Ai Wei Wei is turning out to be one of those names that people are becoming more aware of without a full understanding of his backstory or why he’s become notorious in the art world and to the Chinese government. His most recent exhibition According to What? - which is now on view at the AGO until October 27 - does an excellent job of explaining his upbringing, with a good spotlight on his time spent living in New York in the 80s, as a student at Parsons.
The two main underlying themes I saw were somewhat interlinked - destroying the past to maintain the present, and the ever-encroaching surveillance state - which was also echoed in the Marmin / Borins exhibition The Collaborationists at the AGH that I saw the week prior. The idea of destroying the past to maintain the present confronts the viewer immediately, when they enter the exhibition through a corridor papered with photographs he took around China - mostly of new concrete buildings, viaducts and other constructions, incongruously placed in the middle of fields or former buildings, now reduced to debris. Especially in fast-growing China, this is the new reality - massive growth spurts in infrastructure, but without the movement of people to settle, leading to surreal real-world situations. We also see Ai’s own methods of destroying the past in his infamous Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, but also in his Study Of Perspective series, where he makes an obscene gesture at several sites that are either seen as historically significant or as being representative of endless progress / commercialism / big business.
Some interesting (if unintentional) parallels could be made with Marmin/Borins’ works Surveillance Camera and Black Box. With the former, Ai’s version is made out of intricately formed white marble and placed on a pedestal, whereas Marmin/Borins use gray fabric and placed it on the ceiling, looking down the hallways. The connections with Black Box are more theoretical for Ai - with his endless list of the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (which he uses as a motif for his larger scale installations, with Straight created from rebar recovered from the earthquake rubble) - appearing a likely candidate for the data held with in the black boxes, held behind wire fencing in a hermetically sealed room, confusing visitors who may think it to not be part of the installation and ignore it - out of sight, out of mind.
In his text Surveillant Narration, Thomas Levin remarks that “surveillance has become an issue that is not only increasingly a part of everyone’s daily life, but is even embraced as such” (Levin, 578), and that “democratic accountability [of the method of surveillance] is the only criterion which distinguishes a modern traffic control system from an advanced dissident capture technology” (579). Looking at how Ai, Borins, and Marmin have all used surveillance apparati as objets d'art - doing so at a scale that is obviously attention-seeking - it is easy to see how the embrace of surveillance as an art-focus also serves to subvert the surveillance state. A tool such as a camera, which we have been culturally and socially taught to accept as a positive (for our own safety) can so easily be used to be our undoing. Levin’s remarks were more closely related to the use of surveillance in film, but he makes a salient point when referring to the reactions / ethics of people viewing surveillance footage:
“When one sees what one takes to be a surveillance image, one does not usually ask if it is ‘real’ (this is simply assumed) but instead attempts to establish whether 'the real’ that is being captured by the camera is being recorded or is simply a closed-circuit real time feed.” (584)
This notion of engaging with the real is crucial to Ai’s work. The audience can tell that Ai’s larger frame works are meant to be representative of overarching messages relating to government/surveillance, but Ai also confronts with being watched directly - his self-portrait in an elevator mirror, surrounded by police, shows how the lens can reflect what the real situation is, not merely some abstract concept or distant public fear of surveillance. The lens of his camera becomes the CCTV, and Twitter becomes the transmission method - exposing what was meant to be out of sight (out of mind).
On Ai’s time in New York, a selection of photographs he took during his years there is on display along one wall - stark in opposition to the other larger-scale pieces. A selection of photos of his friends, Chinese immigrants in New York, street scenes in the burned out East Village, demonstrations, and self-portraits, they were artfully arranged and showed, I thought, the spirit of what was to come in later works relating to the Chinese government. A photograph of a Jewish family sightseeing by the waterfront was flanked with photographs of protestors and police at the Tompkins Square Park riots in 1988 - with their gazes flanked on both sides. Who is protecting who, and for what purpose?
At the end, there was a painfully ironic bit of appropriation in the gift shop, where 19th century tables were used as stands to sell trinkets, travel guides, Chinese cookbooks and kitchenwares. Still deciding whether that was ultimately brilliant or clueless on the part of the museum. Answers on a postcard, please.
Unless you have some vested interest in the aesthetics and setup of sound art, Cold Pin isn’t an impressive looking piece, especially in a large white gallery space - six black boards with motors, rods, cables, and piano wire attached to them, with the wires leading to hooks embedded in the ceiling. The work appears to have a tenuous, brittle appearance. I feel the physical appearance is secondary to the sounds made - a landscape equal parts harsh and brittle, with sound coming out of strategically placed speakers (in what looked like a modified 5.1 setup) and pickup mics attached to the boards, next to the motors.
