hi-tech/lo-tech: Sydney Gallery Drift; Brainstorms: Momentary psychological disturbances

David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, Oleg Kulik, Simon Yates; Super sonic bionic voodoo power: soda_jerk, Patrick Swann
GrantPirrie, Sydney; Artspace, Sydney; Phatspace, Sydney
31 May – 2 July 2005; 12 May – 4 June 2005; 2 – 18 June 2005

When it comes to curatorial initiative, the Sydney art scene can be a bit dry. A welcome surprise, then, that some should crop up on the private gallery trail, at GrantPirrie in Redfern. ‘Brainstorms: momentary psychological disturbances’, curated by Clare Lewis and James Steele, will go down as a gallant attempt at a coordinated group show, even if it falls short of its curatorial ambitions. ‘Brainstorms’ promised a deluge, but only delivered isolated showers—though not for want of trying, mind you. Lewis and Steele are to be congratulated for aiming high. They have mustered here seven formidable artists, strong in terms of both skills and ideas. But as with any such congregation of talent, it is liable to make the curator’s job harder, rather than easier.

The show is probably less apocalyptic than its A5 catalogue claims, although many of the artists do respond to the ‘terminal velocity’ imposed upon contemporary existence by technology. Eleanor Avery, for example, splices vinyl imitations of wood-veneer and corkboard into her schematised landscapes, to make eerily flat scenes of eco-dystopia. Zina Kaye’s LED-stream of air-traffic data certainly fits the brief, but speaks only to itself in a room of decidedly off-line work. Léa Donnan’s iVirgin, in which the Virgin Mary cradles the hallowed iBook, is a witty enough critique of information-age consumerism, but as a reflection on ‘future shock’ it is pretty glib.

Some of the show’s more interesting tangents lead us away from this rubric, such as Kate Cotching’s meticulous, weightless assemblages of cut paper, which manage to be delicate without being dainty. It is shadow, not gravity, that anchors her Tiber North, which somehow communicates all the knobbliness of an urban knoll in the deftest filigree. A Little is a pile of tiny, hand-cut, one-word logos. Like stamps that have become disengaged from their pages and have taken flight, they now lie heaped, like so many fallen neon signs. For all its poetry, this is sharp craft, craft applied knowingly rather than lovingly. Cotching’s scalpel lines resonate with the pattern-play between cloth and vellum in Donnan’s College Girl Mandala, in which repetition apes the banal commerce of undergraduate sexuality.

In places, Brainstorms hums with correspondences—for instance, between Adam Norton’s timeless lead playing cards and Avery’s prop-like tree sculpture, its beard of moss inorganic yet somehow still decaying. Norton’s work also speaks to Chris Bond’s more cerebral explorations of book arts and their nods to the visual codes of modernism. Both artists enlist the mimesis of hyper-realism to discern and distort the registering of time in the image—Norton mapping past conceptions of the future; Bond projecting Utopian ‘imaginary structures’ back onto the documented past.

All of the works benefit from slick installation, which sets the show apart—though more than it should—from most artist-run group shows. (Is it really that difficult to dress an art space?) Especially impressive in this regard is Sam Smith’s engrossing Tokyo Exercises Suite, screening at the end of a long, wall-mounted bench that draws the blue screen of the digital special effects studio out into the gallery. This pier between viewer and screen anchors us in a real architectural space, making literal art’s perspectival guarantee of depth. But thus kept at a distance, the screen becomes more like a mirror: it reciprocates, opening an implied depth in the image, which corresponds to the depth of the studio—the simulated depth of montage and set construction—a depth we too readily take for granted. This manoeuvre illuminates the new perceptual conditions of digital imaging. What happens to perspective when the image can be dissected and recomposed from diverse source elements?

In his Exercises, Smith explores—and makes porous—the boundaries between the spaces of production and post-production, the space we finally consume in cinema’s finished product, and the space in which we consume it. Each is a study in image-making and image-reading, in which the architecture of the image is laid bare as an arbitrary assemblage of simplified planes. The synchronicity of sound and image is also unsettled—in one sequence we follow real footage of a gloomy sky, while below the horizon, a fake forest hums with life. At times, Smith enters these spaces more literally, as a video-avatar, shrunken, enlarged and teleported around, immune to the laws of physics. Video game meets the postmodern martial arts flick. One scene recalls Atari’s retro-classic of computer gaming, Pong (1972): a hand enters from the left, passes over a green-screen background, and retreats, leaving its fingers behind to float and bounce around like some macabre screensaver.

