece – represented in the moody lighting and especially the soundtracks – were a sombre focal point. There are constant references to darkness, the pool, vaporous characters, everything imbued with an organic slowness; the whole space and everything contained within it are a fantasy, and like all art to some extent, two overtly personal fantasies: that of the artist and then that of the viewer. “There is no proof that it says anything or shows them anything but their reflections”; there are scripts and objects but we are given the freedom to generate our own context, giving the meaningless some level of significance, and so the fictional nature of the piece allows it to become personal to the observer. To do this in The Dark Pool we must integrate ourselves into the space with the machine and follow the ‘trails’, almost like a soft-core version of Memex and the cyborgs we are transforming into.
Bush’s analogy of the Memex was an uncanny prophesy of today’s Personal Computer and the World Wide Web. So in 1945 when Bush asked “What are scientists to do next?” (Bush, in Trend, 2001:9) there is an irony that cannot be lost on today’s reader. The PC is an example of what science turned its uses and capabilities to in the post-war era, and as field boundaries in the sciences, mathematics, philosophy etc. have blurred and combined with one another, helped enormously by the resulting technological networks we are familiar with today, art could not remain ignorant or impassive. This blurring of boundaries – something that Haraway herself referred to regarding social factors and distinctions that, if eliminated, would lead humanity to a non-gendered and therefore Utopian world – makes it no surprise that artists such as Nam June Paik and Vostell caught on to the ideas and skills that were relevant to portray all kinds of new technologies. Cardiff and Miller’s works are not technologically progressive in this sense; as will be discussed later, in works such as The Killing Machine they may be prefiguring future machines, but primarily their work makes use of now dated, well known methods to procure meaning. Road Trip is a perfect example of this.
The piece itself makes you feel as if you are attending a formal seminar: a few rows of chairs, a projector set in the middle, all facing a white screen. The projector begins to clunk automatically as the slides follow one after the other, all in time with a soundtrack of Cardiff and Miller discussing the journey that we are seeing, one that you eventually realise was undertaken by Miller’s relative to receive treatment for a terminal illness. Initially there is a sense of nostalgia that the machinery and the space seem to be imbued with, both in the inelegant presence of the machine and in the simplicity of the surrounding room. It seemed particularly acute when compared to the sleek, unobtrusive functionality of today’s computer software, but in a way this came to its aid; there was a softness about the piece that is hard to describe, perhaps also due to such a personal narrative and the small size of the room about you. The whole thing seemed more delicate, but oddly so because of the intuitive feeling that you were not supposed to know about this man’s personal memories; whereas all the other pieces in the exhibition beckoned you in, Road Trip kept you at a safe personal distance, although I’m aware that this didn’t prevent people from getting emotionally involved. The very human story, conveyed through such nostalgic means, was a break from the fiction of the other artworks.
It may not seem like New Media now, but at one point the slide projector, sound equipment and technologies used to automatise these were entirely fresh. There is a play in Road Trip with Haraway’s idea of the machines of the past being “machines [that] were not self-moving, self-designing” (Haraway, in Grenville 2002:144), and then transforming into something more autonomous: “late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body” (Haraway, in Grenville 2002:144). Here we are hearing Cardiff and Miller’s voices inside the piece, as it were, as part of the machine, but this is not a contemporary cyborg-provoking contraption; it is a part of the early augmentation that began with widespread use of certain technologies. So the artist’s apparent presence inside the machine is almost giving it life back, or life that it never had; giving the ambiguity of later technology to the old, apparently unthreatening nature of previous machinery. But this is just another one of their fictions, a “caricature” (Haraway, in Grenville 2002:144), as Haraway puts it.
