The centre shifts

Keith Gallasch talks to Norie Neumark about bodies and computers

If the installation Shock in the Ear (Artspace, 1997) and the subsequent CD-ROM of the same name are anything to go by, Dead Centre: the body with organs, a new installation from Norie Neumark and collaborators should entertain, disturb and certainly make you think—re-think, that is, your relationship with your body and with computers. The usual analogy between brain and computer is out. Norie Neumark thinks that scientist often get the analogies wrong. What if we thought of the computer as a body instead of a brain—we feed it, it ingests, digests, processes, absorbs, erupts, excretes. What if we re-thought our bodies instead of living out the Anglo model of bodily experience. As Lynn Payer in Culture and Medicine has described it, the British are bowel centred, the French look to their livers, the Germans to the heart and the circulatory system, the Americans see the body as a machine, the East is elsewhere altogether. As for Australians, that’s something to reflect on, but it’s not surprising that Neumark has invoked the Dead Centre. She has written: “I first understood my body as cultural one day when, after overeating in Italy, I complained of a stomach ache, but my Italian friends bemoaned their livers. How did they know where their livers were? I wondered…a decade later and thanks to acupuncture, I not only know where my liver is but experience its symptoms and can even track it to various tender points on my feet and legs.” Historically and culturally our organs travel about. And therefore one of the key figures in Dead Centre is travelling, the other is the computer as an organ of digestion and transmission.

To encourage this reconfiguring of our metaphorical habits, Neumark works through stories she’s collected, performances, sounds, still images and projected animations, “that fracture the ‘natural’ body.” The images by digital visual artist Maria Miranda entail X-Rays, scans, the skeleta of the computer and body organs, but avoid the literalness of western images of the body. The vocal track (pre-recorded by sound artist/performer Amanda Stewart to text by Neumark but also performed live improvising with herself on several occasions during the installation’s gallery life) also fragments and transforms. Stewart, a distinctive poet, reports that she’s enjoyed the rare process of working to someone else’s text and is looking forward, says Neumark, “to reacting in a lateral way to a mixture of memory systems.” Composer and programmer Greg White, writes Neumark, “creates the pulses which hold the room/machine together and has designed special software to enable the complex sound design.” Neil Simpson lights the space in which Miranda’s image-printed sheets of copper and silk will hang. Six loud speakers will “express the organs”, drawing on Stewart’s performance and sounds from the Dead Centre sound art piece Neumark produced earlier for ABC FM’s The Listening Room.

I ask if the radio work forms the template for the installation. Neumark says yes and no, a lot of other things happen as the work transforms from one medium to another. She likes the creative accidents that happen The one thing that is constant, she insists, is her preoccupation with sound. For all the visual appeal and drive of Shock in the Ear and Dead Centre it is sound which is at the heart of these works. The voice too is of the body and carries its own cultural baggage. An important part of Neumark’s ongoing project has been to see how sound artists can work with visual artists. In a few months, Neumark, a Senior Lecturer in Media Arts Production, University of Technology Sydney, will return to the United States for a year on a Society for the Humanities Fellowship at Cornell University, teaching a course she’s designed and doing a lot of work on her next project, about the envelope making machine—her grandfather invented the device and also the envelope with window—and the genealogy of email. It’s a work about the desire to create ‘envelopes’ and the culture of invention.

Dead Centre: the body with organs, The Performance Space Gallery, July 8 – 22. Live performances with Amanda Stewart July 8, 11 & 18.

RealTime issue #31 June-July 1999 pg. 28

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1999