Conceptually, Brainstorms might be a bit unruly, but it is ordered enough to allow themes to emerge. Better to have too many than too few. A triple-bill at Artspace, meanwhile, demonstrates the perils of sharing a gallery between several artists unrelated and uncurated. The program is dominated by David Haines and Joyce Hinterding’s Purple Rain, a work not without its own apocalyptic gravitas. Suspended from the ceiling, an array of whopping, statuesque antennas ignores the audience milling around beneath them with a magisterial indifference. A large screen shows footage of a falsified natural disaster—an illusory force majeure—in the form of a smouldering avalanche in alpine wilderness. The connection between these elements is obscure, until we read that the video image is in fact animated by fluctuations of the broadcast signals harnessed by the antennae. The work thus plays at a kind of energy piracy, siphoning off information, the raw commodity driving global public opinion. Purple Rain is an imposing machine without an interface—and this is the point. Presented by Artspace director Nick Tsoutas at the São Paulo Biennale, it aims to ‘de-conceal’ the datasphere generated by corporate broadcast media, to make apparent its invisible topography. Visually, the work reaches for the grandeur of chaos theory, its antennas channeling, and détourning, the ambient noise that carries our TV signals. Its natural idiom gestures toward the sublime, only to reveal the event as a mediated simulation, a thing of human design. Nevertheless, the machine’s metaphysical output prevents the site-specificity of this data-geography from becoming manifest. With the work’s migration to Sydney from São Paulo, we miss a chance to compare these locations and their different media atmospheres.

Next door, an ultra-low-tech installation by Simon Yates also plays upon visibility/invisibility. Universal Cloaking Device is the simplest machine imaginable, reducing interactivity to a binary—but pre-technological—cause-and-effect. It distributes golf balls into buckets via a guileless matrix of hanging pipes. Suspended between these is an archipelago of sculptural thought experiments. In Yates’s whimsical maquettes, society’s production lines are perverted by a fertile imagination, some salvaged cardboard and a dash of postmodern semiotics. The Device would have been more at home at Phatspace, alongside Patrick Swann’s ‘supercomputer’—a giant cardboard tardis (called ‘Warren Ryan’), operated from within by the gorilla-suited artist. With an exchange of handwritten input/output cards, the supercomputer holds on to the formal model of information processing but aims to ‘take the intelligence out of artificial intelligence’. It shares Yates’s lo-fi, homemade aesthetic. But it makes more sense next to Soda_Jerk’s demented trash-mag collages, which could almost have been spat out by the cardboard behemoth, were they not polished enough to nearly transcend the cut-up genre.

There is no such synergy at Artspace. In the third gallery, we find videos of Russian artist Oleg Kulik’s performance work. Now a darling of the biennale circuit, Kulik earned notoriety in the 1990s for his persistent—and often rather vicious—impersonations of a dog (see for example his re-channelings of Joseph Beuys’s celebrated coyote performance, including I love Europe, but Europe doesn’t love me back, 1996). His System of Coordinates may look like a good old-fashioned 1960s happening—lots of writhing nudity, fluids, shaky camerawork and even some out-of-place folk-dancing—but there is a self-consciousness about the recording function, and how it effects the fabrication of an event. Video is no simple document here; it is a tool for collective editing, which inflects verbal, visual and performative codes alike.

Now it may be a tad unfair to compare these artists thrust together by the vicissitudes of institutional scheduling. But the works actually embarrass each other. Yates’s faux-naïf craftiness looks shabby next to Purple Rain; yet it shows how art can aspire to metaphysical enquiry without the aesthetic grandeur of the paranoid pirate-broadcasting machine. At the same time, Kulik out-absurds Yates, whilst reminding Haines and Hinterding that communication begins with a physicality that is just as compelling as the most gripping disaster movie. Media technology can be alienating; but so can conceptual art. The best media art shows how each might be used to get a handle on the other.