Phase-inversion: Adam Donovan + Benjamin Marks

ahistoryofreading & 1000 accidents: Richard Grayson
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

In Phase-Inversion, Adam Donovan and Benjamin Marks constructed a haunting sound sculpture/environment. This collaborative venture was sonorous in its scientific and artistic means; it was one of those rare works which moves across art (sculpture and music) and science, founding art in a technological domain. Donovan has been using parabolic (or curved) dishes to research and explore the 'sculptural specificity of sound and sound projection'. The seven movable dishes, each measuring 1.2 metres, were cast in bluish resin and were luminescent in the dim gallery, casting enormous shadows across the walls. Despite the obvious weight of the dishes and their mounts, these watery shadows coupled with the fleeting movements of composition gave this installation an ethereal quality.

Having generated a soundscape of manipulated spoken word on computer, those sounds were sent via separate tracks to each dish. They were projected into the dishes, bouncing back into the ether. Each soundtrack was thrown at a different dish and sounds seemed to travel around the room. The work was eerie, disorienting and surprising. I could not help but define my proximity or position in relation to the sounds, searching or anticipating the location of the next one to affirm or adjust my position. The sound created and mapped space, as well as the bodies which occupied that space. Instead of searching for meaning or narrative emerging from the spoken word, I searched for rhythm and melody: the content seemed irrelevant. Roles were exchanged and this sonorous space moved me, compelled me. For Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari:

Sound owes [its] power not to signifying or 'communicational' values…nor to physical properties…but to a phylogenetic line, a machinic phylum that operates in sound and makes it a cutting edge of deterritorialisation. But this does not happen without great ambiguity: sound invades us, impels us, drags us, transpierces us. It takes leave of the earth.1

Sound surrounded us as well, and I was obviously inside something that was not just this gallery. I moved within this thing and through it. Phase-Inversion was an interactive and changeable environment with the dishes mounted to enable movement, resulting in a shift in the sound trajectory. By moving around the space, the viewer also played the work, the compositions were decomposed. During a performance by trombonist, Marks, his materiality seemed to ground the work: his impromptu sounds interacted, interrupted and intersected the virtual and illusive soundscape.

As recent artist-in-residence at the Institute of Modern Art, Richard Grayson worked on and presented 1000 Accidents, an installation based on descriptions of common and minor accidents. Taking lines such as 'stand on glass', 'slip in shower' and 'fall down stairs', Grayson transformed these into dynamic (curved) texts which seemed to leap from the bright yellow walls and bombard the viewer. The use of yellow and black specified a 'hazard zone' as the environment in which the viewer was located.

This installation operated as a stage - by suggestion - niggling at paranoia and experience, both tragic and comic. I understood the colour code of danger and the bubbles of text. The mere suggestion of these 'accidents' makes me cringe and shudder not just at their possibility but their likelihood. This was a chamber of horrors for the accident-prone. Grayson also seemed to play with scale: big words for small occurrences, a monument for the everyday. In some ways, the exaggeration of these moments in text, gigantic and pushing from the wall, seemed cartoon-ish and funny. These were just words, but their evocation seemed somehow laughingly catastrophic, especially when one was exposed to them as a litany, en masse. Perhaps it is our familiarity with Itchy and Scratchy or The Three Stooges which made these references seem so humorous.

Also by Grayson, the video installation, ahistoryofreading in which the artist, as lhor Holubizky describes in his catalogue essay, 'emptied the shelves of books, stood them up, and videotaped them being pushed down one by one.’2 If these books had belonged to Grayson, the work might have been understood as a biographical statement, a reflection on a personal relationship with books and reading. However, this was not the case, and the books belonged mostly to someone else, with a few supplied by Grayson. So, one wonders which history of reading was being represented here. Perhaps that was the key to this work, these books belonged to someone, even if at some point they will be discarded or shelved.

The book is an important and pervasive object, iconic in Western culture. When it appears in artwork, it cannot escape a literal interpretation: it is still a book, even when it is an artist's book. This is what made ahistoryofreading a puzzling and mesmerising work. At first, it might have appeared to be about (if indeed it was 'about' anything) reading and literacy, but then perhaps it was about libraries and collections, perhaps it was about lines and linearity, perhaps it was about meaning. Perhaps. Strange isn't it, how a line inevitably produces a search for narrative?

Alberta Manguel states in his A History of Reading, it is the reader who reads: 'we all read ourselves and the world around us in order to glimpse what and where we are. We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read'.3 Manguel argues that through reading we learn, creating understanding and accruing knowledge. Was knowledge accrued in ahistoryofreading or was it created or applied? Apparently, there was intent in the ordering of the row of books: contradiction, pun, narrative. Of course, this did not stop the reader from making their own meaning and association. Grayson describes this as making 'sense of no sense'. Perhaps these books referenced the Borgesian encyclopedia or library, revealing a partial logic. Allen S. Weiss argues that 'any text can be grafted on to any other text, to every other text…And every text is the object of partial identification on the part of the reader.'4 As the video revealed, this ordering was not the commonsense of the Dewey Decimal System, but rather a set of fragile symbolic relationships through which one thing, we were told, regardless of its random or spurious connection, led to another.

notes: 

1. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press: 1987, 348

2. lhor Holubizky, 'Speed Reading', ahistoryofreading catalogue, IMA: 1999

3. Alberta Manguel,  A History of Reading, Flamingo: 1997, 7

4. Allen S. Weiss, The Aesthetics of Excess, State University of New York Press: 1989, xii