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imagining the invisible

anna davis on media arts responses to mediatised life

Anna Davis is an artist and new media arts researcher focusing on social anxiety and the digital encounter for her PhD at UNSW.

The Terminal Vision Project, Denis Beaubois The Terminal Vision Project, Denis Beaubois
LIKE IT OR NOT, WE ARE ALL MEMBERS OF AN IMAGE-OBSESSED SOCIETY, INHABITANTS OF A MEDIATISED WORLD WHERE ALMOST EVERYTHING IS SEEN, TRACKED AND RECORDED. LIVING IN AN ERA CHARACTERISED BY YOUTUBE, MYSPACE AND REALITY TELEVISION, THE ACT OF CREATING A MEDIA IMAGE IS PROGRESSIVELY EASY WHILE, AT THE SAME TIME, INCREASED LEVELS OF SURVEILLANCE MEAN THAT MORE AND MORE IMAGES ARE BEING GENERATED THAT REMAIN INACCESSIBLE TO ALL BUT A PRIVILEGED FEW.

Three very different video and new media artworks recently exhibited in Sydney explore issues surrounding the contemporary image, in particular investigating the politics of tracking and the poetics of imaging and imagining the invisible.

In terms of imaging technology, surveillance cameras are a particularly insidious presence. These ubiquitous devices are continually recording our image, each person effectively leaving a trail of data that they will most likely never see. And perhaps it is my anxiety over the invisibility and inaccessibility of these highly personal images that made watching Denis Beaubois’ provocative video work The Terminal Vision Project (2007) such a cathartic experience.
The Terminal Vision Project, Denis Beaubois The Terminal Vision Project, Denis Beaubois
the camera suicides

In Terminal Vision, exhibited at the Performance Space’s fabulous new CarriageWorks home, the wireless camera technology that is used in much surveillance is literally and figuratively turned on itself. In an anthropomorphic sense cameras are made to suffer, as they are hurled full tilt off a tall building, and all the while made to unwittingly broadcast their own, unceremonious demise.

In the massive grey exhibition space, a row of five huge video projections completely covers the length of one wall. Stepping inside you are immediately struck by the sound, loud throbs of pounding static fill the room. Grungy images flicker in and out of visibility, messy and unstable, haphazard movements captured by the frame are repeatedly interrupted by interference and static. In a time of plasma screens and HDTV, these glitchy images reveal themselves as being something covert, they are too dirty and the signal far too weak to be anything but undercover, and it is as if we are witnessing someone or something being caught in the act. Through the grunge I make out a close-up of a wall with concrete cancer; wisps of the artist’s very recognisable dark hair quiver in shot. A windowsill appears and we glimpse a private room, a kitchen perhaps, with daggy old linoleum. Then the image degrades, we loose visibility to static, colours bleed into each other and interference takes over. I begin thinking about a secret agent who can’t work their pinhole camera, and as if replying to this thought I hear a muffled voice on what sounds like a walkie-talkie. Unexpectedly a finger probes the lens repeatedly, squashing the image away into flesh and darkness. Then I see the familiar shape of the infamous high-rise ‘suicide towers’ in Waterloo, as the signal weakens again. I begin thinking, we are in a precarious position up here on top.

Suddenly we are falling, the sound changes to a loud humming drone. I think about an aeroplane crashing, the black box recorder and what remains when everything is destroyed. Windows are spinning past and the horizon is in the wrong place. After a moment I start laughing, the dizzying image of the ground hurtling up towards us as this tiny wireless camera falls at breakneck speed from the top of the building is hilarious and exhilarating to watch. I imagine how much fun it must have been to throw these little mechanical guinea pigs off the edge. And then abruptly we hit the ground—thud—more static, a person walks by, we are in the grass, left for dead, then everything turns black and silent.

As audience members watching this defiant act on video we are presented with an unusual point of view. It’s an angle and trajectory of vision that we know will remain inaccessible to us, unless we too decide to end it all, flinging ourselves off the edge, but even then it is unlikely we would be around to remember, let alone record the experience. In this sense then the video image is one of impossibility, a terminal vision. Through the broadcast of these images Beaubois allows us to vicariously participate in his rebellious act. The ubiquitous cameras that are insistently pointed towards us, incessantly recording the banal details of our daily lives are suddenly made the instrument and target of some long deserved ridicule and physical abuse.

data lives

Two artists who for some time have also been concerned with surveillance and more broadly the politics of tracking human data are Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski. Their concerns are once again raised in Seeker (2005), recently on show at Artspace. Seeker is a conceptually rich and aesthetically striking piece that is immediately engaging on a number of levels. In its most recent incarnation it comprised three large video projections displayed on hefty angled screens. The central image consisted of an animated, interactive world map. Using a simple touch screen interface, visitors could enter their family migration history. This data is shown as a trail on the map and then re-visualised as a series of curves representing each family’s generational movement throughout the world.

