Thursday, June 12, 2008

ART: The Research Group (NCAD Media Graduate Show, meeting, June 2008)

Hello...everybody...here is the text of what i was thinking of saying at the conference / meeting to mark the Graduate show of NCAD's Fine Art: Media Degree Show. Check against delivery, as they say.

What i was hoping to do was to say a few words about what i saw in the show, and then as quickly as possible get to the questions and general discussion. I hope to say something at least about the work of everybody who is part of the group, which is everybody who is graduating from Media this year.

I hope, then, that everybody will have some response to the terrible misunderstandings of their work that I will accidentally perform. And maybe even have some more general observations to make.
This struck me as something that was novel for me, to perform this kind of review of a show in the presence of people who can fight back, rather than back at home, safely hiding behind my own screen.

I hope you will forgive me if speaking in this forum means i'm not as tentative as i could be in print.

Forgive me too if i don't say "seems" enough. But, as i say, there is plenty of time set aside to rebut and rebuke.

And if you'd like to start that process while im speaking, please don't feel you need to wait.

A word first about what might be the most contentious area, that is ideas that seem to unite the work. I hope doing this doesn't tend to underplay the individuality of people's work, but all the same might say something about what effects and occupies an artist choosing to work in the most experimental, contended area of contemporary production.

Many of the works channel something which behaves like a perennial in the digital garden: a certain anxiety about the future of the body, its viability in a world of data, code and network topologies.

I saw, or thought I saw, several times a sense of worry, of preoccupation, with what is to become of this complement, this surplus, this thing that we can't get rid of.

Or can we get rid -- or in the more utopian formulation -- escape this incarnation and still have something, still be a something, stil be a subject? Or is the world of screens, the world of networks too impossibly thin, or too impossibly policed, or too impossibly owned for any 'us' to slip inside?

And, of course, is the discourse in which this is all expressed destined to be energised by desire or panic.

And if panic, which of those twin figures of contemporary fear does our interaction with these media represent: a terrorist attack or a virus. And are we the ever-mutating virus, ready to infect, or the terrorists ready to outrage the otherwise Edenic space on the other side of the screen.

I'm thinking there of David Chandler's installation, which dices and remixes the city of Dublin we think we know, describing subterranean passages which collapse familiar geography into a series of apparently playable levels. But as that happens, it leaves the human subject in a situation something akin to a pinball (an artefact that reappears elsewhere). But a pinball, it might seem, in a game of cards. That is, something that the rules fail to envisage.

The idea of screen as a mirror focuses this idea once more: as though we have already redistributed the surplus and lodged that other us inside the machine, the network, an idea which haunts Andrew McGill Coggin's treasure hunt, a hot pursuit of any atavistic magic inhabiting new media, as we watch our onscreen bodies dissolve and turn inside out, replacing externalities with interiors, an action which prefigures the sudden collapse of distinction between the here and the there.

A similar figure of externalised internals appears in Cian Fanning installation, in which a kind of autopsy of the television set is performed. The disorientation here comes from the fact that the television, the machine, is apparently, conducting its own autopsy, using the transubstantiation of text-to-speech to speak its bodies, to describe its own systems of systems out loud, in a kind of masturbatory diode porn.

And speaking off diode porn, in Ruth Chadwick's dream chamber (which calls to mind Michel Gondry's Science of Sleep) the solid world itself proves to be every bit as insubstantial as the virtual world, a skin on which functionless organs have been tatooed. But the image that presides over this fantasy office space, the most embodied aspect, is a pin up of a tangle of libidinally unshielded twisted pairs.

Next door, Dillon Joyce uses the younger technology of video to perform partial -- and temporary -- erasures of an older one: that of paint on canvas stretcher, igniting abstract gestural work with the flickering movement of light itself.

Liam Ward and Philip Kennedy have created work that feeds on the forms of contemporary mass media, Ward's research leads him to ride shotgun into the night, hitching a lift on the death drive, while Philip Kennedy creates a kind of art world science fiction, imagining not flying cars and engineered humans, but instead an art career that spans -- almost despondently -- into the future perfect. Engineered humans do make an appearance in Michael Lathrop's work, which blocks off the exits by which we might escape our responsibilities in a world of exploitation, graphically implicating the viewer in the machinery of instumentalisation.

Phoebe Dick closes the gap even more, in a tiny image which loomed, for me, over the exhibition. It's an image of a human in the form of a circuit, its brain a tiny diode awaiting current. It's an image of massive change reduced in scale until the detail of foreboding blurs into charm and humour. As a counterbalance to the levity of Phoebe Dick's engagement, we might add Enda McNally's apocalyptically pessimistic approach, which refuses even dystopia as somehow too idealistic, taking solace in mark-making as an activity that threatens to reunite the ages, as though the US promise to "bomb Pakistan back into the stone age" might be some sort of desirable form of time travel.

It also calls to mind Bourriaud's insight, that fruitful thinking often comes "from artists who worked on the basis of possibilities offered by new tools, but without representing them as techniques" -- which is maybe something we will return to in a couple of minutes.

Sinead McGuinness and Leigh San Juan use the diorama and the toy theatre respectively as analogues, or perhaps prototypes of monitors, effective for exploring relationships with screen images. Both coincidentally also conceive the domestic interior itself as part of thought chain. Leigh San Juan reconfigures toy theatres to reframe a world, to take it home and place it on the mantelpiece of memory. Sinead McGuinness is hacking the eye, seeing how it can be made to fail creatively in task of discerning the world about it, in the interests perhaps, of seeing if it is indeed the eye that fails, or the world. Her's is a process that also reclaims photographic space as a virtual world.

Sharon Phelan watches as patterns form, wondering why they do, taking note of the steps in what Andrew Pickering calls "the dance of agency" in complex work that quickly leaves behind as unimportant all questions of media, in favour of an engagement with emergent content. It is a work which is occupied with rethinking the nature/culture divide in ways that might reformulate many of the anxious questions that we keep asking about the relationship of one to another.

On the face of it, Fintan Ryan does pretty much the opposite. he uses performance to activate the projected screen - activate in the sense of throwing the switch on a machine we already thought was running, but which proves to have been inert all the time. Content here dwells in the act of driving content out, an activity that happens all around us, though is seldom so usefully acknowledge. But as that happens, as content is evacuated, another richness floods in. Content, after all, is not susceptible to extinction.

The title of Sarah Lawson's thesis -- which i look forward to reading -- The Obsolete Body, crystallises for me many of the ideas that seemed to emerge in one form or another from many of the works here.

Animation is a curious word. it represents a technique by which life is breathed into the undead, the never lived, turning objects into subjects. And as such "Animation" may, i think, propose (as it does here) a powerful and acute fashion of observing fears and aspirations, involved as we busy ourselves softening the boundaries between the human and the non-human.