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If a system fails in a forest, is anybody listening?

Urszula Dawkins, If a system fails in a forest…, 107 Projects

Future Calls the Dawn Chorus, Jenny Gillam, Eugene Hansen, Dr Kron and Daniel Shaw Future Calls the Dawn Chorus, Jenny Gillam, Eugene Hansen, Dr Kron and Daniel Shaw
photo Urszula Dawkins
If a system fails in a forest… (as the saying sort-of goes) and we’re not there to hear the crash, will we even know it’s down? How much do we notice the ‘systems’ we’re immersed in – machinic, biological, time-based – anyway?

At 107 Projects in Redfern, If a system fails in a forest… both comments on and investigates some of the systems we spend our lives immersed in, and cleverly forms its own cross-referential system at the same time. The rough-and-readiness of the gallery space – pervaded with a disturbing smell, but more on that later – only adds to a raw quality that jumps from work to work like subtle sparks.

Moving round the room, roughly anticlockwise, a shifting logic gradually unfolds. First, two video works: Scott Morrison’s hysteric Oprahagogo – in which I watch, myself agog, a hyperactive Oprah audience in throes of open-mouthed ecstasy; and Loren Kronemyer’s Myriad – a fast-motion video of ants drawn to sugar trails, fleetingly ‘spelling’ the words THE TRUTH EMERGES FOLLOW YOUR INSTINCTS. Looking back and forth from one screen to the other, I know which species I’d rather interact with.

Next a long wall mounted with black and white plastic ‘bird alarm clocks’ blinking their synchronised LED displays at me; the incongruous, slightly Darth-Vadery gloss of the bird forms unsettling against stencil-style alien heads adorning the wall. These ubiquitous clocks of Future Calls the Dawn Chorus (Jenny Gillam, Eugene Hansen, Dr Kron and Daniel Shaw) supplant nature’s wake-up call; the wires trailing down the wall leave me wanting to connect.

I break sequence here to enter WildPark’s Trans-Emotion Room; a roughly constructed cubicle where two large pairs of shoes are nailed to the floor in front of small stools. Visitors face one another and place their feet into the shoes; the work responds to the warmth of their ‘connection’ with coloured, changing light thrown up from tracks along the edges of the floor. Finding myself ‘alone in a forest’, I test the system pigeon-toed, twisting one foot into each pair to make it work.

Tara Cook’s Transapparent and Tom Hetherington’s Cave Light both turn the gaze back to the self. In Cook’s work, a screen mounted at head level next to a curious potted palm seems to not be switched on, creating a dark-glass, shadowy view of my own face until a barely-visible band of white light appears to crack the screen open vertically, briefly, and then fade away. Nearby, Hetherington’s work is watching me – as I approach the screen it plays back stop-motion images of me over the past few minutes: taking my shoes off for the WildPark work, checking out another work, and finally standing close to read the didactic panel. After leaving Hetherington’s work and returning a while later, it does the same thing again, triggered this time by my touching the screen. How does it know what to play back? – I’m sure someone else has been over here in the meantime, but it’s the images of myself it plays. How? Cook and Hetherington both unsettle with these works: with Cook’s, I wonder is there more? am I missing something? – wanting the system to give me an answer. With Hetherington’s I am left questioning too; in this case with the uncanny feeling that stems from there being almost ‘too much information’.

Between these two works, and neatly opposite the wall of digital clocks is Sneaky Time, a ticking, analogue clock that, rather than booting you out of bed in the morning, moves only when you blink. Ozge Samanci and Blacki Li Rudi Migliozzi’s quaint, ticking clock doesn’t seem to work when I try it – but I do gain a sense that yes, time is not only something that controls us; it also sneaks past when we’re not looking; our relationship to it is ultimately slippery.

And so to that smell – a stench, really, like acrid, burning rubber, which permeates the entire gallery. It emanates from another cubicle, housing Tega Brain’s What the Frog’s Nose Tells the Frog’s Brain: it’s a tidy electrical apparatus or meter that shares the cubicle with a kettle on a low plinth. Perhaps the title alludes to the ‘frog in boiling water’ analogy that’s been used to suggest humans’ incapacity to know our environment is killing us until it kills us. The smell is generated according to the level of power use in a building – this building, presumably? Pervading everything, it’s the ominous presentience of climate catastrophe.

If a system fails in a forest… touches on several of the themes I’ve seen running through ISEA: esoteric technological/human interactions; the translation of data to visceral, sensory phenomena; surveillance as a playful pointer to our increasing acceptance of ‘being watched’. Ours is a ‘forest’ where we often don’t see the wood for the trees: it’s as though this past week has shown us an influx of artists ‘into the woods’, to record, interrogate and express in countless ways across Sydney, what might otherwise make no sound.

If a system fails in a forest…, Tega Brain; Tara Cook; Jenny Gillam, Eugene Hansen, Dr Kron & Daniel Shaw; Tom Hetherington; Loren Kronemyer; Scott Morrison; Ozge Samanci and Blacki Li Rudi Migliozzi; Wildpark – Yiwon Park and Peter Wildman; Curator Scott Brown, 107 Projects, 13–23 June;

This article first appeared on the ISEA2013 in RealTime blog

RealTime issue #0 pg. web

© Urszula Dawkins; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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