The anxious interactive

Anneke Jaspers on the creations of Adam Constenoble

Adam Costenoble, The Passage

Adam Costenoble, The Passage

In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966), the protagonists are trapped in a realm of extra-theatrical consciousness. Between fleeting moments of purposeful, deliberate action in which they perform their minor roles as footmen in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, these forlorn characters are consigned to limbo, pondering the nature of reality and the parameters of their autonomy. In moments of intense role-play, the characters are malleable and compliant, driven by some inexplicable, pre-determined set of rules they are simply doomed to enact. Outside of these episodes, they lack purpose and agency, and are equally condemned to consider the futility of their existence.

I was reminded of the play by Adam Costenoble’s recent exhibition at Firstdraft gallery, The Passage, which invites participation through a number of mechanisms that evoke similar themes. As with the artist’s former projects, The Chamber and The Mountain (both 2005), The Passage aims to reconfigure our experience of audio-visual installation by making large-scale, structural elements a central component. Installation here is more than a tokenistic reference to a technicality of display, instead drawing overt attention to the relationship between spatial and perceptual encounters in a gallery context.

In The Passage, the idea of literal confinement explored in earlier works is expanded to incorporate psychological and philosophical dimensions, resulting in a doubling of interior/exterior dynamics that demands self-reflexive and physical engagement on the part of the viewer. Upon entering the darkened gallery, one meets what is effectively a room within a room. Its long narrow design (like a hallway, complete with doorways) heightens this relation to domestic scale, as does the volume of its interior, but moreso in the way it is pressed against the gallery’s far wall. This leaves the rest of the space as a voluminous void, impersonal and generic in contrast to The Passage’s intimate zone of engagement. The gallery, then, becomes the first of 2 thresholds to be crossed. Through a translucent scrim that forms the facing ‘wall’ of the installation, 2 projections radiate light from either end of the enclosure. The shadows cast by single bodies inside create a further screen-image on the partition as they move around, suggesting a distinction between active participant and idle observer, but one that is immediately negated via the relationship such partial visibility establishes between watching and being watched.

This initial confusion of agency and acquiescence is further elaborated once inside. Fixed in a linear sequence along the floor are a series of push buttons that activate different video tracks as you move along the space. On each screen a duplicate image of a male figure hovers in a nondescript, composite landscape of endless dirt and ominous rolling clouds. Facing off against one another, the first of these figures holds a rather large and menacing gun. Constant static interruptions, jump cuts, and the flickering, shifting boundaries of the bodies foreground the volatile, fragmented relationship between physical and psychological states, the real and the virtual.

With each advance a narrative unfolds: the screen figures progress through phases of boredom, agitation and finally violence, at which point—in a conflation of murder and suicide—upon the participant’s prompt, one shoots the other. Inserted between the video channels, and activating this sequence of events, the participant is apparently complicit in the scene they are perpetuating. Upon turning back and re-activating each stage, the sequence restores itself in reverse, with each of the figures returning to their original jaded disposition.

In a dystopian contradiction, this performative scenario collapses states of progress and retrogression, transformation and inertia, in on themselves. Though conceptually complex, its development is nonetheless truncated in accordance with The Passage’s condensed physical space. Indeed, a more nuanced, elaborate disclosure of the characters’ opposing temperaments (passive/aggressive) and our ambiguous relationship to them would be more effective. Regardless, The Passage astutely renders the categories of protagonist, participant and spectator indistinct. The sameness of the screen figures—copies of the artist and of each other—is one element that accentuates genericism and arbitrariness: multiplied and infinitely consumable, they are locked into a cyclical enactment of death and restoration. The participant, by means of their spatial positioning and interactive engagement, is wholly implicated in this cycle. Beyond the facade of independence, empowerment and reciprocity, a system of repetition and limited potential is revealed. Like Stoppard’s hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the pre-determined trajectories of both the virtual and ‘real’ entities in Costenoble’s theatrical domain throw into relief questions about our ability to intervene in the world at a large, and the potential for any genuine autonomy.

It is precisely the pivotal element of a foregone conclusion that dismantles the problematic of pseudo-interactivity the work initially seems to raise. The interactive component of The Passage is superficial; however, this ineffectuality is knowingly indexed to the work’s conceptual concerns. Rather, it is at the level of functional dependency that The Passage founders. For example, a critical aspect of The Passage’s manifestation hinges on the screens playing static while the structure is unoccupied, so that work lies in chaos when it is 'dormant' (its protagonists consigned to extra-theatrical limbo elsewhere), and is activated by the presence of a participant. The push button immediately encountered upon entering the work controls this function. At first touch it triggers the initial video track so that the virtual figures appear, but relies entirely on the participant depressing the switch a second time before they leave to reactivate the static track. When this is overlooked, it significantly skews the work’s dynamic, since the screen protagonists are always ‘present’ and visible from outside the empty structure, which confuses the notions of contingency and purposelessness on which The Passage turns. Furthermore, over the duration of its display, the intended experience of the work was undermined by the malfunction of technical components after several weeks.

Given this first exhibition of The Passage was identified by the artist as an early iteration in the project’s development, initially made possible by the Firstdraft Emerging Artist Studio Residency, my comments are less about identifying ‘failure’ than considering the work in relation to the increasingly popular practice of user-testing in exhibition contexts. The repositioning of this phase of artwork development—out of the studio or laboratory and into the gallery—challenges preconceived notions about the function of spaces and frameworks for public display in a manner that accommodates the shifting paradigms of interdisciplinary methodologies. Embedded in this schema of continual development, perhaps a future version of this thoughtful, provocative artwork might also incorporate the possibility of rupturing the absurd confines of prescribed existence identified here—a hopeful alternative. In the absence of such potential to escape the cycle of a hopeless reality, The Passage stubbornly refuses to offer any false consolations, resolutely displacing hope with despair.

Adam Costenoble, The Passage, Firstdraft, Sydney, June 7-24 June

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 26

© Anneke Jaspers; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2006