Technology will eat itself

Gail Priest

Mel Donat, Memory Playback

Mel Donat, Memory Playback

There must have been something in the air at the University of Western Sydney around the turn of the millennium—a wormhole the students fell into so that they emerged from the institution with a distinctive fetish for old and arguably obsolete technology. Or perhaps, as rumour has it, the old equipment was being disposed of and some students discovered strong scavenger instincts. Tim Ryan, Philip Williams, Andrew Gadow and Mel Donat exemplify this phenomenon. Over the last 3 years they have individually and collectively clocked up an impressive list of exhibitions. The latest is Digital Decoupage at First Draft Gallery where they truly revel in technological obsolescence and the endlessly surprising outcomes of analogue and digital interactions.

Tim Ryan’s Future Proof consists of 3 7” LCD monitors placed side by side in an empty room displaying landscapes of light and texture. The development of pattern and tone is subtle, the result of harnessing technology’s mistakes and idiosyncrasies. The images are obliquely related, morphing between screens and the play from right to left provides a disconcerting backwards flow, as the vision disappears into the linear past. Reflecting on in-built obsolescence, Ryan believes that, “As a technology advances, the user becomes further disembodied from their actions, which makes it more difficult to find the source of technological problems” (artist’s statement). The easiest solution is to make replacement technology—Ryan asks can any technology be truly future proof.

From a different perspective, Andrew Gadow’s MoogLighting suggests that no technology is obsolescent, it’s just waiting for a new use. He converts the audio signal of a 1970s Moog synthesiser to video. As he uses a wide range of frequencies some of these signals are almost inaudible, yet still produce visual material. The result is work of clean patterns and lines and a pleasing sparseness and restraint. This is as integrated as the audiovisual relationship gets—a truly synaesthetic experience.

Also manifesting invisible information is Philip Williams’ non-linear feedback. With black leader tape from video, radio static and tape hiss, Williams effects and layers his material using digital processes to draw out the colour, texture and movement hidden in apparent detritus. Most impressive is the elephantine video projector used to show this work that requires 3 people to lift and has separate red/green/blue bulbs that highlight the work’s colour composition. Although as visually and sonically subtle as Gadow’s work, non-linear feedback revels more in grain and texture and often looks reminiscent of astronomic vistas. There is also a monitor piece, with the viewing surface laid horizontal, demonstrating a monochrome investigation of the process. The impact of the work builds with our knowledge of the process behind it.

Williams and Gadow are exhibited in the main room of First Draft, not ideal for displaying works whose audio outputs bleed and whose visuals fade in afternoon light. It would be good to experience these pieces again in a more contemplative environment.

Mel Donat’s Memory Playback takes a more tactile and interactive approach. On a plinth in the centre of the room lies a large floppy stuffed bunny attached to the wall by a mysterious cord. On a screen is projected a 3D animated rabbit. By finding and pressing switches in the toy’s body the animated rabbit responds. These responses are focussed on the corresponding body part but are interestingly free of narrative, generating a strange gestural language. The rabbit’s surface is composed of textured horizontal static and floats in a world of vertical static as if it has grown out of its environment. The work is all the more engaging because it does not fall into cuteness or the Chuckie’s Back toy-turned-sinister theme: Memory Playback has an intriguing obliqueness in its action/interaction. The animated rabbit goes through its motions efficiently and returns to rest, staring at you as if it’s expecting something and no matter how many switches you activate you’re still not quite giving it what it wants. The increased tactility required of the viewer—you have to prod and squish the toy to find the triggers—highlights the transition from real to virtual and the causal relationship between the 2 that is so often elusive and unfulfilling in interactive works.

Digital Decoupage satisfies with its conceptual cohesion and investigative and aesthetic rigour. All the works have a pared back clarity borne of concerted efforts to control unwieldy processes and materials. It will be interesting to follow the development of these 4 artists as they continue to discover and tame the strange mutations that live between old and new technologies, between analogue and digital worlds.

Digital Decoupage, First Draft Gallery, Sydney, Dec 3-14, 2003.

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 29

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004