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“Art, which was previously so concerned with a finite product, a composed and ordered outcome, an aesthetic finality, a resolution or conclusion, reflecting a ready-made reality, is now almost totally preoccupied with processes of emergence and of coming-into being.”
(Roy Ascott, Communications and Consciousness in the Cyberspace)

For some time now, a shift has been taking place in art from object to process, from the tangible to the phantasmic. The observer of art is now in the centre of the creative process, not at the periphery looking in. Art is no longer a window onto the world but a doorway through which the observer enters a world of interaction and transformation. All of this raises many critical, theoretical and aesthetic questions. And it is these questions that were foregrounded by the 1996 Next Wave Festival’s Art and Technology program. The theme of the festival’s third biennial gathering of national and international work in Melbourne was ‘perception and perspective.’

Curator Margaret Traill described this year’s program as having shifted the focus from ‘means’ to ‘meaning.’

“We no longer feel we have to wave the flag for the media: it’s obvious computers have arrived and they’re entering mainstream culture and we no longer have to say it’s art. Now we have to ask what sort of art is it? What does the art do? Hence, ‘perception and perspective.’ We’re saying it’s not so much how the things are made ie computer-generated, but what they do, how they affect our perception, and therefore, how they affect our perspectives on the world, the values we have, the judgements we make…we’re looking at what impact technologies have on the way people see the world and think about it, and therefore act in the world.”

Five linked but quite individual exhibitions were spread across five different gallery spaces. The major exhibition of the program (Perception and Perspective) occupied the Murdoch Court in the National Gallery of Victoria. Members of the public were able to interact with Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starr’s User Unfriendly Interface, a program designed to make you mistrust computers; step around Natasha Dwyer’s bathroom scales as if they were stepping stones and follow the text directions they proffered; and be overwhelmed by Czaby Szamosy’s commanding digitally collaged mural Procumbere (and when you tell lies an angel dies) dissolving, through its combination of image fragments, different moments in the history of art. John Tonkin’s Elective Physiognomies used the face as a site to compare the Enlightenment science of physiognomy and modern genetic research generating multiple facial forms as still images and in an interactive program. Whereas for Keith Piper’s Surveillances (Tagging the Other)—a 4-monitor video installation with 35mm slides—faces provided a target onto which the language, motifs and forms of surveillance technology could be layered. Patricia Piccinini’s work was to be found in two gallery spaces. Love me love my Lump (digital photograph) is part of The Mutant Genome Project (TMGP) series—an ongoing work discussing issues surrounding physical difference, as seen through the lens of genetic science and the Human Genome Initiative—a worldwide scientific project dedicated to cataloguing human genetic material with a view to being able to change it. The designer baby proposed by the TMGP Corporation is called LUMP (Life-form with Unevolved Mutant Properties). It has been genetically designed for maximum efficiency—disease free, intelligent, long living. Its striking, garish plasticity in its many mutations confronts our very humanity.

Nothing Natural in the Basement Gallery exhibited the work of four artists who are all exploring the body in relation to popular culture’s new technologies of games, interactivity, advertising and merchandising. Here Patricia Piccinini’s images show actor Sophie Lee in pop art dream landscape cradling her LUMP. Ian Haig’s Mighty Morphing Muscle Men are digitally morphing figures produced in response to a hideously obsessive body culture. Haig’s work conceives a de-evolution of the body at that very moment when modern medicine enables us to be artificially enhanced. Martine Corompt’s Activity Station forms part of her Cute Machine project that examines our culture’s obsessions with ‘cute iconography’ in relation to that imperative of ‘user-friendly,’ which is currently determining developments in computer technology. Christopher Langton’s Ecowalker is a hypothetical exercise machine—an artwork that resembles a consumer item.

Ruins in Reverse at the RMIT Gallery was a show conceived by curator Susan Fereday to tackle the relationship between art and architecture; in particular the predicament faced by art within the new gallery. In her catalogue essay, Fereday states:

“(There) are spaces which direct attention to the present moment of exhibition before awareness of the gallery, while RMIT gallery is visible before anything else it contains or displays.”

Thirteen artists were asked to contribute sculptural works in response to the space, and their mixed mediums included Masonite, MDF, cardboard, concrete, vinyl, Lurex and fake fur. Work varied from Chris Ulbrick’s sound piece which incorporated the building’s air conditioning, to Lauren Berkowitz’ mountain of polystyrene fruit boxes stuffed into a corner, to Chris Langton’s oversized PVC inflatables which drew attention to the confusing perspectives.

Issues of perspective in the show at Gallery 101—Distant Relations—were concerned with historical, temporal and spatial distances. Greg Malloy’s work tried to transcend time and specific cultural differences by evoking universal humanistic ideals such as democracy and beauty in his series based on Hellenistic art. Hou Leong’s latest project is a series of digitally manipulated landscapes that collage clichéd geographical icons of Australian and Asian cultural identity into hallucinatory multicultural spaces. Heather Fernon, also working in allegorical mode, based her work on the Cerberus, the old warship that lies rusting in Half-Moon Bay. Its uneasy status as a deteriorating historical icon foregrounds our own difficult relationship to the past as well as providing a focus for Fernon’s own concerns about new technologies.

The exhibition that engaged me most was Lumens 3 at the Centre for Contemporary Photography where three artists investigated light—the essence of their practice—as a kind of sublime metaphor in photographic processes. Dan Armstrong’s installation Displacement de-constructed the light box to its component parts and these lined the walls and the floors of the gallery space. Among the steel frames and phosphorescent tubes I found a celluloid fragment of a face, losing its definition, strangely moving. Marion Harper’s installation Default charted another kind of dematerialisation in bringing the underground to the surface White moulded plastic boulders were strewn about the gallery; boulders appeared in negative, CAD animated sequences projected across a curved screen; and light boxes displayed vividly coloured gravity maps of underground forms. James Verdon’s installation Keening was the most evocative—a floor plan of a 1950s Australian rural cottage was drawn onto the gallery floor, its corridors littered with memories. Window frames and photographic easels further reframed flashes from the past—a child on a swing, a certificate of merit, entry tickets, recalling events, textures and people, spasmodically illuminated by lightning flashes sparkling behind strips of celluloid.

Be Your Best, 2nd Next Wave Artech Symposium provided a forum where practitioners, theorists and the public could meet and address many of the questions raised by the work in these exhibitions. It is clear there is much to be said. Just as the relationship between art and technology occupies a liminal space of becoming, more questions are raised than can be answered; this is evidence that the debate and the work it generates if vitally alive.

RealTime issue #14 Aug-Sept 1996 pg. 8

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

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