Fuel for thought

Ian Haig, Jeanelle Hurst, Bronia Iwanczak, Maria Kozic, Stelarc, Liz Stirling, Fiona Templeton, Linda Wallace, David Wojnarowicz and Nicholas Zurbrugg
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

The diverse works in Fuel were selected by curator, Jay Younger, in terms of a certain autonomy of practice, which she describes in her catalogue essay as "negotiating cultural discourse by creating an idiosyncratic practice beyond regurgitation of critically acclaimed theoretical positions." While the concerns of the work (AIDS, the city, language, the body, virtual reality, popular culture, survival, sexuality, humour, poetry, art theory and spirituality) are as diverse as their modes of presentation, a commonality of confrontation can be readily identified.

Avoiding the familiar doctrines of representation as cultural critique to which Younger refers when she speaks of a "regurgitation of critically acclaimed theoretical positions", the works of five artists – Zurbrugg, Wallace, Stelarc, Hurst and Wojnarowicz – show a critical practice that fuels future possibilities, including those for a more challenging theoretical discourse. Their work has a critical edge that encourages us to reassess histories that have been shaped through processes of structural coupling, leads us to question structure-determined (or embodied) systems (for instance the coupling of the cognitive, sense and immune systems of the body with operating and communicating systems of technology), and offers perceptions that may be useful for the future.

Visual poet/theorist Nicholas Zurbrugg's ironic FUCK THEORY: you know you always wanted to signposts the curatorial position. This computer generated and typographically pristine take-home graffiti stands as testimony to the ethics of appositional intellectualism. Seeking to open up the authority of the intellectual to problematisation and accountability, this object poses a crisis of authority for the theorist: the refusal of artists to be cast as Other in a client relationship to expert, professional authority. How is the intellectual's authority to be practised when the intellectual capital/currency is theory?

Fuck Theory appears to take a stand against the authoritarian position, but works at producing a subject. Zurbrugg's subtext you know you always wanted to is dodgy. Both contestatory and complicit, it swaps position at the point of crisis (artist/theorist) from singular renunciation to enticement to others to collude in submission to a fatal attraction. Zurbrugg locates theory within old patriarchal traditions, against which the demythologizer (you) is/are encouraged to act out an appositional role. In keeping with a debate grounded in the discourse of sexual domination, the adjudicator ironically becomes the pimp – the one who profits from the transaction by maintaining the two sides. The terms of the argument take on a comfortable life of their own, distanced from discrete objects, individual lives and personal experience.

Zurbrugg's sub-set of "by numbers" signs (Paint by Numbers, etcetera) plays upon a dominant ideology's conventional, structured, hierarchical, planner's style, to reinforce his critique of a culture that privileges the formal (defined as synonymous with logical and rational) over the intuitive or irrational; conformity over individuality.

Younger does not promote an anti-theoretical stance in this exhibition, but differentiates between the way the work in FUEL relates to theory (without mere regurgitation) and the irrelevance of the kind of work which uses theory as an end in itself. She sees the work in FUEL as being relevant because it is reflective in relation to lived experiences, considers future possibilities, takes positions "some moral, some for the moment" and uses ''what is necessary" from theory.

The most challenging theories for a visual arts practice that embraces technology are those which relate to the potentials for cultural/scientific/political contestation over the technologies of representation and embodiment of difference. For example, those which highlight such embodiment in immunological discourse-whose object of knowledge is a kind of 'artificial intelligence/language/communication system of the biological body'.

Attempts at extending human potential through technology have gone from attaching accessories such as spectacles, wings or pedals to the external body, to penetrating deep within or radiating way beyond it. McLuhan's theory of mass media1 as "extensions of ourselves, dependent upon us for their interplay and their evolution" followed comments by biological scientists like Peter Medawar. In his essay "The Future of Man"2 (sic), Medawar draws parallels between the heredity and evolution of technology and that of biology, describing how his contemporaries, who used to speak in shorthand about the 'evolution' of hearts or ears or legs, now referred to apparatus such as wireless sets or aircraft with the same qualification in mind, adding: "they do not really evolve, but they are appendages, exosomatic organs, if you like , that evolve with us." In Younger's show, the works of Linda Wallace and of Stelarc, insist upon departure from the instrumental view of technology, which regards apparatuses as objects which are situated in the outside world.

