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Organ(ic)s: real and metaphorical

Mitchell Whitelaw explores the Dead Centre of Norie Neumark’s latest collaboration

Mitchell Whitelaw is a new media theorist, artist and educator based in Sydney. He is currently completing a doctoral thesis on artificial life in new media art.

Norie Neumark & Maria Miranda Dead Centre: the body with organs
Norie Neumark & Maria Miranda Dead Centre: the body with organs

A travelling resonant hum, skittering tongue sounds, voices speaking, slowed clunking loops, an accordion chord. Amanda Stewart orbits the room, darting behind translucent printed hangings, through reflected shafts of dataprojection, then approaches the double-miked stand in the centre of the space. She scatters streams of sibilant, half-voiced words and word fragments around; with a small sideways head-movement across the microphones her voice pans across the room. The clusters of humming and flickering sound continue, shifting steadily, and Stewart improvises a counterpoint with them; at one point the live voice is absorbed into its recorded double, indistinguishable, before the textural clusters change again. She swivels a nearby monitor, showing animated sequences of figures, lines of text, abstract diagrams which match the projections bounced around the walls. The odd word is spoken whole, or repeated—“the liver”, “nineteenth century”—then dissolves again into fragments of mouth sound. Stewart leaves the mikes and circles the room once more, then slips silently out the curtained doorway; her audience murmurs, and disperses to inspect the installation.

The physical components of the installation form another mass of overlapping fragments; Maria Miranda’s dense, fleshy layerings of anatomical diagrams and circuit boards hang in transparent sheets at either end of the space. A bank of mirrors breaks the computer projection into reflected, twisted strips which intersect with the transparent hangings and form fuzzy mosaics on the walls—a nice change from the normally monolithic new media screen. The animated material, also by Miranda, mixes lush paint or pastel textures (like those that gave Neumark’s interactive Shock in the Ear its distinctive visual style) with more hard-edged, machine-like flickerings. Taken in installation mode, the textural, multi-channel soundtrack gels well with the visual stimulus; things begin to link up with the spoken phrases and their discussions of the cultural specificities of bodily organs. Stand on the large plastic pad in the room’s “dead centre”—where Stewart performed—and a steady throbbing grows and seems to advance along the space. Precise sound reinforcement makes a difference here—the depth and spatial clarity of the soundtrack is a pleasure to hear. It integrates the room enough that it feels like a kind of scattered exo-body, one whose organs constantly shift and reform themselves, but still hangs together.

Of course it is organs, real and metaphorical, which are Neumark’s interest here, and organs of digestion in particular. At the core of the work is a correspondence that is only suggested in the installation: a notion of the computer as a digestive organ, a kind of prosthetic informational bowel (rather than a cyborg brain) that we use for processing email, images, sounds. The metaphor extends outwards into the work’s collaborative form: Neumark describes it as a kind of collective co-digestion, as Stewart’s vocal material trickles into Greg White’s low-end pulses, and Neumark’s soundtrack is redigested in Miranda’s visuals.

A likeable metaphor, and a continuation of a project close to the heart (so to speak) of much recent new media work—to reinvest mainstream cyberculture with the blood and guts of material things. In games like Doom bodies get splattered into an homogeneous pixelated goo; Neumark reminds us of bodies’ differentiations, and of their entanglement in cultural structures (hence the play on the Australian “dead centre”). The installation suggests a cyborg body, but not the dystopian one where the “meat” is nothing but a site for technological renovation. Here, the machines are assimilated by the body and its wandering metaphorical organs.

If there is something dissatisfying about the piece, it’s perhaps that these ideas don’t develop, but rather, remain elusive in the work itself, broken into metaphorical fragments and left for the visitor to reassemble. If a computer is a digestive organ, what value does it extract from its fodder? How do we tell an excretion from a vital nutrient? The metaphors pulse and grumble and flicker richly, but they stay indistinct—only spelt out in Neumark’s written statement. Perhaps this is only fitting since our own internal workings are just as elusive, offering us only the odd pang, gurgle or spontaneous emission as evidence of their operation. As Dead Centre points out, this leaves them open to personal and cultural reconfiguration—shifty, slippery innards.


Dead Centre: the body with organs, Norie Neumark and Maria Miranda, with Greg White and Amanda Stewart, The Performance Space Gallery, Sydney, July 9-22

Mitchell Whitelaw is a new media theorist, artist and educator based in Sydney. He is currently completing a doctoral thesis on artificial life in new media art.

RealTime issue #34 Dec-Jan 1999 pg. 17

© Mitchell Whitelaw; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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