responsive video

mike leggett: john tonkin, a biology of cognition

John Tonkin, Metacognition

John Tonkin, Metacognition

John Tonkin, Metacognition

STEPPING OUT OF THE LIFT INTO THE NEW BREENSPACE GALLERY ON LEVEL THREE OF A CONVERTED WAREHOUSE BUILDING, IMMEDIATELY BRINGS YOU INTO THE PENUMBRA OF THE GALLERY SPACE. RANGED AROUND THE WALLS ARE FRAMED IMAGES LOOKING CONTEMPORARY AND COLLECTABLE, FLICKERING WITH MOVEMENT, RATHER THAN MADE STATIC WITH PAINT. JOHN TONKIN IS A SEASONED MEDIA ARTIST WHO LIKE OTHERS, IS PROBING THE TASTES, DESIRES AND WALLETS OF THE COLLECTORS.

Can ‘progress’ be made in this endeavour, or is interactive moving image work the genuine ephemeral article claimed (but rarely delivered) by earlier movements of art makers?

The four works presented, like Tonkin’s earlier work, break ground in an amusing and convincingly stable way; while interactive multimedia installations can be plagued by inadequate technology or buggy preparation, not so here. He begins by renaming the phenomena “responsive video,” thus avoiding troubled histories and focusing on the predominant contemporary art form, video. Approaching one of the floating frames causes the flickering image to animate, to run forwards or backwards, or to in some way change its appearance, or cut to another shot.

The pieces are developments from Closer: eleven experiments on proximity seen at Performance Space, last year (RT100). Those interactive encounters were more casual than the current show, tucked away in various corners of CarriageWorks; prosaic images of a rolling drink can caught at the top of an escalator, or a boiling kettle, all controlled by our movement into confined stall-like spaces. Emphasis is on the ordinariness of that physical activity and its effect on the perceived image.

This is a novel and profound ability, to influence the quality of motion in the image; it is an extension of Deleuze’s ideas of the time-image and its perception: “A flickering brain, which re-links or creates loops – this is cinema.” No longer is the motion picture confined to analogue and linear sequencing; in the digital domain, as many of us have been pursuing, sequence is determined frame to frame by the participant selecting, knowingly or not, from a database of moving image files. The artist determines the rules and the materials applying to the collection that the participant will explore.

John Tonkin, Metacognition

John Tonkin, Metacognition

John Tonkin, Metacognition

A biology of cognition, the title of one of the pieces in the exhibition, is key in providing the only shock in the show—approaching the screen causes a large face to suddenly appear from the murk to stonily eyeball the viewer while intoning briefly, mumbled and indistinct, phrases related to the title (referencing the 40-year-old seminal essay by Chilean biologist, Humberto Maturana). Attempts are made by the participant to devise various choreographic strategies and clarify the utterances. Is there a narrative, a sequence meaningful to what is not present here? A conclusion, if there is one, cannot be drawn, other than bringing to mind the considerable research developed since the essay’s appearance. Andy Clark, among others, more recently described the external environment, actively structured by us, as a source of cognition-enhancing ‘wideware’ containing external items such as devices, media, notations etc, that scaffold and complement without replicating biological modes of computation and processing.

Tonkin floats these ideas, leaving meaning beyond the immediate experience of the work in abeyance: avoidance for some, completion for others.

Closing the loop of fractions of time caught in memory cycles—suddenly recalled as thresholds are crossed, as proximity is shortened—is simulated as we approach the image of a window frame in Selective Attention. Focus changes to the plane of the glass and then to the rain falling beyond, then on retreating, returning to the ‘warmth’ of the interior. Subjectivity comes to the fore and the window through which we stare is the mirror of past events. Perhaps these feelings are the reinforcement sought by collectors, who are prepared to forgo the tenuous material basis and investment potential of their artefact?

As an artist who is also a programmer, John Tonkin’s long term engagement with novel interfaces for visual databases goes back beyond the 1990s and currently explores the recent addition of the Kinect sensing device to the tools available. Titles of the works, however, emphasise the theoretical underpinning of the ongoing investigations: Direct realism is like a still image of light refracted through glass and vegetation that begins to twinkle in movement as you draw near. On approaching the image of a seated person gazing at the screen before him in Metacognition, a street scene on the screen expands to be replaced by an image of feet walking in the bush, or a garden. It becomes possible (if the game is played) to enter different spaces within the work, to keep up with the walker; the framing of these adventures becoming the description of cognitive function being applied, from moment to moment.

John Tonkin, A Biology of Cognition, Breenspace, Sydney, July 1-30; www.breenspace.com

RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. 28

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 October 2011