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d>art: shot through with data

Mitchell Whitelaw

Young-hae Chang, DAKOTA Young-hae Chang, DAKOTA
If d>art was a restaurant, it’d be all-you-can-eat. Very hip, sure, but with plates piled high with pixels; if I was a restaurant reviewer I’d be groaning. Around 50 works by as many artists; film/video/animation, CD-ROM, web and sound; a gallery installation and several nights of screenings. If d>art is dLux media|arts’ annual showcase event, a collection selected from hundreds of local and international submissions, without a curatorial masterplan, what comes out is a thick slice of contemporary media arts practice. While it’s a diverse collection, what’s most noticeable are the clear threads, trends and tendencies
running across it.

One is an interest in space, place and landscape, and particularly space layered with the virtual and informational. Often the focus is on urban space, with the interpenetration of experience, architectural space and data which forms our transnational “city of bits.” In Samantha Fermo’s CD-ROM City of Spare Parts (Australia) we wander through a layered and folded grid of Melbourne urban experience; subjective maps and buildable toytowns. First-person video runs under layers of line drawings to form a rich visual texture; the work hovers nicely between on-the-ground specificity—trying to remember that corner on Flinders St—and an abstracted, placeless urbanity. Jessica Irish pulls towards the latter in her website Inflatoscape (USA)—a network of coolly composed Flash screens exploring cities, crowds, e-commerce and IT through the trope of the bubble—as in bubble economy. One section advertises inflatable warehouses: impermanent industrial architecture, perfect for when your e-tailing business goes to the wall as the bubble bursts. Cute, but not stirring—if there’s a negative aesthetic tendency across this show, it might be the outbreak of Flash-induced vector graphic coolness. How much tastefully restrained monochrome interface design can we take? It’s passable when there’s some conceptual grit behind it, but in many cases—such as Tanja Kimme’s s_p_a_t_i_a_l CD-ROM (Australia) and Greg Lowe’s PLACE site (Australia)—swishy visuals only add to a sense that there’s not much going on.

One remarkable counter-example of that tendency is Stanza’s The Central City (UK)—another meditation on the informational urban. Here too, the aesthetic raw materials are cool shades of grey and neat vector boxes. The difference is in how they’re deployed: Stanza codes these elements into dense, layered atmospheric textures which are smoothly and unpredictably responsive; sprays of translucency, crawling flickering trails, and spinning arrays. Sound triggers are embedded in these surfaces, setting off grimy resonant noises; the artist calls these interactive audiovisual paintings, and unlike so much work in these media, the surfaces are visually rich and dynamic enough to withstand the analogy. The city’s in here, but in pieces, map fragments, place names; it’s flowing, shifting; there’s a sense that we’re dealing directly with its raw material—data. At the same time there are clues tying the work to a specific place, London, and to its particular brand of war-scoured urban redevelopment.

Still more urban stories: Michael Hornblow’s :plugins, drifting (Australia) splices Tokyo into a cyborg-salaryman. Kate Richards’ Darkness Loiters (Australia) takes us back to crime scenes in post-war Sydney; still, quiet shots which piece together into mysterious micronarratives. Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski tell a dark fairytale about surveillance and disguise in a.k.a (Australia). In Parken Verboten (Croatia), Martinis Dalibor parks dozens of shiny new VW Golfs in a marketplace in Rosenheim, lining them up into an obscure string of binary code. Once again the city is shot through with data.

While this urban/digital nexus continues to attract creative interest, and certainly remains relevant, as a theme it’s becoming quite familiar in digital media practice—almost a staple. By contrast the other strong thread in d>art feels like an idea which is bubbling up in several places at once, and still coalescing. Andrew Gadow’s INVERSION (Australia) starts out with some good old video feedback, that sizzling texture of cathode rays and glass, then rapidly turns digital and burrows inwards, stretching out pixels into flat, flickering masses. Gadow sequences retina-burning strobes, drifting block patterns and meshes, ornamented with the odd crunch of compression dropout. It feels like 80s scratch video, but digitally sharpened and purged of that semiotic overload: ‘pure’ digital video—mobile colour data. Not purely visual either; the sound is brutally powerful and fused tightly with the vision. In fact what’s going on here is elegantly simple: the soundtrack is a simple ‘porting’ of the video signal, so the video waveform is also an audio waveform. The 50 fields per second become an audible (and tactile) 50Hz buzz, which is inflected and modulated as the image flickers and shifts. Hearing and vision get wired directly together through a single signal-abstraction.

