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ambient invader

andrew clifford: tim gruchy, scout

Andrew Clifford is a writer and curator at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Art Research, a board member for the Audio Foundation, a trustee of the Len Lye Foundation and is currently involved in research on New Zealand performance group, From Scratch.

Tim Gruchy with SCOUT Tim Gruchy with SCOUT
photo Rhana Davenport
AS WORKERS ENJOY A SUNNY LUNCH ON GRASSY TAKUTAI SQUARE, IN THE RECENTLY REDEVELOPED BRITOMART PRECINCT OF DOWNTOWN AUCKLAND, A DARK COLUMN LOOMS ABOVE THEM.

It is eight metres tall and rectangular, similar to the marble block columns of an adjacent building but painted almost black with a matt skin-like finish on three sides. The fourth side has a tinted glass panel, custom-made to create a full-height diffused LED screen that faces into the square, observing the comings and goings of commuters, late morning loafers, weekend market shoppers or after-dark malingerers. Behind the glass, a mix of gaseous, liquid and geometric forms drifts across and up the column, accompanied by soft pulsing music. The colours and sounds change in hue, form and dynamics across the day, and from season to season, as if absorbing the environment and responding with their own interpretation; an electronic world projected behind the glass.

This is Tim Gruchy’s SCOUT (Sentient Co-relator of Urban Transaction), a public sculpture privately commissioned as part of Cooper & Co’s redevelopment of an area that combines Auckland’s main rail station with new high-rise corporate accommodation, shopping and restaurant-bars set in historic former port buildings. SCOUT was developed in collaboration with Sydney architects Johnson Pilton Walker (JPW), designers of the adjacent tower, and was launched in early 2012. Its ever-changing soundscapes were developed with musician-artist James Pinker (ex-Fetus Productions/SPK/Dead Can Dance) and features several vocalists, including Precious Clark from local iwi (Maori tribe) Ngati Whatua, whose performance greets the dawn. Well-known technician and weather boffin Richard Huntington has contributed to the sophisticated back-end, which is activated by camera, microphone, clock and calendar events or climate sensors (humidity, brightness, temperature, rainfall), all of which feed three networked computers that drive the audio and graphics in real time—there is no pre-recorded video.

SCOUT’s primary relationships, however, are with humans. Its camera detects motion in the square, its microphone responds to sound, and the lower portion of the glass has touchscreen functionality, allowing people to interact directly through gesture, releasing an additional range of sound and light events into the virtual space inside. But, existing as an entirely self-contained artificial entity rather than as a tool or extension for the human body, SCOUT is no cyborg. Although the slight twist and skin-like surface of its ‘spiny’ exoskeleton gives it subtle anthropomorphic qualities, it is not humanoid, but designed to be a benevolent presence that shares the landscape with us.

This could be the most technically complex public artwork in New Zealand, unrivalled in its advanced mix of electronics, interdisciplinary collaboration and advanced materials. It seems this unique mix of engineering, programming and art has its unlikely roots in the can-do DIY ethic instilled in the post-punk generation of art school-educated musicians as they attempted to reboot music’s excesses in the midst of an increasingly technological era. For some, this was a license for avant-garde experimentation, where the likes of John Cage, Terry Riley, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk or Talking Heads were equally likely influences, establishing a space that sits somewhere between art, music, theatre and technology.

Tim Gruchy started out in the Brisbane punk scene in the late 1970s. The subsequent industrial movement of the early 1980s (including groups like Severed Heads, SPK and Fetus Productions) was quick to absorb technological developments to make multimedia a core element of their shows, paving the way for media-saturated raves, interactive dance and hi-tech theatre presentations. Gruchy’s career grew in the midst of these developments. Like many media artists of his generation, he either built his own equipment or had to adapt consumer gear as it became available, inventing outcomes in lieu of any existing precedent, and customising new formats as they became available. This makes him Australia’s go-to person for cutting edge video projects, working anywhere from Chinese art galleries to the Sydney Opera House, although he has so far maintained a low profile in New Zealand, where he has been living since 2006.

Tim Gruchy, SCOUT Tim Gruchy, SCOUT
photo Tim Gruchy
Eno seems an obvious reference point, with his well-known interest in electronic ambient music as a way to ‘tint’ an environment, and his slow-change semi-abstract video paintings, notably in vertical format, starting with the oversaturated cityscapes of Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan (1981). Gruchy acknowledges Eno as an important early influence but it is Eno’s approach to serial composition that is most relevant here—using chance, algorithms and generative strategies to create almost endlessly variable music and installations from interacting components, most recently his 77 Million Paintings project and his series of iPad apps, Bloom, Trope and Scape (2012). Underpinning these is an interest in ecology and the kind of events and time-scales that defy typically short-term human thinking. The Eno-supported Long Now Foundation is working on a 10,000 year clock that ticks only once a year. Similarly, SCOUT’s climate controls and seasonal variations suggest a structure that extends well beyond the duration of evening concerts or short-loop screensavers, making it more akin to the planetary and temporal sensitivies of land art, such as Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1973-76) or James Turrell’s Roden Crater (2006). Like Eno’s art-school origins, Gruchy’s early architectural studies have suggested different ways to construct enduring systems rather than to compose music of finite duration. Architecture works on a much larger scale than most art forms, not just physically but temporally too, ideally with a long view of how it impacts on its environment.

Compared to most inanimate public art, SCOUT is also unique in the way it evolves as a form of smart sculpture. Not only can its existing algorithms learn and adapt from the patterns and conditions of its location, it also exists as a form of hardware that could accommodate ongoing software updates—I’m told the existing installation has features that haven’t yet been activated. This makes SCOUT an intelligent presence in the urban environment, co-existing and communicating, but for whom? Another clear reference is the monolith in the film 2001 A Space Odyssey, adapted from Arthur C Clarke’s short story, The Sentinel (1948)—Gruchy shares a birthday with sci-fi writers Clarke and Philip K Dick. SCOUT’s dynamic behavioural qualities raise questions of sentience and artificial intelligence. Although SCOUT is unlikely to be communicating with extra-terrestrials, it’s possible that it may have something interesting to say to our future selves.


Tim Gruchy, SCOUT, 2012, LED video display, LED strip light, touch screen, speakers, microphone, video camera, environmental sensors, networked computers, audio and media servers, generative computer programme in glass, compressed fibreboard and steel shell. Takutai Square, Britomart Precinct, Auckland, NZ; www.grup.tv

Andrew Clifford is a writer and curator at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Art Research, a board member for the Audio Foundation, a trustee of the Len Lye Foundation and is currently involved in research on New Zealand performance group, From Scratch.

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 17

© Andrew Clifford; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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