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Between media living and the dead

Darren Tofts does Trick Or Treat

Darren Tofts is Chair of Media, Literature & Film, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. His book Memory Trade, A Prehistory of Cyberculture (with artist Murray McKeich) will be published by Craftsman House in February 1998.

If popular culture has an afterlife, I imagine it would look something like Trick or Treat. Trick or Treat is a kind of spectral limbo for pop ephemera. You know, like those "where are they now" shows. Mummified daleks, kewpie dolls, backyard swimming pool accessories all suggest themselves in what at first glance appears to be a perverse discotheque of the anthropomorphously challenged. The organic, lava-lamp shapes on the walls receive the projected images of ghoulish forms, in the process becoming smears of ectoplasmic residue. The spare use of the gallery space creates the impression of a 70s minimalist sculpture, though Carl Andre never dreamed of anything like this.

At an even deeper level (the spectral world is an n-dimensional space), Trick or Treat shores up the detritus of even older, dead media. 19th century slide and magic lantern shows, automata, phantasmagoria, the gothic novel. In this Trick or Treat is a timely reminder of the historical association of projection technologies and the spectral. It subtly demonstrates the intimate links between the supernatural, the paranormal and animation technologies, such as film, which are, in every sense of the word, mediums, bridges, or conduits between the living and the dead (the ectoplasmic splatter suggests a recent paranormal irruption).

One of the main themes of this installation is animation, the breathing of life into the inanimate. The space is alive with movement and sound, yet there are no people (apart from you, the spectator), only three aloof sentinels and what appears to be their brood, all indifferent to your presence. Philip Samartzis' spooky, "granular soundscape" sustains an ongoing ambience of mechanism and process, of invisible yet immutable goings-on behind the scenes. The impression of things seen but not heard, of the order of things hidden from view, brings to mind the concept of "occultation", which is particularly appropriate in this environment of shades and sprites.

More specifically, Trick or Treat it is a canny exploration of the ways in which new technologies are conceived and interpreted in human terms. Anthropomorphisation, animation, personification, these are the categories that have come to dominate our engagement with projection technologies from the 19th century onwards, and more recently with cybernetic and information technologies. Artificial Reality is just the latest manifestation of an urge to recognize human qualities in the technological, and a desire to witness signs of autonomy and life in the machinic. However, it would be folly to get too serious about any perceived meta-qualities in Trick or Treat, to see it as an installation-essay theorizing the techno-animus. This strange, mystifying space undoubtedly comments on dead media and on the anthropomorphic terms of reference through which we speak of them. However everything about Trick or Treat is suffused with irony. Martine Corompt's chunky, beautifully sculptural neophytes stand in virtually mute dependence, linked to the life-giving matrix by a preposterous, alarmingly high-bandwidth hose, pumping who knows what into their diminutive, pupal forms. Far from being life-like, these forms have an oppressive tactility about them; you feel their bulbous inflation visually. You need to get down close to them to hear their chirps and strains, though you can't be sure if they are noises of satisfaction or protest. Ian Haig's screaming, Munch-like effigies fly around the walls and over the bodies of spectators, looking all the time 'like' mutant, Halloweenish ghouls.

Irony morphs into satire in Philip Brophy's catalogue essay, the exhibition's screaming skull, with what's left of its tongue in its cheek. Far from being a commentary on the exhibition, just another medium, Brophy's essay is in fact an extension of the exhibition, since it interpolates a context against which Trick or Treat exerts an abrasive force. The essay's title, "Digital ArtóFour Manias," is suggestive of its import, though any visitor to the gallery could be well forgiven for wondering what, if anything, Trick or Treat has to do with digital art. But herein lies the art of Trick or Treat. It is a space in which you have to do, literally, nothing. Except, that is, walk around, look, listen, consider, reflect etc. In other words, not a mouse in sight. This is an active, rather than interactive space, which is entirely out of the sphere of our influence. Everything happens despite you, and you'd better get used to it. Better leave your twitchy fingers at the desk.

Visually, the architecture of the work is suggestive of a matrix, a network of communications between nodes. This conceit subtly invokes the abstract nature of the digital realm, its otherworldliness ("there's no there, there"). Electrical switches, Brophy reminds us, "are so inhuman and un-interactive." Trick or Treat plays with the idea that sound and projection technologies, like 19th century phantasmagoria, present immersive experiences which demand that the spectator gives up presumptions of interaction and succumbs to the transfixed experience of the haunting, the manifestation.

This is not to say that Trick or Treat is a reactionary work. Far from it. Trick or Treat is a humorous intervention into the ongoing artistic and critical exploration of the relationship between art and its audience in the age of digital reproduction. Digital imaging undoubtedly has its place, as does the principle of interactivity. But there are clearly types of aesthetic experience that are best encountered actively, rather than interactively. Who on earth would want to interact with a ghost train, or a splatter movie? Here comes the blood, quick, click to the next screen! Thanks, but no thanks.

Trick or Treat, fibreglass forms by Martine Corompt; digital images and rotating slide projectors by Ian Haig, Granular soundscape by Philip Samartzis, 200 Gertrude St, Melbourne August 8 -30

Darren Tofts is Chair of Media, Literature & Film, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. His book Memory Trade, A Prehistory of Cyberculture (with artist Murray McKeich) will be published by Craftsman House in February 1998.

RealTime issue #21 Oct-Nov 1997 pg. 18

© Darren Tofts; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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