Petrol

I was kept waiting under the shelter at a railway station because of a heavy downpour on my way to review PETROL, an exhibition of electronic media installations. The gutters of the shelter were in disrepair and a torrent of rainwater poured from a hole in the drainpipe onto a coloured advertisement sheet lying flat and sodden on the asphalt below. Tiny pieces slowly broke away and a rivulet of blue, red, white and yellow confetti formed and trickled along the length of the platform. The noise of the rainfall on the tin roof combined with the vocalisations of the other commuters, fragmenting and hushing them, rendering them unable to compete. Voices were dissolved, reduced from the initial compensatory shouts to an intermittent babble, long pauses and, eventually, silences. This disintegration, dispersal and transformation passed by and around me, almost unnoticed at first; even my eventual registering of the sound phenomena seemed inconsequential at the time, serving only as a minor and perhaps forgettable distraction in those moments of boredom as I stood waiting, and listening for the train. What I could not have anticipated was the possibility of being able to link this experience with some of the works I was about to experience.

The exhibition, curated by Emile Rasheed, covered three shifts, each of a week's duration. In the first week the works of Ruark Lewis, Dennis Wilcox, Phillip White, Garry Bradbury and Jason Gee were presented. In subsequent weeks, Emile Rasheed's and Simm Steel's were shown. Lewis's and Gee's work was displayed over the three weeks, presumably to provide a thread to the exhibition.

Ruark Lewis's contribution was comprised of newsprint sheets from Le Monde, hung in two horizontal and symmetrical L-shaped lines around the top of the exhibition space walls. On each of these, graphite lines of varying length and thickness were drawn and followed the contours provided by gaps between columns of newsprint and graphics. This foregrounded some spaces and bracketed off other areas and images. The papery occupation of the room emphasised its design, without the slightest trace of interference, the sheets pressed close to the walls. The same could have been said of the graphite inscriptions on the pages, were it not for a deeper consideration.

What was presented was not simply the exploration of surfaces or an examination of paper-and-print materiality, but a series of selective interruptions and reorganisations. It was no coincidence that Le Monde was the object of Lewis's attention, as he had recently returned from a residency at the Cite lnternationale des Artes studio in Paris. The translated title of the paper reads THE WORLD, presumably declaring the staking of a cultural claim to knowledge in the most global way imaginable. By employing a metaphor for how the world is divided up into digestible, byte-size pieces (thus revealing the very devices and limiting potential of this spatial organisation) and then redistributing them, ironically, within their own confines, Lewis partly achieved an expropriation. One of the areas outlined was a weather map of France complete with isobars and the like; another delimited an half page on Hegel. In one sense it could be said that the paper's true intentions became exposed, written all over its face. But it would be simplistic and inaccurate to place a single prescriptive sociopolitical reading on this work, and to suggest that the artist was only commenting on a form of informational imperialism.

The grids which resulted from Lewis's overdrawing sectioned off selected areas, overstating the stamp of the press and the significance purportedly delivered through even spatial arrangements. While Lewis's technique is formulaic, it is also dependent on chance and coincidence dictated by the patterns of each page. The printed page became through this transformation both underwritten or underscored, and at the same time, over-written and over-stated , like a palimpsest. Like scratching into a record surface (the groove of the phonograph, according to Adorno, is itself a kind of writing), each of the pages became re-written, reiterated, re-scored. The filtration from the 'original' repeatable and dispensable form abstracted the object as, for instance, a maze would abstract a lane-way. And, like a maze or the groove in a record, the highlighted gaps or ruptures in the pages revealed that they had no 'outside' nor 'inside' implicating the very notion of content. Lewis bent and distorted by using the straight lines the electronic media itself employs, thereby exposing the newssheet as absolutely dependent on the perpetuation of a non-conclusive and daily recurring paper-chase. Perhaps whatever knowledge the newspaper could truly be said to possess is how it can disguise its inherent vacuity.

But for most of us English speakers and readers, this particular text was literally unreadable and was thus reduced by the mind to traces, patterns and grey areas. This could be interpreted as a mental foregrounding of that which lies both before and beyond language and literal meaning, and of the possibility for constructing other kinds of meaning, bending the printed word or words into other, more massive shapes, producing a residue of pure accent. The backgrounding of the printed matter behind the graphite lines suppressed the paradigms of cultural interpretation and of a specific reading and readership, overexposing the synchronic, linear and overtly spatial aspects of the printed page. In a complete reversal, the margins selected acted as interference patterns; the snap-shots and reportage (the newspaper purportedly presenting 'a day in the life’) were revealed as simple geometric contrivances – here, the surface features became humanised and extended beyond their electronic and retroactive parameters.