The other two screens are more mysterious. On one, colourful vectorgraphic curves dance across the surface of beautiful, desolate landscapes. These animated abstractions describe the relationship between an assortment of statistical factors and variables, often as depressing statistics. What is “coltan” [a rare mineral found in Africa, eds.] I wondered, to be included on a scale that reads “the Congo resource wars”, “3 million dead” and “3.5 million displaced...” and what is its connection with “every mobile phone” and “every computer”? Glancing to the other screen I see aerial imagery of suburbia overlaid with a thin strip of fast moving, news bulletin-style text: “a man has frozen to death on a plane...on a boat three stowaways die...landmines kill Pakistani refugees...23 Pakistanis drown in river on way to Europe...” This procession of death and despair seemed in marked contrast with the fun everyone was having inputting their family histories. I was reminded of how easily some of us can move in the world thanks to the luck of our birth, and the immense difficulty others face when attempting to escape places of unfathomable hardship and danger. However Starrs and Cmielewski’s background in creating humorous and entertaining artwork inspired by computer games still manages to seep through this conceptually solemn work. The power of Seeker seems to derive mainly from its ability to stimulate intimate and often politically charged dialogue between gallery visitors.

diagnostic mysteries

Modern images are no longer simply representations; they are also dynamic, interactive processes that form an integral part of contemporary medicine, weaponry, communication, movement and politics. Many of the images we see today are not discernible to our naked senses and we rely upon a range of scientific instruments for their continued visibility. Michelle Barker and Anna Munster explore this problematic in Struck (2005), recently shown at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, by taking viewers on an unsettling journey into the largely invisible world of neurological disease. Through a disturbing array of black and white medical imagery Struck evokes an uncomfortable awareness of the body’s powerlessness in the face of debilitating illness, and explores the equally difficult experience of finding oneself under the probing eye of medical science that attempts to treat it.

Watching this piece brought back memories of long hours spent in a hospital waiting room. It triggered powerful feelings of sadness and helplessness, emotions that were intensified by the work’s soundtrack—electronic noises, punctuated by the mournful notes of a piano and a childlike wailing. Surrounded by three giant video projections, as inside a hospital I felt like a small, insignificant presence within a complex and confusing, technologically driven world. As in a waiting room, a strange sense of timelessness pervaded the in-between space of the gallery where the work was installed. My thoughts were drawn to the similarities between the art world’s sterile ‘white cube’ and the sanitised, often unwelcoming environment of contemporary medicine.

Struck immerses viewers in a disconcerting realm of medical traces and unfamiliar diagnoses, confronting us with lingering images that, like the nebulous shapes burnt in to your eyes after looking into a bright light, are not easily erased. The most recognisable image in Struck is the now familiar medical trope of the brain scan slice, a highly detailed form contrasted in the work with the blurred images of a naked woman. Who is this faceless figure, I kept wondering, so vulnerable yet resolute within this alien medical world? Occasionally text appears, sometimes distant and clinical, seemingly transcribed from doctor’s records, sometimes comprising poignant, personal anecdotes: “People tell you how well you look—it makes you feel worse”.

At certain points an antiquated, stop-frame animation appears of a writhing female figure made, I later read, from the drawings of Jean-Martin Charcot, the influential 19th century French neurologist. It is hard to believe that these clumsy images were once contemporary medical documents, and the idea that someone could be diagnosed using them sends shivers down my spine. On the other hand, I realise that while I am comforted by the scientific validity of the relatively more sophisticated Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) its images are still for the most part beyond my understanding, I cannot relate my thoughts or my feelings to their intricate electrical signals and I have no idea what they really mean. Essentially this is the core issue of Struck, the increasing visibility of the material human body made available to us through scientific imaging and the problematic relationship these images have with our ongoing embodied experience.

Anna Davis is an artist and new media arts researcher focusing on social anxiety and the digital encounter for her PhD at UNSW.

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 26

© Anna Davis; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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