Imaginary ecologies: real fears & hopes

Debra Petrovitch: Keith Armstrong, Over Many Horizons

[Shifting Dusts], Keith Armstrong, Over Many Horizons

[Shifting Dusts], Keith Armstrong, Over Many Horizons

Three immersive spaces and two introductory works in Keith Armstrong’s Over Many Horizons combine into one installation, creating a synthesis of philosophy, science, art and technology. These engender an intriguing representation of the world in an ever-changing ecological state. Contingent to this kind of research is the question of how an artist might go about making an artwork in relation to environmental issues without seeming too didactic.

Unlike the scientist who relies on method and objectivity, the artist is able to use the tools of perception and to trigger emotional responses. Armstrong does not answer ecological questions or address how to restore what has been destroyed, but challenges his audience to immerse themselves in worlds that teeter between a sense of hope and of fear.

His enquiry provokes both philosophical and scientific questions in relation to how we, as a species, have evolved via the life/death cycle and the sensory apparatus that makes us unique as human beings. This kind of thinking also demands an emotional response from an audience.

The last show by Armstrong I had the pleasure to experience was Intimate Transactions (Stage2) at The Performance Space in 2004. Even though in a developmental stage, it created a vibrant response around Sydney as an exemplar of ‘cutting edge’ technology as used by an artist. The idea that one could form a ‘telepresence’ via an embodied experience fascinated new media artists who lined up in order to not only explore the nature of the work but to also analyse the technical processes and resources that sustained it.

[Shifting Dusts], Keith Armstrong, Over Many Horizons

[Shifting Dusts], Keith Armstrong, Over Many Horizons

With Over Many Horizons, nothing has changed in relation to Armstrong’s amazing ability to pull together an extraordinary mix of mediums including mechanised forms, robotic devices, spatial interactive sound, glass, fibre optics, video, 3D printed forms and organic materials, creating a curious amalgam of materials and energies.

The artist’s philosophical concerns are embedded, symbolically and metaphorically, throughout the exhibition space, which one traverses non-linearly. Three of the spaces [Deep Ecology] Horizon 1, [Seasonal] Horizon 2 and [Shifting Dusts] Horizon 4, are immersive, dark chambers that rely on complex mechanisation, interactive software, video and multi-channel sound. Outside the chambers, acting as a minimal introduction to the exhibition are two works [O Tswellang] Horizon 3 and [Inter State] Horizon 5, which reveal the artist’s reflections and drive the exhibition’s inherent thesis.

Drawing back a thick black curtain and stepping into the darkness of [Deep Ecology] Horizon 1, I notice a thin fibre optic light, which I immediately follow to two portholes in the wall. Staring into the first and allowing for my eyes to adjust, I see a transparent shape which twists and turns in a murky, black viscous environment. My first impression is of a piece of bubble wrap; however, on closer examination the object, or organism, seems to have tiny gills around a large orifice. The second porthole reveals glowing eel-like forms, which appear and then disappear into the darkness. Accompanying the fluid movements of these strange synthetic organisms is the dominant sound of a ventilation machine which, in turn, is accompanied by low to mid frequency abstract resonances. Although one can create a number of narratives from experiencing [Deep Ecology], Armstrong himself sees the work as an “anthropomorphic lament,” specifically one that backgrounds our unquestioned rush towards synthetic, lonely futures.

In both [Seasonal] and [Shifting Dusts], large circular shapes on the floor reveal what could be portals into new worlds. In [Shifting Dusts] a circular form is projected onto sand giving the impression of a porous magnified petri dish in which a black and white human form writhes and morphs through various embryonic stages. The form ultimately disappears in a dramatic veil of white noise and video static, creating a sense of the symbolic decay of the organism and offering a surreal cinematic experience.

[Deep Ecology], Over Many Horizons

[Deep Ecology], Over Many Horizons

The [Seasonal] chamber, which is close by and can be heard on approach, offers another morphing experience, in which subtle grey-tone shifting shapes traverse a circular dish elevated in the middle of the room. On entry, there seems to be a connection between robotic lights to which organic detritus is attached, casting shadows on what appears to be a wall-mounted satellite dish. Moving around the space, I become aware of the soundscape and how it shifts in relation to my proximity to various hidden sensors. The result is a live mix of wild nocturnal creatures and machines—foreboding presences.

What the audience picks up on in the immersive space is, according to Armstrong, “disturbance,” which causes the evolution of all aspects of image and sound. It also becomes an acknowledgement of our own presence and our power to create change, which can be both problematic and beneficial.

What is so extraordinary about Keith Armstrong’s work is his ability to create an interactive experience that is not instantly reliant on cause and effect. Due to the lag in the response time of the triggering systems he uses, the effect is not immediate and hence a more fluid sense of time and space is achieved. Chance and possibility are given freedom as an algorithmic process choreographs a theatre of sensations. This freedom is also evident in Armstrong’s interactive system which is analogous to an ecological system, and is not about balance. According to the artist, “We always talk about balance, but if you ask a scientist, there is no balance; it is about different co-existing states which have the propensity to move dramatically, and we get to a tipping point and then something must vanish. That is the history of the world, therefore balance is not a perfect world. It is much more about states, which co-exist while it suits them. When one drops out, other ones can, as we know, rush in and fill the void. So I guess in a very small way we even try to demonstrate that, even in the way the works work.”

[Inter State] Horizon 5, Over Many Horizons

[Inter State] Horizon 5, Over Many Horizons

On exiting the exhibition, I pause to reflect on [Inter State] Horizon 5 and [O Tswellang] Horizon 3, situated at the entrance of the exhibition. [Inter State] is a complex work, which conceptually conjoins and contrasts the thinking of science and futuring philosophies. It takes the form of a reimagined scientific periodic table, displayed as a transparency, examined by the user via a microfiche reader. Even though the table mimics formal science, elements are represented visually in relation to human development (understanding, thinking and acting). During my interaction with the work I paused on a quotation from Georges Bataille, “The sun gives without ever receiving.”

[O Tswellang] Horizon 3 is a hybrid form, created from a matrix of miniature cut-glass bottles, glass-diffused text animations and fibre optic cable. It presents as a seductive LED display, which runs text from right to left and stops on various words such as “HOT,” “Time to Start” and “There is no time to complain.” On top of the display is a series of small red lights. Closer examination reveals the bottles are lit up via optic cabling. The text, which reads out in both English and Sesotho [a South African language] is an urgent call to action by Thabang Mofokeng, a social change agent and leader of the HOT Rural Workers Collective in South Africa who are protesting to achive basic living and working conditions. Armstrong is part of the Re-future Project http://embodiedmedia.com/homeartworks/re-future which includes grasstroots agents for change like HOT and is “initiat[ing] a series of interdisciplinary, intercultural works designed for, and situated within, the townships of Bloemfontein/Manguang, South Africa, focused at the intersection of sustainability, community development and creative action.”

Quotations are from an interview the writer conducted with the artist at UTS Gallery.

Keith Armstrong, Over Many Horizons; UTS Gallery, Sydney, 2 Aug–23 Sept

Dr Keith Armstrong is a Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. He is also the creative director, media designer and system integrator of the transdisciplinary arts organisation Embodiedmedia.

Debra Petrovitch is a new media artist and academic with an interest in creative immersive spaces, sonics and performance. Her most recent publication is the essay “Mike Parr: Performing the limits of language” in Elspeth Pitt and Roger Butler eds, Mike Parr: Language and Chaos, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2016.

RealTime issue #134 Aug-Sept 2016

©Debra Petrovitch, for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

31 August 2016