One of the functions of working through the gaps or ruptures (of a socially constructed monolith) which were exemplified in some of these works, is that they actively contribute to re-folding art back into a social praxis, thus partly exposing the delusion that art operates autonomously, or apart from the world (le monde). But this can only be achieved when care is discreetly exercised, as it sometimes was here (though sometimes not). The space and time of ruptures both reveals and conceals. What would appear as openness, the availability and distribution of information, was revealed as being both foretold and foreclosed. Lewis's and particularly Jason Gee's works broke apart what only appeared to be open, revealing its other side-mapping out a new and experienceable social terrain, but then, in an act of artistry, re-veiling it.

Phillip White's work was comprised of a telephone of 1940's vintage, complete with turn-handle at its dial. When vigorously turned, a record turn-table underneath revolved, the stylus faintly picking up the recording of an obscure Soviet opera, relaying it to the hand-held receiver. I was able to trace the link between the electronic writing of the record and that of the printed page. As the record needle neared the centre of the spiral, it ran into an obstacle and bounced back toward the outer edge of the record. The chance aspect of the listening event was overshadowed by a more interesting aspect of the piece, that which determined a private and particularised act of listening in the public space of the gallery. The unsustained, fragmentary snatches of music transformed the record's specific intent by promoting an elusive listening process. This groovy writing was, like Lewis's work in progress, not in English, but was able to be interpreted through sonic resonances. The recorded voices were rendered literally indecipherable or emptied of semantic content. Through the electronic machinery the production of sound and the availability of positions for listening became even more abstracted, fostering an imaginative, sonic level of communicating.

Garry Bradbury positioned a telephone answering machine on a pedestal in one corner. Every fifteen minutes or so, the artist would ring in (from a drug and alcohol detoxification unit) and read excerpts from Herbert Sanborn's The Dachshund or Teckel and the Desiderata which, by the end of the installations life, had accumulated into a complete body of recordings. What was interesting about this piece was the physical absence of the artist throughout the performance, but the 'presence' of his disembodied, electromagnetically converted and reproduced voice, transmitted from another place and dimension. This sign-play between presence and absence, assemblage and fragmentation connected the work with other pieces in the exhibition. Jason Gee's computer-scanned image taken from Jan Vredeman de Vrie's sixteenth century perspectival engraving, placed pragmatically and centrally in the space, set up a mock vanishing point. He commented on the loss of what Walter Benjamin called "aura" through this more recent means of technical reproducibility. Where Bradbury's work implied a strong link between artist and recipient despite the bodily 'absence' of the artist (listening being an intimate, interpretive act), Gee's subtly hinted at a gulf between an object of vision and the possibility for a more genuinely contemplative immersion, despite the presence of his more overtly material work.

Dennis Wilcox's tiny video monitor was suspended under a frame and, when functioning, swung to and fro in the manner of a metronome. The computer-scanned and shifting images relayed to the swinging mini-screen from the hardware concealed under the floorboards shared similarities with Lewis's work. For example, there was the scan of a weather map, isobars and all, and also one of the globe, which bounced around like a tennis ball in the court of the screen. This time, the 'world' was pictorially captured and framed, it did not declare or offer itself up. As presented, the piece took on dimensions of a curio, indulging in the fetishisation of the light-emitting monocular object, a mutant, kinetic museum piece.

The following week I saw the work of Emile Rasheed, an elaborate set-up of electronic tripwires, designed to trigger a flash of light and project the shadow of the onlooker onto a curiously luminous, photo-sensitive screen which was suspended mid-gallery. A slide projector behind the screen sent a bewildering series of electronically massaged, disparate photographic images onto it, the darkness between projections leaving a phosphorescent after image which gradually faded. The silhouette of the spectator on the facing side of the screen blended with the image/alter image from the rear. Though this work seemed to me to be slightly confusing, this may have been due to the combination of too many components operating at once, requiring an onlooker to guess as to how the work might be read. At a guess, then, I found it interesting in the way that an implied negation of the onlooker commented on the speciosity of more recent claims of audience interactivity with, usually, high-tech, and, more often than not, video installations. Here, the viewer was distanced from the object, by, ironically, his or her very presence.

In the final week, several of the works were combined into a fuller installation. The combination of Rasheed's refulgent cinematics and a sound-sample composition of Simm Steel's hinted at a resolution between previously competing pieces, and at the ongoing process of negotiation between the artists. This was encapsulated in the motif for the show, "PETROL", which included the word itself (a metaphor, possibly for "fuel" as in "fuel for thought") and the molecular diagram which was both placed as a street sign over the entrance to the gallery and drawn in masking tape onto the floor. The diagram represented the linking of ideas which was necessary for the show to present a sustained, cogent body of thought.