Catalogue essay for the ISEA2013 exhibition at Verge Gallery featuring Ian Haig, Nandita Kumar and Raewyn Turner & Brian Harris.
The other day I saw Elvis on television. At least, I think I did. It was late at night. Rage, the long-running music video clip show, was in full flight and Suspicious Minds was beating out its up-tempo heart-wrenchedness. I was glued to the screen for the full four minutes and twelve seconds, not because I found any extra interest in the song (having heard it thousands of times on classic mix stations in supermarkets and elevators). What grabbed my attention was the deliberate attempt by Sony Music (the record conglomeration that controls Elvis’ music – and evidently Elvis himself) to blur the lines between past and present, reality and construction. The clip featured a ghostly silhouette of Elvis against a backdrop of dramatic stage lighting (primarily a large screen comprised of light-globe pixels). My fixation concerned its authenticity (and yes, this may sound naive, but it was late at night). It was sort of obvious that things had been a bit touched up or ‘digitally remastered’, but was any of this really Elvis (and does this even make any sense considering that whether real or fake, Elvis had been reduced to a series of ones and zeros and stored on a central digital server)? I imagined some young, pimply designer who’d never even heard of Elvis given the task of defining, and then animating the path around this distinct figure. Elvis, in this incarnation, may be no realer than Bart Simpson.
This small tale gets to the crux of Ian Haig’s ‘Night of the Living Hippy’. While there are other facets to the work (the most obvious being its abject nature), it works most powerfully as a metaphor for our post-medial (and even post-historical) culture where the dead (dead people, information and data), flattened and decontextualised by the disinterested process of digital storage, are brought back to life to serve whatever purpose the possessor deems fit (most often commercial or political). One of the most recent and interesting examples of this phenomenon is the rise of the internet fact checker (the Washington Post’s The Fact Checker or FactCheck.org for instance) where dedicated political enthusiasts give real time feedback on everything spewing forth from politicians. The result is that history is compressed into the current moment. Our elected representatives are held accountable for everything that they’ve ever said, and if their current positions on matters are not totally in line with their histories they are (rightly or wrongly) labelled hypocrites.
A year or so ago, Diego Bonetto showed his fabulous weedy terrariums in Verge. These elegant looking cases were self-contained eco systems, lined with handfuls of soil from well known Sydney locations. Magically (once placed in the sun) they would sprout grass and weeds. Water would evaporate and condense on the glass, trickle down and hydrate the flora. Things would live, die, fertilise and sprout new life. Fundamentally, they were a combination of two things – matter (nutrients, water, air, seeds) and energy (in the form of sunlight). The collision of matter and energy brought life (as it had done countless times before throughout Earths existence). More fundamentally, both of these things are actually cut from the same cloth. As Einstein demonstrated in his famous equation E=MC squared, matter is comprised of energy.
Nandita Kumar’s eLEMenT: EARTH is an equally exquisite terrarium. Matter and energy, however, are replaced with another shaky dichotomy – that of natural versus human-made. This interactive work pits natural sounds (birds, animals and sounds from the earth’s core) against the more mechanistic sounds of human progress. In doing so, this dichotomy is challenged. When these audio waves overlap and intermingle, is it really possible to tell the difference? Furthermore, does it really matter if we can’t? This work speaks to the nature of technology and its ability to be internalised, to become natural over time. Technologies are like onion skins – they are rolled up and tucked into the very fabric of our being and are thus rendered invisible. Clothing, language and cartography are all examples of technologies that are part of who we are. Kumar’s work is a sublime and profound comment on our fraught relationship with our environments.
There are hearing aids for the hearing impaired, glasses for those of us who see the world as a blur, but where are all the bionic noses? As we have evolved, smell has become less and less important to the extent that most of us don’t even notice when our sense of smell begins to fade. As dogs without a sense of smell we would be pitiful creatures. As wild animals we would surely die. Downwind, by Raewyn Turner and Brian Harris, asks what does smell mean to us? Is it possible that neglect of this once-critical sense means that we are missing out? Turner and Harris draw our attention to the complex interplay of smells in our environment, smells that are contingent upon everything from deodorant to foods consumed to the fragrances of our technologies and natural surroundings. What becomes apparent when looking at and reading about this practical research is the subjectivity associated with our olfactory sense. We may be aware of our own smell (especially if we have just sprayed it on), but how often can we describe our humdrum background smell which surely changes from city to city, house to house? Turner and Harris aptly describe all of these together as the technological architectural fragrances of our civilization and time.
Turner and Harris also use the term ‘human plume’ to describe the smell that each of us leaves in our wake. It is intriguing that like the data trail that Haig’s dead hippy might leave behind, the plume is indicative of what we used to be (a bit like spotting stars in the night sky that have long since vanished). Our smell is not really of us, it is us disintegrating. Perhaps when we sense our disintegration (or when we smell) it could thus be described as us reinterpreting, reinventing and reconfiguring notions of who we once were according to personal and collective experiences. Not dissimilarly, Kumar’s eLEMenT: EARTH creates mixes of natural and human-made sounds that cannot be unmixed. They do, however, create new combinations of sounds that realign our perspective on what is natural and what is of our own making. All three of these phenomenological works employ notions of disintegration and renewal to paradigmatically shift our perceptions of who we are and how we fit in to our fluidic environments.
Verge Gallery Manager
Download the entire catalogue here: ISEA2013 Verge Catalogue