Foundation’s Edge: Artists And Technology

Queensland University of Technology Art Museum, Brisbane
16 March – 26 May 2013

The title of the exhibition, Foundation’s Edge takes its name from Isaac Asimov’s science-fiction novel from 1982. Central to the novel is a concept in which all of human knowledge is collected for prosperity at opposite ends of the galaxy. This motif pervades several of the artworks in the exhibition. Lawrence English’s Heavy Nothing (Iteration) (2013) reflected on the 1977 NASA Voyager 1 and 2 space probes, both of which carry ‘The Golden Record’, a twelve inch gold plated copper phonographic record. The record collects images and sounds representative of humanity and earth, as a symbolic welcoming or introduction to possible alien life. English’s Heavy Nothing (Iteration) consists of two austere Technics SL-1200 turntables, each with a rotating copper record. In a gesture towards John Cage, the records were not cut with any music. On playing, all the ear can discern are mechanical imperfections, dust and wear. If an alien life were ever to hear ‘The Golden Record’ their response and interpretation could well be ‘nothing’. Today, the Voyager space crafts have completed their missions, yet continue to fly, and, like English’s spinning turntables on locked grooves, both will continue indefinitely. English’s I’ll Be Your Mirror (Iteration) (2013) features three similar turntables spinning mirrored acrylic vinyl. The minimalist serenity is a silent narcissistic parody of future perfection.

Ken and Julia Yonetani’s Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nuclear Nations (2012) derives its lengthy title from ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’—the 1851 showcase, held in a gigantic architectural glasshouse, intended to collect and show off Britain’s industrial and technological hegemony. The Yonetanis’ chandeliers represent a deceptive opulence and extravagance. Each of the nine chandeliers correlates with the size of a nation’s nuclear energy output. The glass beads are made from uranium glass, which glows iridescent green under ultraviolet light. Although harmless, uranium glass is an antique collectable from an era when fashionable Japanese and Europeans indulged themselves in radon enriched springs, believing it would invigorate them with lasting health benefits. The visual grandeur of these chandeliers belies the darker reality of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Caitlin Franzmann is concerned with how architecture and design shape our interaction with our environment. Our urban environments are so overloaded in a constant bombardment of advertising and information, that our routine defence is to disengage and shut-out. Franzmann’s Light Render (2012) attempts to re-engage the audience in an immersive and sensory experience. The work consists of a live video loop capturing a suspended reflective cube and re-projecting that image onto the cube and wall behind. A slide projector simultaneously projects white light, resulting in a chromatic visual aberration on the wall, appearing like a 3D image, but without the 3D glasses. As the viewer probes around its curious parameters, they become immersed in its processes of reflection and distortion. 

Another artwork to engage with the use of video feedback was Ross Manning’s Liquid Crystal Display (2013). Using an array of 9 LCD monitors, a spinning crystal and a mini pinhole video surveillance camera, Manning created a perpetual kaleidoscope. Manning’s ongoing obsession with light and visual optics takes us behind the screen to glimpse the spectral materiality of light. The luminous screen image is in a state of infinite permutation, as the black monitor frames become reflected in a cross-hatch, segmented by psychedelic bursts of vivid colour. For the crowded opening night, Manning performed live music alongside Lawrence English and Eugene Carchesio. In contrast to the more conventional laptops, turntables and effect pedals of his collaborators, Manning crouched on the floor, making clattering buzzes from homemade metal sculptures, a fan, hacksaw blades, string and multiple contact microphones. 

A persistent theme throughout the exhibition was the re-appropriation and modification of the past into the present. Michael Candy’s Frank (2010) is one such example, a Frankensteinian three megapixel digital camera, housed in a wooden body with brass knobs and screws. This cross fusion of found components from different epochs defies the moulded edges, smooth sheen and unblemished perfection of modernity. The photographic images Frank captures, of cats, violins, flowers and chandeliers, are grainy, heavily vignetted and poorly framed. Nostalgic photographic effects, such as fading and corduroy streaks are part of the appeal of popular phone apps like Instagram. The sepia and bent edge effects render the images faux authenticity and endearing qualities. Michael Candy’s incessant invention of contraptions has seen him create a flame thrower skateboard, a droning mechanical piano, the broccoli handshake and titanium moths.

Computers might seem to be able to do anything, but the simplest creative initiatives still seem to evade them. Can a computer draw? What qualities define unique human creativity or expression? Is the gap between the human and the windup automaton shrinking? These are the questions raised by Benjamin Forster’s Drawing Machine (Output=Plotter) (2009). The work involves customised software that triggers a modified Rabbit plotter to produce reams and reams of map and doodle like drawings. While peering closely at the drawings, I became startled as the plotter suddenly whirled into action, busily burring and scribbling away as the paper hissed and skimmed pack and forth. On an adjacent computer screen, were rows of numbers, scrolled out meaningless inhuman code. For Forster, the attempt at making a computer draw, ‘was always intended to fail’, any attempt would ‘expose the inability of rationality and logic to capture what is essentially human’.1 In contrast, if we accept that most human expression is merely copied, if a computer can assemble a new Picasso, from a jigsaw of others, could we tell the difference? 

Caitlin Franzmann, Light render, 2012. Double projection, live video feed, timber, mirror, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. 

Ross Manning, Input Ruins, 2009. Detail. Fan, colour video camera, cut-glass diamond, dimensions variable. Collection The University of Queensland, purchased 2009. 

Michael Candy, Frank, 2010. Found components, wood, brass, plastic, 12 x 15 x 9cm. Courtesy of the artist. 

Benjamin Forster, Drawing machine (Output = Plotter), 2009. Modified rabbit plotter, laptop, custom software, ball point pen, paper, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. Installation view, Primavera 2012, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Image courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Photograph Alex Davies. 

notes: 

1. Museum of Contemporary Art, News ‘Focus on Primavera 2012 Artist Benjamin Forster’. See http://www.mca.com.au/news/2012/10/10/focus-primavera-2012-artist-benjamin-forster