Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Techno Hectoring by Christopher Bradshaw

Techno Hectoring by Christopher Bradshaw

Christopher Brayshaw
Techno Hectoring
Border Crossings 20 no2 135-6 My 2001
The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.

    The first things you see, once your eyes adjust to the dim light of David Rokeby's video installation, Watch, are two wall projections, two slightly different views of the same downtown intersection: cars waiting for the light and pedestrians clustered on the sidewalks. Wait a moment; the walk signals flash; the pedestrians begin to cross, then abruptly freeze in place, like still holograms through which the speeding cars aim. Another moment, and the cars blur into long trails of light, the dark pavement overlaid with the trace of successive vehicles' passing.
    These changes unfold so imperceptibly that neither projection seems to change much; you can't point and say, here is where it changed, as you can with a film cut, because the changes only occur in discreet aspects of the otherwise static scenes. In this, Rokeby's work is closely related to a number of other recent artworks that consciously blur the boundaries between a still and a moving image. I'm thinking, for example, of the Per Kirkby-designed "chapter headings" for Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves, which look for all the world like mobile J.M.W. Turner paintings, and, closer to home, the video loops and "projected stills" Vancouver artist Mark Curry recently exhibited at the Western Front.
    In Rokeby's case, the work does not remain physically divorced from viewers because, at intervals, an image of the audience is projected onto the wall in a space previously occupied by one of the intersection images. In this way, Rokeby suggests that human consciousness is shaped by technology, that our access to events we did not personally experience is always mediated by imaging and surveillance technologies. But--and this is a big but--the mind-numbing thematic literalness of this piece renders it a deeply unsatisfying work of art.
    By including viewers "in the picture," Rokeby implies that we are as effortlessly absorbed into his project's surveillance routines as are the lines of cars and shoppers--just look, there we are! The problem is, the shock of recognizing yourself "in the picture" in no way equals wholehearted identification with Rokeby's thesis, but, rather, provokes impatience with the artist's insinuation that this device might be sufficiently convincing on its own.
    The day I visited the exhibition, a UBC fine arts instructor was visiting Watch with a class of undergraduates. He doggedly rehearsed the conceptual premises of Rokeby's work out loud, while his students nodded and took notes. They--and I--couldn't disagree with any of the claims he was making for the work. At the same time, it was obvious that they (and I) were totally estranged from and unmoved by it. An art exhibition is not just an illustration of a thesis; the formal choices an artist makes in constructing a work must somehow amplify it, kindling a corona of unspecifiability around the work's thematic core. Nothing like this was visible in this plodding, earnest work. I felt embarrassed and vaguely resentful in Watch's presence, conscious that the work was lecturing me with all the formal energy Rokeby could bring to bear.
    If viewers really wish to explore the dangers inherent in media representations and technological surveillance of the body, let them look to works like Chris Burden's early performances, or The Larry Sanders Show, or The Simpsons, works that turn media against itself with snap and panache.
    Another Rokeby installation, The Giver of Names, was far more successful. Discussing this work, Rokeby has written, "The Giver of Names involves the replication of parts of the human mental system in computer code. I do not approach this task with assumptions that it is possible or impossible; I am in it for the process, and for the resulting artwork. The process itself yields some precious results: it provides me with an extraordinarily tangible sense of the remarkable complexity of the many human (and even animal) systems that we take for granted."
    In its Presentation House incarnation, The Giver of Names consisted of a low plinth surrounded by a variety of large, simply shaped objects. Stuffed toys and moulded plastic utensils predominated, giving the spot-lit room the appearance of a Pee Wee's Playhouse set. Visitors were invited to pick up these objects one at a time and to place them on the plinth, where they would be identified and described by a computer program whose output scrolled continuously up a monitor located adjacent to the installation's entrance. The conceptual slippage resulting from the computer program's misidentification of the works on display was wonderful to behold, bearing more than passing resemblance to the products of a Kootenay School of Writing poetry workshop.
    Whereas Watch's strict conceptual determinism rendered it a deeply problematic work of art, The Giver of Names' conceptual schema was far more open, admitting accidents and chance, and allowing viewers to interact with and alter its parameters. Perhaps this is why I lingered longer in this subtle, moving installation, absently stroking the ears of a floppy stuffed dog.    Christopher Brayshaw is an independent critic and curator with a special interest in conceptual art and aesthetic theory. He lives and works in Vancouver, British Columbia.
    David Rokeby's installations Watch and The Giver of Names were on display at North Vancouver's Presentation House Gallery from January 6 to February 18, 2001. David Rokeby, Watch. 1996, video still. Photographs courresy Presentation House.

Chicago Style Citation
Brayshaw, Christopher. 2001. "Techno hectoring." Border Crossings 20, no. 2: 135-136. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed March 07, 2017).

No comments: