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Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne
8 December 2003 - 9 May 2004
From its formal establishment in the Victorian government's 'Film A~t' of 2001 , the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) was destined to struggle. I am not referring to its recent and much-publicised financial and governance problems, but rather to its ability to effectively and viably sustain its mission statement, namely, its dedication to 'the moving image in all its forms'. The moving image is a reliable concept when it comes to film and video and as a continuation of the activities of Cinemedia and Film Victoria, ACMI's vision made sense in this respect. It was always going to be much more problematic, though, when it came to reconciling the historical traditions of moving image arts with the emerging practices of computer-based interactive arts. In other words, computer-based media arts certainly move, but not quite in the same way as film or video. How, then, is media art being accommodated in such an organisation?
With its inaugural offerings in 2003 (Deep Space and Remembrance) ACMI played it safe, privileging film and video and situating installation and interactive media on the periphery. This pretty much tallied with its vision statement, which situates the organisation in relation to 'the wonders of more than a century of the moving image' as well opening a 'door to the art of the future'. For those of us interested in ACMI's advocacy of the art of the future now, the overwhelming prevalence of cinema in these exhibitions suggested that this door was still closed.
Transfigure, however, promised to open it and exhibit the variety of moving image arts at a time of cultural change. Even this exhibition, though, could not escape ACMI's prescriptive desire to define everything in terms of the moving image, as evidenced in its subtitle: 'perception, body, space & landscape transformed by the moving image'. This seemed to me to be far too limiting and was not in any way, in fact, suggestive of the subtleties and intricacies of what Transfigure had to offer. Fortunately, Alessio Cavallaro's astute curating and installation of Transfigure offered a way out of this conceptual bondage, teasing out the perception that it is the screen, rather than the moving image, that is the common denominator in contemporary culture. Furthermore, with its strong representation of interactive media, from online collaborative shoot'em ups (selectparks' acmipark), to Stelarc's remarkable artificially intelligent Prosthetic Head, it is more accurate to assert that Transfigure is concerned with the ways in which screen media generally, along with perception, body, space and landscape, are transformed by digital technologies.
The transfiguring of film, as medium and concept was evidenced in Transfigure, especially in relation to the tendency within contemporary visual culture to synthetically render rather than shoot or capture images. Vikki Wilson's superpermanence (1998), for instance, is a reflexive homage to the hands-on grittiness and manipulation of materialist film. However the eerie, spectral figure in this work, that quivers and manifests in a sustained passage of becoming, has been treated with a virtual rather than physical touch, a manipulation of pixels simulating the physical handling and distortion of celluloid. In Tamas Walizcky's Landscape (1997) the spatialisation of time and perception that we associate with interactive media is inscribed into the very flow of the moving image. Landscape is, among other things, an allegory of the moving image as time-warp, a virtual landscape in which individual rain drops falling on a German village pause in the air for our regard, as our gaze is mobilised in an entirely unnatural, yet lyrical and paradoxical space-time of frozen movement. In Chris Cunningham's video clip for Bjork's All Is Full of Love (1999), the new morphology of the moving image is complete, as we watch, transfixed, as two robotic lovers commingle with a sensuality and tender eroticism . Cunningham demonstrates what is possible in terms of digital imaging, transcending the postmodern faddishness of a faith in fakes and creating a new and audacious sincerity in artifice. With All Is Full of Love, seeing, as well as hearing, really is believing.
Cavallaro's installation of Transfigure was as inventive as his curatorial selection of works. At opposite ends of the gallery two key works, Ed Burton's Sodaconstructor (2000), an interactive zoo of desk top, digital automata, and Char Davies' user-oriented immersive VR environments Osmose (1995) and Ephemere (1998), circumscribed the exhibition like a weirdly self-conscious alignment of the planets. Within this alignment of what Cavallaro has called 'sightlines', the interplay of body, space and landscape was played out, thematically exploring questions to do with technology and nature, indeed the changing concept of nature itself in the posthuman age of cybercultures. The progressive journey through the Screen Gallery from work to work was a process of discovery and revelation, in which the historical category of the moving image also transformed into the new vocabulary of interactive screen media.