Myriam Bessette’s Nutation (Canada) approaches the same fusion, though less directly; a vertical band jumps and bends with the audio, twisting, braiding out into multiples and burning to white as noise bursts in the soundtrack. Here the sound/image relationship seems constructed rather than automatic, though the results look a lot like what Finnish minimal noise/techno outfit Pansonic did at the What is Music? festival earlier this year, running their chainsaw-tone generators through a video projector. Ian Andrews, the Sydney-based artist whose work featured in a retrospective this year, is on a related track. Some of his recent Microsound web works are also essentially synaesthetic data; flickers of ASCII and pixels oscillating in sync with jittering clicks and sound spasms (transmission, k-88, channel-11, channel-66). These are simple phase/permutation textures, layers of loops, but they accumulate into frantic, jumpy, surprising masses, with the loops’ internal rhythms full of holes and changes. These works also show, incidentally, that Flash doesn’t need to be dull and overdesigned—it’s a great platform for ultra-compressed online audiovisuals.

So this is audio/visual synaesthesia, one of the touchstones of the electronic arts, a creative aim as old as the hills. More particularly though, it’s a form of synaesthesia imagined or realised through the technical underside of electronic media: it routes signal and data from one sense-channel to another. Earlier versions of the synaesthetic ideal have imagined a kind of sublime sensory fusion or a perfect aesthetic whole—a gesamptkunstwerk. This is grittier, more concrete; a technical transcoding operation. In fact, this emergent digital synaesthesia isn’t so much about sensory fusion, or sound/image, as the common structure underneath both sensory channels—the signal/data itself. Hearing and vision are channels for apprehending that basic, raw material.

Back to data, which is all through d>art. Kawai Masayuki’s video a not = a or For Devatas who Keep on Dancing (Japan) is constantly breaking down into spastic—and artfully degraded—visual signal. Aphorisms damning the mass media are drolly intoned over scrolling, flickering noise: “only the moment when video completely denies itself…is the Art in the virtual image of the Revolution.” I’m not sure that this is self-denial, though, more a symptom of a broader engagement with media substrata, a process where the floods of data underpinning our culture seep into sensory and aesthetic experience. Meanwhile [mez] writes Data[h!][bleeding T.ex][e]ts (Australia), densely encrypted realisations of language-becoming-information. Chris Henschke frames his sound interactive Corroded Grooves (Australia) citing Katherine Hayles, and calling for the breakdown of “culturally-imposed structuralist dichotomies such as information/materiality, pattern/randomness, information/noise.” Corroded Grooves goes about this in the same way as a lot of post-techno experimental audio; noisy, gritty beats and loops, tone and melody submerging under layers of detritus. Digital sound, but soaked in the sounds of material and media-decay. This is a solid addition to the growing genre of mix-and-loop audio interactives, with an intricate interface and a tastefully grubby sound; pity that, when I visited, the amplification was turned down too low for it to be really enjoyable.

Of course these 2 threads don’t account for the whole collection, by any means. Among the highlights on other tracks were Young-hae Chang’s DAKOTA (South Korea)—a stunning piece of online performance poetry; screen-high text (Flash again) stepping past to a fierce soundtrack of looped jazz-drum licks. Beautiful for its simplicity, and sheer impact, this is a wild ride—it’s so rare to feel ‘glued’ to a computer screen. Also notable for visual and interactive suppleness was the Glaser/Hutchison/Xavier project Juvenate (Australia), a textless web of mobile imagery and video on memory, illness and childhood. Still in memory-space, Richard Grant’s videoclip for Japanese dark ambient outfit Maju is superb. Pale Blood Coloured Recollections (Australia) feels like an audiovisual stream of remembrance—8mm film worked into dense, permeable, labile textures, flashes of free association and perceptual noise. It’s digital synaesthesia again, but intricately wrought rather than elemental; this was the most visually luscious work in the collection. Alongside pieces like Stanza’s Central City, it suggests a ratcheting-up of the aesthetic density, sophistication and fluidity of digital media practice.

While d>art was a rewarding collection, it could certainly stand to be smaller and more consistent in quality. There are also serious problems with the exhibition format; the Customs House space is too small to accommodate 30-odd CD-ROM, web and sound works. Packing them onto machines, screens and listening booths got them in, but the result is oppressively dense (the busted air conditioning didn’t help). I haven’t reviewed the sound works here because I didn’t hear them—2 CD players with headphones, in a room already full of people, machines and sound, is just not a conducive way to present audio work. Maybe dLux should consider pressing a CD compilation (cheap, these days) or better yet, put the audio online? It’s a very valuable undertaking, sifting and presenting this mass of work, but the results need to be more easily digestible.

d>art 01, Sydney Film Festival & dLux media arts, exhibition: sound/CD-ROM/internet, City Exhibition Space, June 10 - July 1; screenings: film/video/animation, Dendy Opera Quays, Sydney, June 15 & 19,

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 24

© Mitchell Whitelaw; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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