for your eyes only

darren tofts: speak to me, experimenta 5th international biennial of media art

Katie Turnbull’s Modern Vanitas, (2012)

Katie Turnbull’s Modern Vanitas, (2012)

Katie Turnbull’s Modern Vanitas, (2012)


As I hold it on my lap we speak to each other. It tells me in a distinctly ocker accent its name is Yvonne. The artist smiles amusedly. I can’t get it off my lap quickly enough. Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Telenoid (2010) is a work suggestive of Speak to Me’s overall theme, articulated by curator Abigail Moncrieff as the “invitation to consider what it means, at this time, to be together.” The answer is “squashed,” if the opening night crowd is anything to go by. And as it’s not a flash mob it doesn’t count as art. But this anonymous crowd is there to see, hear and touch art that is about how contemporary media bring people together, enable networks of difference and cajole intimacy out of remoteness.

There are some drawbacks to sense-dropping on anonymous others we will never meet. Hearing the faintest whimper of a defeated New York street sweeper during the ‘mother of all storms’ in October this year speaks of the global mediation of anything-anywhere-anytime. Speak to Me seeks to explore this micro familiarity in terms of the intimate apparel of technology that we can’t seem to do without. These works are suggestive of the mediation of the eye (Wade Marynowsky’s Acconci Robot, 2012), mobile screen (Meiro Koizumi’s My Voice Would Reach You, 2009), touch (Scenocosme, Lights Contacts, 2010) and voice (Kate Murphy’s The Appointment, 2009). Sure we can transcend the aloofness of distance, but the intimacy of technology and flesh in this exhibition, unwittingly or otherwise, concentrates on big media’s rapacious need to eavesdrop simply because it’s what we do now.

This theme in 2012, though, is decidedly not that interesting in itself since tele-intimacy is so pervasive and taken for granted. The currency of the term “social media” was the final imprimatur needed to render the ambience of presence at a distance banal. Facebook and Twitter are not an apotheosis of some utilitarian dream but merely the contemporary bullhorns of instantaneous blurting, just for the sake of it. Natalie Bookchin’s Mass Ornament (2009) is a case in point. In synchronising hundreds of YouTube clips of people dancing, at times erotically, at others embarrassingly, it is as the curatorial notes astutely assert “a perfect expression of our age” in its public display of privacy. Less interesting is Sylvie Blocher’s 10 Minutes of Freedom 2 (2010), a large-scale vertical projection of people wearing T-shirts with printed, Tweet-like secrets they have only ever thought but never spoken, like “I live every day as if it was the last” or “Life hangs by a thread, so, I won’t jump.” Before I move on to the next paragraph I should say that my telephone just rang.

Speak to Me reveals how varied the technological mediation of art is in 2012, such as Archie Moore’s electronic billboard-inspired Kinelexic Tokyo (2012), the interactive projection of Yandell Walton’s Human Effect (2012) and Katie Turnbull’s Modern Vanitas (2012), a homage to one of the earliest forms of experimental media art, the phenakiscope. This work, commissioned by Experimenta, cheekily plays with the convergent vibe of Speak to Me, whether it knows it or not. In its use of turntables and a movable, stylus-mounted digital camera as an interface it introduces interactivity into the kinetic, analogue art of persistence of vision. This is what the theory pundits call remediation.

But this exhibition is revealing of the history of Experimenta itself. On the verge of Experimenta Media Art’s 20th anniversary in 2013, it emphatically demonstrates how it has changed with and reflected the times it seeks to capture. Experimenta, with its pedigree in moving image culture (the Super 8 Group and the Modern Image Makers Association), grew up with the very term ‘media art,’ from the distinctly interactive work of the 1990s to the comfortable mix of time-based and participatory work today. The interactive fatigue that succeeded the art of cyberculture revealed that computer-based interaction would always be a temporary novelty. Let’s face it once and for all, interactive feedback in electronic and experimental art existed before Pong (1972), Myst (1993) or User Unfriendly Interface (1997). Even with the presence of interaction Speak to Me evidences the predominance of the video screen. This is different from video art, which is featured in a looped program, Narrative Threads, curated by Jared Davis, which features work by, among others, Dominic Redfern and Soda_Jerk. The mise en screen at this event couldn’t have been more different from the striking assemblages of grey, look-alike computers at Experimenta Media Art’s 1996 festival at the Lonsdale Street Powerhouse in Melbourne, or Mike Leggett’s and Linda Michael’s Burning the Interface: International Artists CD-ROM (1996) at the MCA in Sydney. A didactic panel at Burning the Interface reassured punters that it was okay to play with the work. Times have certainly changed.

The deliciously odd workout in this eclectic mix was Shih Chieh Huang’s interactive environment of otherworldly junk sculptures Slide to Unlock (2012). Echoing the intelligent ecosystems of a different time, it occupies an entire gallery of its own. A cross between mutated jellyfish swarm, electronica and rave, this phosphorescent world uncannily garners the unapologetic whimsy that has always been present in experimental art. Coming together doesn’t have to only mean people with other people.

Philip Brophy’s Kissed (2008) is arguably the most iconic and sonic engagement with the biennial’s theme of intimacy. Brophy composed a score to accompany Andy Warhol’s compilation of short films of the Factory demimonde kissing. Kiss (1964) is a silent film whose sonic vacuity also invites an act of coupling, of coming together. Brophy orchestrated a suite of prepared scores or “sexualised throbbings” that give erogenous voice to the 53 minutes of the film. With mouths occupied, Warhol’s rakes and wannabe starlets can only speak to each other with their eyes.

The national tour of Speak to Me will commence at ISEA 2013 in Sydney, June 7-16

Speak to Me, Experimenta 5th International Biennial of Media Art, RMIT, Melbourne, Sept 14-Nov 17; www.experimenta.org

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 23

© Darren Tofts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 December 2012