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Yves Netzhammer, Die Subjektivierung der  Wiederholung/The Subjectivisation of Repetition, Project  C Yves Netzhammer, Die Subjektivierung der Wiederholung/The Subjectivisation of Repetition, Project C

The China-born, New York-based curator of Synthetic Times, Zhang Ga, has been involved in nurturing China’s nascent digital media scene for several years. “I was in China in 2003 and I looked around in Chinese universities and talked to a lot of artists”, recalls Zhang. “I realised their understanding of new media art really remained at the level of DVDs, digital photography, a little bit of 2D interaction and Flash. I thought it was important to introduce some of the most cutting edge, current media art production to China.”

During that visit, Zhang was invited by Tsinghua University to help introduce media art practices to Beijing’s creative community, which led to the inaugural Beijing International New Media Art Exhibition and Symposium in 2004. In 2006, the newly appointed NAMOC director, Fan Di’an, approached Zhang to curate a major exhibition of media art as part of the Olympic cultural program, signalling a significant shift in NAMOC’s curatorial philosophy. “[Fan Di’an] inherited a museum which is quite traditional”, says Zhang, “so I think he wanted to do something that is cutting edge and more appropriate for contemporary dialogue.”

Synthetic Times would have been a major event in any country, let alone one in which the concept of media art is barely known, and the sense of excitement and interest among visitors was obvious. Over 40 works filled the museum’s ground floor and spilled onto the building’s forecourt, including everything from kinetic sculptures to interactive installations. There were some familiar Australian contributions, including Transmute Collective’s Intimate Transactions (2005) and Stelarc’s Prosthetic Head (2003-08), smiling down on crowds near the museum entrance. [Australia's MAAP was one of 17 international media arts organisations that collaborated on Synthetic Times. MAAP's retinue also included Korea's Kim Kichul and Singapore's Paul Lincoln whose Citizen Comfort is described below.]

the recording eye

Some of the works that resonated most with the pre-Olympics Beijing setting were those dealing with digital image-making technologies. On the one hand these technologies, like film and photography before them, offer the tantalising possibility of capturing something of our history for posterity. The elusive nature of this promise felt all the more poignant in a city where physical traces of the past are being erased daily. On the other hand these same technologies are being increasingly utilised to observe, record and classify our movements.

blendid collective, Touch Me, Netherlands, 2004 blendid collective, Touch Me, Netherlands, 2004
courtesy the artists
The blendid collective’s Touch Me (Netherlands, 2004) was a simple but affecting interactive installation, in essence a giant scanner fixed to the museum’s wall. Every so often a bright shaft of vertical light passed across the scanner which recorded a ghostly impression of spectators who pressed themselves against the glass. Each new sweep of light saw the previous image erased and new impressions recorded. If no-one pressed against the glass, the screen cycled through old images, creating a layering effect akin to a series of digital Turin shrouds. Initially amusing and a lot of fun, the blurry indistinct images took on a haunting air after a time, like ghosts reaching into the present from a murky past.

Nearby, Mariana Rondon’s You Came with the Breeze-2 (Venezuela, 2007-08) dealt in similarly fleeting imagery. Two robot arms suspended from a large metal frame each ended in a ring roughly the size of a football. The rings were dipped into bowls of soapy fluid, before being swung into the centre of the frame, where fans blew on the liquid to form giant bubbles. Clouds of mist were sprayed into the bubbles and shimmering images projected from the rear briefly appeared on the water droplets before the bubbles burst, the mist dissipated and the entire process began again. Images included a baby, a giant eye and, rather incongruously, a chicken. In the corner of the metal frame, indistinct naked figures were projected onto a solid plastic sphere, creating the effect of human forms swimming in a fish bowl. The work beautifully evoked the transient nature of images, suggesting that for all our archival technologies, time is always at work, eroding our attempts to fix memories.