Negotiating the pathways laid by scientific visualisation techniques which allowed us to go beyond the fixed appearances of primate vision, Wallace entices us to investigate the apparatuses of visual production and transference of knowledge; to experience the prosthetic potential of technologies as sense organs of our planet, listening to the universe. Her installation, situated in the gallery as an ungainly igloo-like way-station, confronts disembodied scientific abstraction with a sense of embodiment of the spiritual and the imaginary through visual metaphor. The work interrogates the use of highly particular machineries for processing regions of the electromagnetic spectrum into pictures which serve to objectify our world. By making the data collected through the CSIRO's Compact Array-6 radio telescopes into a computational object devised from a mathematical construct, she blurs the boundary between the abstract and the physical. These three dimensional objects (spatial x and y, with axis z equating velocity) - the creatures of her Nova Zoo – problematise the production of what we call scientific knowledge.

The sheer visual and auditory spectacle of Stelarc's primordial struggle to infuse the human with the power and durability of the machine both fascinates and repels. His work forces us to confront, with a sense of urgency, the obsolescence of the body alongside the evolution of technology: " ... there are both technological and information pressures that made the body obsolete, but the obsolescence is further hightened when technology accelerates the body to reach planetary escape velocity."3

For Stelarc, creating a post-evolutionary dialectic with the body through incorporation of artifacts within it is the answer to evolution's "blind process of random mutation and natural selection without input from the individual."4 Medawar also believed that nature did not know best, suggesting that genetic evolution "if we choose to look at it liverishly instead of with fatuous good humour, is a story of waste, makeshift, compromise and blunder ... our immunological defences are an important source of injury, even of mortal injury. "5

Viewers of David Wojnarowicz' Fear of Disclosure, mesmerised with images of gay Minoguesque disco dancing, are placed in the position of over-hearing (above the beat), rather than listening to, the HIV positive narrator's story of fear of rejection by those who should know better. The actor is involved as the object of knowledge in a non-innocent conversation, embodied in structure-determined systems of the immunological network. David Wojnarowicz' work is positioned within the discourse of bio-politics, in defiance of homophobic repression and the mortal injury of AIDS. Younger's catalogue essay questions the dearth of works and criticism that openly deal with issues surrounding sexuality, especially AIDS. Donna Haraway maintains that the immune system, seen as an information system, shows how deeply our cultural assumptions are penetrated by allegedly value-neutral medical research. She locates the immune system as the new site of contestation: "a terrain where clinical medical practice, scientific research, technological development, commerce, cultural politics, morality, power and personal vulnerability interact with intensity."6

lnformatics is just one aspect of 'first-world' materiality that appears to have acquired biological complexity. Concern with health in a world we all recognise as incredibly polluted (predominantly by its 'first-world ' inhabitants) seems to have seeped into the communications network. "Communication Ecology that began with keeping systems and networks free of pollution (virus) also has come to mean healthy in the sense of preserving options – room for individuals, cultures, technologies and communication regimes to adapt."7 Similarly, Jeanelle Hurst's interest in the creative liberation allowed by technology is tempered by her awareness of its power and potential for control and abuse. Communicated in a static, comforting image of her child engaged in familiar homely activity which is juxtaposed with a recorded message – low-tech by comparison with other works – her installation says more with less about bio-techno-politics and future virtual environments.

The curatorial rationale, and the works of these five artists in particular, implicate the imaginative in critiques of the rationalist paradigm for understanding embodied or structure-determined perceptual and language systems, or of communications' sciences and biology - the site of construction of natural-technical objects of knowledge. This implies a retrospective task for theory - the transition of media theories to theories which address this intimacy of mind, body and tool as well as the interdependence of interpreter and interpreted, in the symbolic organisation of the production and reproduction of culture.

notes: 

1. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man (2nd Edition), t964, NY, McGraw-Hill, p. 57

2. Peter Medawar, "The future of Man·, BBC Reith Lecture, in Bernard Dixon (Ed) (1991) From Creation to Chaos, 1959, London, Sphere, p. 165

3. Stelarc, "Interview with Coulter-Smith and Petelin', Eyeline 3, November 1987, p.7

4. ibid

5. Medawar, op cit, p. 167

6. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 1991, London, Free Association, p. 204

7. Stewart Brand, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, 1987, NY Viking, p. 258