The fictional nature of Cardiff and Miller’s work is at its most compelling in Opera For a Small Room. The room itself is a compact, self contained installation consisting of speakers, furniture, sound equipment, lights and thousands of music records. This whole collection of objects gives the piece a look that appears lived in despite the blatant disparity between it and an actual inhabited room from everyday reality; Cardiff’s idea that “only by being in the effect of a shifted world can we really get a glimpse of the world” is evident in the way this room, like The Dark Pool and to some extent The Muriel Lake Incident, parodies a general, familiar space. The mass of the space around it, a huge dark room, gives the installation an initial appearance of vulnerability, accentuated further during the performance by its owner’s lament and the shockwaves of passing (fictional) trains that shudder through the room. Music has been meticulously programmed to form a mournful operatic-rock playlist, while various record players are blindly putting their needles down in time and lights flash, almost like a concert or a dramatic scene in a play. The only human character present, the lamenter, is represented through voice, sound and shadow alone.
It would be easy to overanalyse Opera For a Small Room. There is the presence of an emotive cyborg, a man using music and its technologies to overcome his pain, and there are the trails, associative thoughts and emotions, that lead the character from one song to the other, all connected in his consciousness; an expressive reflection of Memex. It is described by Cardiff and Miller, however, to be “as much theatre as installation” (exhibition guide, Modern Art Oxford). The fact that the audience cannot enter the room and must watch the scene through holes and gaps in the walls, almost like watching television, reinforces this; there seemed to be more joy in listening to the music and watching the timing of the lights than in searching for something more consequential within the piece. It is as much a piece of direct entertainment as it is art; an amazing introduction to warm you up for what is to follow, and therefore a stark contrast in purpose to a piece such as The Killing Machine.
Going back to Bush’s Memex analogy and its wonderfully prophetic content, if looked at closely The Killing Machine, the only directly political work in the exhibition, could be perceived in the same way: precise and slightly absurd, amusing and enjoyable because of its science-fiction-like nature, but also extending the ideas of something that is already in play, something which has been in flux since humans formed the most basic justice systems; in this case, capitol punishment, and indeed also the more general uses that technology is developed for in all macabre walks of real life. Cardiff and Miller state on their website that “In our culture right now there is a strange deliberate and indifferent approach to killing,” no doubt encouraged by the propensity of mass media images, whether TV, video games or cinema, that depict violence in its extremes, these days somewhat ineffectively due to society’s ever increasing – and necessary – immunity to such mental bombardment. ‘The Killing Machine’, thankfully, is more subtle in that there isn’t an organism that is being pulverised or punctured, there is merely the possibility of this; like much of art today, it consists of polarities that are beautiful, political and destructive, albeit to emphasise a point rather than to commit it.
This is unlike the mid twentieth century scientists who, according to Bush “left academic pursuits for the making of strange destructive gadgets.” (Bush, in Trend, 2001:9). Cardiff and Miller are instead offering a visual commentary on the possibilities of ‘The Killing Machine’, but are glamorising them with elements such as the disco ball and the music to reinforce this destructive potential by masking intention with splendour and absurdity. Throughout history that which is unclear and ambiguous, and therefore possibly unstable, is a threat until empirically proven otherwise through trial in society. So unlike Haraway’s theory regarding the minuteness of the cyborg – and this in turn making them be perceived as “preeminently dangerous” (Haraway, in Grenville, 2002:145) in society – Cardiff and Miller use the opposite approach to an extent that is ironic, if not humorous; the ubiquitous nature of Haraway’s cyborg is there, and blatantly so, but ‘human’ glamour is applied, not to mask the intention but to distract the viewer from it and therefore eventually, hopefully, accentuate the sinister intentions of the piece.
