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From You Were in my Dreams, Van Sowerwine and Isobel Knowles From You Were in my Dreams, Van Sowerwine and Isobel Knowles
image courtesy the artists
HOVERING AND HUMMING IN THE AIR ABOVE THE GALLERY OF MODERN ART’S MEDIA GALLERY FOYER, THEIR ACRYLIC SKELETONS VEINED WITH AUDIO ELECTRONIC WIRING, ARE FOUR DELICATE, TRANSLUCENT SCULPTURES. AS THEY GENTLY SWAY AND WEAVE IN INVISIBLE CURRENTS, THE UNMISTAKABLE ELECTRONIC WARBLE OF A THEREMIN RESONATES FITFULLY THROUGHOUT THE SPACE. ARTIST NIGEL HELYER’S INTRICATE VOXÆTHER_01-04 SERIES DERIVES THE RADIATING FORMS OF SOUND WAVES, AND FROM THE RADIOLARIAN, THE ENDLESSLY ELABORATE PROTOZOA FAMOUSLY CLASSIFIED BY THE 19TH CENTURY NATURALIST ERNST HAECKEL.

As the visitor enters the gallery, the incidental reflections generated by light passing through the sheer planes of the sculpture create glancing angular teal and silver shapes on the foyer wall, recalling both screen-glow and the eerie bioluminescence of the deep sea. Combining the precision of laser-cut perspex with the unpredictable extraterrestrial vocals of the theremin—originally called the aetherophone—Helyer’s thoughtful hybrids connect the history of gestural interface devices with the drive to open ourselves to the invisible in our world.

These framing sculptures effectively highlight the exhibition’s prioritisation of the scope of meanings for that vexed term, new media. The National New Media Arts Award encompasses Helyer’s high tech sculptures, plus remixed documentary and video art, machinima, robotics and interactive animation. For all its heterogeneity, what emerges in the shortlist is the achievement of an exceptional synthesis between traditional approaches to media art with cutting edge technologies.

Found footage practitioners Soda_Jerk’s work exemplifies the richness and intelligence of contemporary recombinatory video practice. Their Astro Black: A History of Hip-Hop reworks the 1974 intergalactic free-jazz docu-fantasy, Space is the Place, with a sophisticated suite of samples from the annals of hip hop heritage. While for some, any tampering with Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist masterpiece could constitute sacrilege, what might sway even some of the more ardent purists here is the work’s emphasis on the film’s ongoing power as a hip-hop ur-text. The inviting 4-channel projection, insightful juxtapositions and witty use of the turntablist form drawing out the extensive stylistic legacy of the film—on artists including DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy—is all the argument needed for the critical potency of the contemporary remix artwork.

Also using high definition video, but with a different approach, Lynette Wallworth’s immersive installation, Still:Waiting2, depicts a twilight scene of stern red river gums in the Flinders Ranges. The presence of the audience contributes to the revelation of this 2006 work, causing the dramatic arrival and decamping of unruly flocks of white corellas. Sequestered behind a filmy pale veil, the installation courts the viewer’s attention through its slow unfolding, which Wallworth explains in a reflective wall text on the origins and intentions of the piece. Duration is at the heart of its aesthetic, as waiting for the work to exert its sudden payoff—the wild explosion of screeching, careening bodies across the sky—is exquisite. That the exuberant electronic soundtrack from the neighbouring installation can override much of the quiet waiting part of the experience of Wallworth’s work is indicative of the ongoing challenge represented by the sonic components of media art works.

The sound bleed is from Chris Howlett’s Metropolis: Part I-III, a machinima work that recuts footage from the SimCity Societies game with sounds hacked from the game’s engine bites, to reconfigure the authoritarian and capitalist operations of that virtual 3D environment. Like Philip Brophy’s work in the show, 10 Flaming Youths, which uses images sourced from youth marketing sites that combust as they near us at the front of the screen, Howlett’s work raises key questions about the complex relations between these digital surfaces: both works are evidently antagonistic towards, and curiously symbiotic with, the commercial applications of the technologies their work critically engages.

In You Were In My Dreams, Van Sowerwine returns to her theme of the lost child, explored in works such as the award-winning stop-motion animation, Clara (2004). Only, this time, in a collaboration with Isobel Knowles, there’s a twist: the child is ‘lost’ to the dream-world. This installation, the winner of the 2010 Queensland Premier’s New Media Arts Award and specially reconstructed for the exhibition, involves the viewer in a journey through a mythical jungle landscape that begins with the figure of the sleeping child. As the participant peers into the viewing device, a live video feed capturing facial expressions in real time translates their face into the diegesis, so that the spectator becomes the dreamer, integrated into the world of the animation. (A similar urge to directly address the participant animates Wade Marynowsky’s entertaining entry, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois Robot, a frilled and spangled cousin of the Dalek who approached and, by many accounts, unnerved visitors to the exhibition).

Clever lighting and attention to resolution details mean that the experience of You Were In My Dreams is uncanny but not entirely unflattering; here, the identification with the protagonist, such an article of film theory, is literalised. Spectators, jovially cheering their friends’ jungle antics (“Pat the monkey!! Grab that vine!!”), reveal that the critical effect of this exceptional artwork is to draw the form of animation into a deeper conversation with the practices of social media and first-person gaming culture. Ironically, the work’s presentation in a wooden viewing box recalls the myriad pre-cinematic projected and animated ‘devices of wonder’, while the textured two-dimensional cut-outs reference Russia’s Soyuzmultfilm and Iran’s IIDCYA, Harry Smith’s No. 12 or Heaven and Earth Magic (1962), and the meticulous silhouette puppetry of Lotte Reineger. As labour-intensive and perhaps atavistic as Sowerwine’s creative urges inevitably are, this work manages to elegantly transcend nostalgia by drawing sustenance from the fertile traditions of stop and shadow animation to provide an entrancingly distinctive context for digital interactivity, and so to propose new homes to long for and dream of.

As with Howlett’s reconfiguring of the stuff of games, regarding them less as finished entities and more as a set of design tools for experiment, and Wallworth’s viewer-triggered ecology, Sowerwine and Knowles treat the work as an open and ongoing process. If, as many now argue, new media art succeeds when it subverts uni-dimensional media institutional distinctions between producers and consumers, the works in this exhibition confirm the engaging creative potential of this emergent multi-dimensionality. The National New Media Art Awards offer some compelling evidence of the increasing aesthetic sophistication of Australian media art practice, highlighting the ways artists working with new media technologies are using the past, to inform not just the present, but also the future.


Van Sowerwine and Isobel Knowles were awarded $75,000 and You Were in My Dreams becomes part of the Queensland Art Gallery Collection. The judges highly commended Wade Marynowsky’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois Robot 2. Queensland artist Claire Robertson was awarded the $25,000 Premier of Queensland’s New Media Scholarship.

Premiere of Queensland’s National New Media Arts Awards 2010 Exhibition, Philip Brophy (VIC), Nigel Helyer (NSW), Chris Howlett (QLD), Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine (VIC), Wade Marynowsky (NSW), Soda_Jerk (NSW), Lynette Wallworth (NSW), Gallery of Modern Art, Aug 28-Nov 7, Brisbane

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 15

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

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