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onedotzero, Graphic Cities onedotzero, Graphic Cities
SOME FASCINATING QUESTIONS ABOUT ‘THE CITY’ AND ‘TECHNOLOGY’ WERE RAISED BY THE SOUND POLAROIDS RE-IMAGINING THE CITY FESTIVAL AT THE POWERHOUSE IN MARCH—THOUGH MAYBE NOT EXACTLY THE ONES EXPECTED AT THE OUTSET.

Sound Polaroids explored ‘performance, design, sound and vision’ in six sessions including screenings, live audiovisuals and a panel discussion. Screenings included a compilation of moving image work curated by the British hybrid media organisation onedotzero, which depicted a series of metropolitan landscapes, and AirplayUK, a collection of hot music videos produced in Britain. The live performance, titled Surface, was presented by a London-based creative unit, D-FUSE, who worked with artists in other cities to produce this ongoing, collaborative audiovisual work. In Brisbane they presented a compilation of their impressions of cities, including Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul and Bangkok. After shooting high definition digital video and recording location sound, the group processes these impressions of the city’s sounds, textures, forms and rhythms in a live multi-screen audiovisual presentation.

It’s the conception of the work that raises some of the most interesting—and problematic—questions about this event. There is something a little eyebrow-raising in the idea of intrepid British explorers, armed with the latest high-end gadgets, venturing into the cities of the global South to capture and record their impressions—for the entertainment of those citizens later in the week. Of course, the fact that they work with local artists offsets this concern considerably, but nonetheless, I couldn’t help being struck by the sense of some kind of neo-imperialism going on, girded with the latest in panoptical sound and imaging technologies and delivered to expectant subjects in the ‘emerging’ world. This is maybe not fair to D-FUSE, who in Brisbane were probably exhausted after a hectic touring schedule, and whose genuine interest in positive social change—evident in other works—is undoubted.

I loved their earlier exploration, Small Global (not part of the Brisbane Re-Imagining the City), a multichannel video/motion graphics installation which collocates various texts and images of the planet to highlight normally overlooked relationships of exploitation. D-FUSE’s commentary, in this work on the bloodstained Congolese mining origins of coltan, the metal used in mobile phone chips, yielded highly intelligent, considered and imaginative insights. This nuanced commentary on ‘technology’ and ‘place’ was missing from the Brisbane performance presented by the group. As the title Surface warned, what audiences experienced was a surface-deep investigation of the more evident highlights and byways of bustling, growing cities in our region.

The use of pre-prepared files means that the performance in this case is of the customary laptop spectacle of the sound art world: earnest young men with blue-lit faces absorbed in the serious business of real-time file manipulation. In this kind of essentially VJing work there seems to be little of the urgency, emotion, hesitancy, rawness or self-revelation so critical to performance. Even artists working in the most technologised forms (like Robin Fox with his lasers) still manage to infuse their works, through the human-machine interface, with something of their persona. Though many of the individual video segments in Surface are doubtless extremely beautiful and their soundscapes inoffensively evocative, the sense of the person behind those images, or the people in the images, is somehow evacuated by the superabundant technological perfection. A colleague who witnessed the Melbourne performance thought the aesthetics were eerily like those of contemporary credit card advertisements, and an architect friend at the Brisbane performance thought there was something “big budget and really televisually familiar…like a segment from an ad for a new luxury car or Finnish mobile phone”, which for her, defused the performance’s radical or innovative possibilities, turning “the whole thing [into] a kind of superficial, high-tech love letter to traffic, highways, turnpikes, roundabouts and speed.”

In contrast to D-FUSE’s “aesthetics of overresourcing” (to cite animation theorist Esther Leslie), Amos Poe’s Empire II (2007), a video screened as part of Sound Polaroids, was a strictly low-end, consumer-level affair. At three hours long and ‘about’ the Empire State Building, there are no prizes for guessing which key film of avant-garde history it’s in conversation with. However, although it shares Warhol’s extreme durational approach (many think of the 1964 Empire as ‘an expanded cinema film’) and profilmic subject, Empire II is a much more constructed film, closer to the great city symphonies like Francis Thompson’s NY, NY (1957) and, particularly, the fractured cubist re-imaginings of Manhatta (Paul Strand & Charles Sheeler, 1921). Poe’s densely-layered, vibrantly coloured edit departs from Warhol’s static, black and white, silent minimalism with a dazzling, if chaotic, sound mix in which one can hear—and practically feel—all the jumbling voices, musics and poetics of contemporary New York City. The essence is the same: the use of a long duration (even if it is a year resolved into three hours, the screening time is still beyond the norm for most viewers) to query the psychogeographic relations of the impressive monument to its very human surrounds. The result is a surprisingly affectionate paean to this iconic building through the accretion of various layers and tiny details. In a work that gave you ample opportunity to appreciate nuances in time within a space, it was hard not to fall in love with the way it depicted the subtleties of shifting seasons, from the differing hues of afternoon sunlight glinting off the building’s windows to the various seasonal blooms gracing windowsills.

The central question, ‘how should we think about a city?’, occupied the discussion session held on the Saturday after Poe’s film, and it is clear from the lively response that the topic is one Brisbane audiences hold dear. Architecture’s highly informed and aesthetically attuned community turned out in force, with several well-known architects making intelligent contributions to a debate in which, in Brisbane at least, their voices have clearly not been adequately heard. Fired up with what many felt was the lionisation of progress at all costs, without examination of the consequences of the development boom, the debate became thrillingly heated. UQ architecture associate professor Peter Skinner helped bring the conversation about art and technocracy into the particular and the local by leading a fiery discussion on the ill-fated North Bank development. In March it consisted of a proposal for enormous concrete platforms jutting out over the Brisbane river (that proposal was scrapped in April after an extensive critical mauling). The critics’ slogan,“It’s a river, stupid”, was extended to “It’s a city, stupid”, when thinking about how careful attention needs to be paid to the integrity of the space, its masses and volumes, histories, spirits, feelings and aesthetics. In other words, what is specifically local within the global that makes each city a one-of-a-kind ‘thing-place’? For an event that was centrally concerned with the project of re-imagining the city, this session in particular brought home the most important aspect of looking at the city—that it is an organism in and of itself, mutually authored every day by its inhabitants, to whose voices and visions we need to look if we really are interested in the genius loci.


Sound Polaroids Festival, presented by Brisbane Powerhouse, Room 40 and The British Council; Brisbane Powerhouse, New Farm, March 28-29

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 29

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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