This glamour comes in the form of human objects and characteristics, the former being the disco ball, dentist’s chair, ‘fun fur’, television sets etc, the latter being the two arms’ human-like movements and gestures. This resemblance, however, has been executed to exceed our average level of human grace, almost like two professional dancers collaborating in sync and working with one another towards something verging on perfect. This apparent symbiosis between the two ‘arms’ is in itself a very human feature, but one that again is mechanised in order to perfect its timing and efficiency; it is perfecting whilst mimicking. There is the echo of an ominous suspicion here regarding the machine/human resulting in the destitution of humans as purely organic and autonomous beings, a belief that often challenges Haraway’s longing for fusion between the two entities; this idea would perhaps have bothered me more if ‘The Killing Machine’ had not because of some technical fault been rendered useless for the first two hours of my visit to the exhibition, bringing back angst-ridden memories of data crashes, blue screens and the general world of warped laptops – recollections that can dampen the grandeur of almost any reasonably comprehensible machine.
The only piece in the exhibition that did not directly involve some form of twentieth century technology was The House Of Books Has No Windows, which preceded The Killing Machine as you worked your way through the exhibition. Despite this, however, it was still interactive; you could crawl inside the house, made entirely out of archaic books, and simply sit, wander round or just do whatever you liked. It is the only piece that was made solely for the exhibition and it is difficult to find a connecting thread to the other works, apart from the amalgamation of various similar items, which is a feature of many of their installations. George Bures Miller, in response to Cardiff’s “I find it stimulating and exciting the idea of being wired up to the net and doing the dishes at the same time” claimed, when referring to technology generally, that “it dulls my senses. I really should get away from the computer more often”; so is The House Of Books an escape, a place to prepare for or hide from the Killing Machines?
This brief escape from the digital, a lapse back to “analogic life” (Jackson, in Trend, 2001:351), may be necessary in such an intensely technological collection, but it seemed almost tired in comparison to the other works; there were the normal sensory inputs: that familiar library smell, the feel of paper, thousands of coloured spines, but after the enormity of the rest of the exhibition I found myself desiring something more. Jackson’s idea that “New Media technologies…are shaping our world and world view at an unprecedented scale” (in Trend, 2001:347) is now undeniable, particularly in Western Society and culture; Cardiff and Miller, even if they are not referring to these issues directly, emphasised for me how important and engaging interaction is in artworks after years of gazing at static, invariable pieces that resist touch and are set above and away from you. Digital technologies and those that preceded it are entertaining as well as useful in a way that can, and has, transfixed humans, and Cardiff and Miller are playing with the approachable aspects of this. Jackson’s starting point of recognising New Media as having “no distinction between humanity, art, nature, and technology…inextricably linked in a complex system of energy, matter and interpretation” (in Trend, 2001:349) offers a world view consisting of a universal human Memex, a positive cyborg culture that, as Cardiff maintains, allows you to “step outside the dream that we live in and feel more alive”. The question here is where the genuinely beneficial augmentation of digital technology ends and distracting virtual realities begin; an exhibition such as The House Of Books Has No Windows requires the viewer to consider “finding, rather than losing oneself, and remaining connected to the present time and space” (Jackson, in Trend, 2001:351), rather than allowing our human sensory reality to be overwhelmed. So is the diverting nature of The House Of Books Has No Windows successful in producing an awareness that encourages meaning, or is it just another glamorous trail of entertainment?
Bush, V. (1945), As We May Think In: Trend, D. (ed.) (2001), Reading Digital Culture, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing
Grenville, B. (ed.) (2002), The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, Vancouver, Arsenal Pulp Press
Haraway, D. (1985), A Manifesto For Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s In: Grenville, B. (ed.) (2002), The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, Vancouver, Arsenal Pulp Press
Jackson, T. A. (1998), Towards a New Media Aesthetic In: Trend, D. (ed.) (2001), Reading Digital Culture, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller official website, Leakystudio.com http://www.cardiffmiller.com/ (accessed December 2008)
Modern Art Oxford, The House Of Books Has No Windows exhibition guide, (2009)
Trend, D. (ed.) (2001), Reading Digital Culture, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing
Whitechapel Gallery London, Interview with the artists, (updated May 2003), http://www.whitechapel.org/content.php?page_id=426 (accessed December 2008)