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installation view of Brad Miller, augment_me installation view of Brad Miller, augment_me
photo Brad Miller

Just how this stream of augmenting items might be impacting our sense of identity is explored in new media artist Brad Miller’s video installation augment_me, one of three shows presented at Artspace in Sydney. While not formally connected in any way, Miller’s project and the work of fellow exhibitors James Charlton and Simon Barney do chart some similar territory. In particular, their projects reveal, to varying extents, a common interest in the challenges, and possibilities, that the blurring of the natural and artificial pose to how we experience, perceive and recall the world around us.

A relatively simple set up, augment_me consists of a large video screen that spans the width of a single wall in a darkened room enlivened by an evocative soundscape of rumbling noise composed by Sydney artist Ian Andrews. Running along the screen is a stack of parallel horizontal strips resembling film reels that move in opposite directions and at different speeds presenting a plethora of images in a seemingly endless and apparently self-generating stream. The images have been accumulated by the artist over several years. Some depict obvious augmenting objects like bicycles, laptops, a backpack, an umbrella, yet these are submerged in a substantial amount that appear quite random or only loosely connected to the idea of augmentation, such as snapshots of landscapes, beaches, swimming pools and the like.

The content of the images, however, appears to be of less significance than the relationship between them which is in fact not random but stipulated by a software program specifically developed to re-order the sequence of images in response to audience movement in the room. It is this re-modelled relationship, then, between the viewer, screen and images that appears central to the work and points also to a deeper concern to do with exploring how the viewing experience itself might be enhanced or ‘augmented’ in an interactive cinematic environment.

This tension over whether meaning ultimately resides in how the work is made or in the final aesthetic presentation is common to much new media work and not easily resolved. In the case of Miller’s installation, the diaristic nature and loose relationship of many of the images to the theme does present a challenge to interpretation, however, the more personal and abstract treatment is rewarded by an open approach to viewing. As much as the software’s re-ordering of the images has a destabilizing effect, it also gives way to an appreciation of the poetry in the televisual medium’s capacity to activate memories while simultaneously charting the insatiable, and sometimes disorienting, currents of consumer desire.

installation view of James Charlton, TradeAir, Artspace, Sydney, 2009 installation view of James Charlton, TradeAir, Artspace, Sydney, 2009
photos Silversalt
At the other end of the gallery, walking into the space of New Zealand-based artist James Charlton’s TradeAir, the first thing that strikes you is the smell. The scent of rubber wafts from a sea of recycled truck inner tubes that litter the floor, a subtle clue that this is indeed a sensual installation although not in the ways one might expect.

This mass of black tubes is in fact connected in a network and hooked up to a series of industrial air compressors which inflate the empty tubes when activated by a visitor blowing into one of a number of small fan devices suspended from the gallery ceiling. Beyond the initial thrill of seeing the tubes instantly inflate, the action gains greater resonance upon realising the air capacity of each tube is roughly equivalent to that of your average human lung. Indeed, the black rubber tubes are slightly bladder like in appearance, adding a more macabre dimension to the installation; have these organs been spilled in some kind of crash? Are they awaiting human breath to resuscitate them?

At the same time, TradeAir can of course also be considered in an environmental context. Climate change in particular is now discussed in a discourse of exchange, as polluted air in one part of the world is ‘offset’ by the planting of trees in another, distant place. This telematic dimension to the work is deepened by the fact the artist has installed himself remotely in his studio in Auckland where he receives alerts when a visitor activates a fan to which he can respond by inflating a tube in the gallery at the touch of a button from his remote set-up.

The result is a work that is effective both sculpturally and conceptually. It appears continuous in some ways with earlier investigations like the American artist Ken Goldberg’s robotic Internet installation The Telegarden (1996-2004), but with a harder, more industrial edge. Constructed around a series of technical constraints, Trade Air resembles a post-apocalyptic medical experiment conducted Mad Max style, in a manner neither clinical nor sterile but instead powered by the juices of dirty machinery and the exhalations of one of the most potent polluters on the planet, human beings.

Finally, in the front room of the gallery one finds Sydney artist Simon Barney’s series of unconventional landscape paintings, The Known World. In contrast to the Miller and Charlton installations, which produce a certain kind of sensory overload when viewed in succession, this series demands patient study on the part of the viewer.

Each painting is titled North Road and is rendered in a similar palette dominated by browns and grey-greens that strip the bush-scapes of any nascent romanticism, granting them instead a sense of overall ‘sameness’. But within this cohesive whole, the composition of each painting in fact shows considerable variation particularly in the density of the scrub portrayed—in some it appears thick and impenetrable while others depict a path, or the beginning of a path, cleared through them. This metaphor of path clearing also stands in for the nature of the artist’s investigation into painting. Critical to this exploration is Barney’s use of a silver background that “borrowed from modernism and thereby, supposedly antithetical to landscape tradition, provides the new terrain”, the exhibition statement points out.

The experimental paintings of The Known World, then, occupy a unique place among these three Artspace projects. Not bound by any unifying theme or medium, taken together the three shows reveal just how far contemporary art is diversifying in the variety of subjectivity-engendering experiences it offers to viewers. From an interactive video seeking mental communion between viewer and screen and a telematic art experiment conflating time and space to new ways of seeing ‘into’ the painted canvas, if these projects are any indication of things to come then the future, it appears, increasingly points toward a giant head trip.

Brad Miller, augment_me; Simon Barney, The Known World; James Charlton, TradeAir; Artspace, Sydney, Nov 20-Dec 20;

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 54

© Ella Mudie; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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