da Rimini and Tonkin: the viewer at work

Teri Hoskin

John Tonkin, Strange Weather

John Tonkin, Strange Weather

The 2003 exhibition program at Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation began with a double bill, Francesca da Rimini and John Tonkin, whose work is aesthetically quite different. Where Tonkin’s practice is data mapping (slow time, clean graphics), da Rimini’s is hypermedia (fast time, cut and paste, samples and remixes). What they share is a desire to engage the viewer as participant in the work/play of making the world, though in quite different ways.

Both artists hail from Adelaide and have received Australia Council New Media Arts Fellowships enabling them to consistently develop their practices towards creating large, complex and ongoing projects. Their work continues to be highly influential in the discourses of new media art. Yet it has taken a long time for their work to be exhibited in the visual arts arena.

Net art/writing is da Rimini’s medium. Considered immaterial, net art (alongside other digital art practices), has little chance of entering the cultural discourses generated by galleries and museums that have yet to develop the resources necessary to archive electronic/digital art practices. Added to this difficulty is the fact that the visual arts are uncomfortable with media politics. Usually considered more ‘activist’ than art, didactic and lacking rigour, the praxis that engages with current issues is considered unfashionable and even modernist. Yet if you engage with net art it soon becomes apparent that this art makes a politics, poetics and aesthetics that sidesteps the critical discourse that is so fond of interpretation. It’s impossible and banal to interpret something constantly changing, whose terms of reference are borne from fragments, and whose materialisation is less knowable than the objects we so love to hold, own and trade upon. Net art demands an experiential engagement—where spacetime and body intersect. Perhaps this can be called e-motion, the re-turn of feeling with thinking intact.

da Rimini’s LOS DIAS Y LAS NOCHES DE LOS MUERTOS (the days and nights of the dead) (1998-present), is as fast and invasive as the forces of media saturated techno-capital. The work was triggered by an encounter with Ricardo Dominguez and the struggle of the Mexican Zapatistas with their powerful northern neighbour, USA, more than “a nation amongst nations.” LOS DIAS catalogues, with no archival claim, the excesses of global capitalism. It was made initially for the web. In her EAF talk da Rimini called it, “a container that is constantly changing.” In the EAF gallery, the one-to-one engagement of small screen and dial-up connection becomes one-to-many. Here it is generated from the in-house network and projected large in the back half of the gallery. You need emotional, physical and intellectual strength to stay beyond the initial ‘already known’ of the media saturated imagery (which includes the dead body of a boy killed by a member of the military sent to “quell” the G8 activists in Genoa, a plethora of terrible statements on the “art” of war, the sounds of men and women crying). It is a looped work—5 frames ‘house’ meta-refreshed html files with differently timed sequences. Bottom right turns over the architectural remainders of global capital’s move from the burbs of the west to offshore low rent, low pay, non-unionised labour. da Rimini calls it the “material hyper-decay of the industrial age.” That’s pretty succinct. Lounge chairs, headsets and, a low round white table littered with Space Dolls Zine, go someway toward making this hard work easier. At least there’s a soft landing. The excellent audio remix by Michael Grimm extends the work. I am bombarded by images and enveloped by multiple threads of sampled sound: stretched-pulled-slowed. The work uses the ICQ log as a fictional device to relay a series of statements—war cries from the cabinets of power. My favourite, a curious fragment from Microsoft, reads “tentative gestures ruin everything.” A poetic acknowledgment that poetics has the power to ruin.

There is no possibility of a singular subject here. Rather fractured selves, distributed selves as distributed texts. What remains is the unsayable, the thing that remains unlocatable. This un-nameable thing functions not in a psychoanalytic sense of loss or lack, but rather (I want to think) as the evolutionary obstacle that must be overcome. In this way it’s a call to action, a wake-up. How do we figure inscription in a hyper-tech world? On what rests my comfort and yours?

The theoretical (actual) disappearance of women as an ontological force is a persistent cipher in da Rimini’s work. The first line from Dominguez’ catalogue essay reads; “a spectre haunts capital—the spectre is women.” And the first line of “Softly from the ruins…” (in the Space Dolls Zine I’ve brought home) reads, “efemera> she breathes the uncertainty of her time.” There is an intuitive and pragmatic rigour to da Rimini’s thinking and making. Snippets of this and this and this make seemingly endless serialisations—lines that become bundles.

John Tonkin is a software artist—he uses the computer as a programming device. He works in the area of database visualisation of the small and inconsequential at the scale of the universal becoming cosmic. With Strange Weather he generates a visual aesthetic that makes beautiful patterns calculated from user input: the effects of the everyday things one performs mapped over “external indicators” garnered from the internet. Poetics and irony go hand in hand in this work. Tonkin’s background was in science before he came to art. He has a long-standing interest in the now quirky, but of his time, 19th century scientist, Cesare Lombroso. Tonkin writes in an email: “In The Political Criminal and Revolution Lombroso seeks to determine the causes of political unrest. His treatise encompasses not only physiognomy and racial stereotyping but other factors such as the ‘geological soil structure’, meteorological conditions such as ‘barometric oscillations’ and the percentage of young women menstruating. He seemed quite disinterested in the political and economic circumstances.”

Tonkin develops his work primarily for gallery installation, which gives him more control over the speed at which images appear than online versions allow. As the subtitle [ver 0.1, recruitment] suggests, this is the beta version of a longterm project. Data mapping is a practice on the rise in all sorts of economies—especially architectural, corporate and educational. The visualisation of abstract things—like statistics or the movement of capital is usually a prosaic affair. Strange Weather is more aesthetically akin to Asymptote’s Virtual New York Stock Exchange with added chance operations. Strange Weather wants to “elucidate and confound” by using the madness of information overload with the everyday motions individuals make—an absurd and connected notion. A Graphic User Interface designed with the familiarity of a browser window invites the user to register and begin their own editable database of “personal indicators.” When it’s actually connected to the web (here it isn’t—rather, as the title suggests, it is recruiting data entry bods), the personal indicators will form one database that will be mapped over another “harvested from the internet.”

What we see in the gallery is a potential work—the prototype you might take to a backer or a client (in this case, the gallery visitor). The transformation from personal data to pattern sets, otherwise called graphs, is visualised by ribbons of varying breadths, speeds and colours that undulate away from the viewer/user (or Bill Seaman’s “vuser”), forming troughs and peaks of variable dimensions. The ribbons don’t rush toward the usual Euclidian horizon—their paths cross, fold and touch. Eventually the user will be able to both upload and pull time-specific images, URLs and maps from the moving bands of data. Included amongst the sea of undulating ribbons (rhythms) will be other types of digital image maps; satellite photos, weather predictions et al. There’s another graph that looks for random subsets. Tonkin emails examples: “x: number of coffees; y: barometric pressure in Cairo; z: microsoft share price; radius: body temperature.” This 3 dimensional “graph” appears as a complex array of singular atoms—circulating around an unpinnable force. Like da Rimini’s work—here is the appearance of the unnamed and unlocatable.

John Tonkin has been working with mr snow (http://laudanum.net) learning java3d. Francesca da Rimini is living in Adelaide again after a long period away and collaborating with local Kuarna performer Stephen Goldsmith and Sydney-based performer Tess de Quincey.

Francesca da Rimini (http://www.sysx.org/gashgirl/), John Tonkin (http://www.johnt.org/strangeweather/), Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, Feb 21-Mar 22.

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 23

© Teri Hoskin; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003