David Rokeby’s Taken (Canada, 2002) was one of the older works at Synthetic Times, but it certainly struck a chord in a pre-Olympics Beijing as surveillance cameras sprouted like mushrooms across the city. It comprised two screens, the right one a fuzzy yellow surveillance image of the crowd in front of the work, captured by a camera in the corner. The image depicted gallery patrons in real time, but also retained traces of past observers in the form of spectral shadows. Periodically a small rectangle, akin to a gunsight, would single out an individual and relay their close-up to the blue-toned screen on the left. Words and phrases, sometimes amusing, sometimes sinister, flashed above the close-ups, such as “Unconcerned", “Completely Convinced", “Implicated", and “Deeply Suspicious.” Every so often, dozens of the close-ups would appear together, like a mosaic of animated mugshots.

Paul Lincoln’s Citizen Comfort (Singapore, 2008) also reflected upon the way camera technologies assist in ideologically determining space. A small screen sat before a comfortable armchair and hat stand, signifiers of cosy domestic security. The screen showed the space in front of the armchair, but if the viewer picked the screen up and pointed it at the small air-conditioning holes in the museum’s wall, words in red block letters appeared in the televisual space, such as “United", “Race", “Democratic", “Prosperity", and “Nation.” A large flat screen fixed to the wall behind the armchair relayed the image appearing on the smaller screen, creating a hall-of-mirrors circuit of surveillance. Like David Rokeby’s Taken, Citizen Comfort interrogates how imaging technology both records an impression of the physical world and ideologically informs how we understand ‘reality.’

works of disquiet

A melancholic or sometimes menacing air lurked below the playful surfaces of the installations described above, but two works in Synthetic Times were unambiguously disquieting. The first was Cloud, by Chinese artist Xu Zhongmin (2006). A large cone spun as lights strobed and small child-like figures emerged from the cone’s top, tumbling and diving down the sides before dropping like rain from the base. Occasionally the spinning stopped, the strobing ceased and the children became stationary figures poised mid-action. Then the spinning resumed and they continued their lemming-like tumbles. Wide open to interpretation, Cloud was a disturbing portrayal of futile, repetitive mass action.

Yves Netzhammer’s The Subjectivisation of Repetition (Switzerland, 2007) was one of the exhibition’s more conventional works in terms of form, but also one of the most intriguing. A large installation comprising a main screen and three smaller screens on the opposite wall, viewers had to climb a sizeable mound made from timber in the centre of the room, as if gathering to hear a Biblical parable. The walls were filled with the silhouettes of strange creatures and vegetation, and maps of the world. On the main screen small animated vignettes played out in sequences lasting from a few seconds to a minute or so. A featureless black figure sat behind a white one, rubbed his finger on a blood red map of the world, forced out the white figure’s tongue and wiped it with his reddened finger tip. A dolphin swam beside a man walking on shore, until the creature hit a red pipe and went belly-up while the man walked on oblivious. A map of the world folded in on itself. Many of the aphoristic scenes were replete with acts of sanitised, clinical violence, the animated figures playing out a seemingly endless cycle of attraction, repulsion and struggle for domination with an unnerving air of calm. The rear trio of screens showed similar scenes. The scenarios felt both familiar and strange, like half remembered dreams. The Subjectivisation of Repetition was a beautiful, disturbing interrogation of our era’s contested signifiers, mediated violence, and sense of impending disaster.

wakeup call for local artists

Zhang Ga hopes Synthetic Times will “act as a wakeup call” for Chinese artists, who he believes have become too comfortable in China’s financially flush art scene. “Everybody’s making so such money, without really reflecting on what they actually contribute to the language of art…[This exhibition will] let people realise there are works that are very sincere, very serious, and require a lot of dedication.”

Of the exhibition’s more general impact, Zhang says, “Art is something that changes you over time; the way you look at the world, and eventually the way you perceive reality.” Art’s expansive possibilities are particularly vital in China, where the government severely restricts the exchange of ideas in public discourse. It was ironic, however, that many of the works in this “Olympics Cultural Project” utilised and interrogated the same technologies that were being rolled out across Beijing in the months preceding the Games, as authorities subjected the capital to an unprecedented level of electronic surveillance. Of course, this simply brought the city into line with long-established levels of ‘security’ in the West. It seems technology isn’t the only thing converging in our networked, closely monitored world.

Synthetic Times—Media Art China 2008, curator Zhang Ga, National Art Museum of China, Beijing, June 10-July 3,

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 32

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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