In the accompanying essay, Alex Snukal draws comparisons to Kezler’s work with the modernist composers Alvin Lucier and Conlon Nancarrow. Both artists could roughly be placed into similar categories, being early 20th century experimental producers who were both interested in the physical aspects of the instruments, and how performances could be automated. Snukal notes that the differences between the two lie in their methods of producing an outcome. Lucier preferred indeterminacy in presentation - “using the environment to vastly alter the outcome” - while Nancarrow was a perfectionist who “demand[ed] absolute machine precision” in his works for player piano - too complex for humans to play, with many different interlocking time signatures (Snukal, 2013).
Kezler’s work can be more directly compared with Lucier’s in how both use a single method to “investigate the sonic quantities of the performance” through the use of wires. Both deal with minute changes in the performance environment, as well as the audience and space (and the spaces created by the audience) in setup and performance. Unlike Lucier’s trust of the uncertain, Kezler’s work - like Nancarrow’s - uses ‘the perfection of mechanical systems to create new sounds’. Not only is there a certain amount of conventional structure to Kezler’s work (in the use of physical components to make sound (motors, pin blocks, etc.)), but also the extended acoustic attributes of all of the different components “lends a presence to the performance that would be lacking in electronic versions of the same works” (Snukal).
In terms of its physical appearance, it’s not impressive, and I had the feeling that there was supposed to be something more to it. I don’t feel anybody who doesn’t have a pre-existing knowledge of sound art will be impressed. I felt that supplying Stukal’s essay was an excellent decision, as I found it provided a good primer to the piece, and explained both Lucier & Nancarrow as if it were for an unfamiliar audience.
I felt there were a few comparisons I could make for classical and experimental compositions that were somehow sonically related. The works by Varese and Xenakis were for full orchestra (as well as tape elements for Xenakis), but I think they share a similar sound quality to Kezler and Nancarrow in their controlled uncertainty (tightly scripted performances made to sound like chaos). To a lesser extent, Otto Muehl’s piece - an improvisation for prepared piano - also has a similar chaotic sound, although it comes out of pure chaos rather than control (at least, that’s what’s evident to me). La Monte Young’s work is much more Lucerian, embracing drone and playing on the audience’s interactions with waves of sound, and the Einsturzende Neubauten work - a tableau of domestic sounds - is much more controlled and restrained in its uncertainty, but still maintains similar sonic qualities.
Looking at how science and art can collude is a common topic, but new media art has been making quiet advances in interdisciplinary work between sciences and mathematics on one end, with several projects combining elements of neuroscience, body response, data analysis, and biotechnology, into an artistic format. I don’t have as much to say about this topic, but I’m still discovering just how wide-ranging these possible implementations can be.
One particular project that piqued my curiousity was Valery Vermeulen’s EMOSynth, an “interactive multimedia system [that] automatically generat[es] and manipulat[es] sound and image to bring the user to certain predefined emotion states” using biosensors that measure electric impulses, skin response (for stress levels) and brain signals (Vermuelen, 2013). I can see projects like the EMOSynth helping to contribute to transdisciplinary projects in universities. I feel that schools like McMaster lack somewhat in finding effective ways of bringing together the science and art faculties in terms of projects like this - there are stronger academic divisions. Such projects can help to advance learning in both disciplines, combining the work of neuroscience and multimedia, or psychology and fine art. On the latter pairing, I think it would be neat to see something like an inverted EMOSynth that worked with reverse biofeedback - where the original emotional states would change the music, or the music would also be affected by textual input (describing whatever the patient/user is feeling). I feel this would be an interesting tool to use in art therapy - instruct the user to generate your feelings.
The development of mobile games and applications has also seen some collusion between science and media. My favourite example is the game OSMOS, which - on the surface - seems like a futuristic clone of Katamari Damacy, where the player has to absorb objects on its path through a virtual world. When playing, however, the player must take several aspects of physics into account (including mass, antimatter, gravitation, and orbital physics) - these are all helpfully explained. I feel this is an excellent tool not just for learning, but retention. If the viewer is put into this active and relatable environment, this will help them retain the information. Several institutions have implemented game-based learning exercises to great success, and especially if said product is a mobile application, the experience will not be limited to any age or anyone in a site-specific area.
Whether or not the administration will help in developing these interdisciplinary programmes remains to be seen.
However, I’ll stay hopeful that it will emerge in some form.
As new media becomes a more widespread and worthwhile format for art exhibitions, it is being embraced to varying degrees by both larger festivals and speciality galleries / museum spaces. However, I feel that there is a disconnect between how both types of exhibition treat new media, in terms of their visibility and emphasis, with the specialist groups still having the upper hand over the larger festivals. I’m speaking from personal experiences in this post, via my recent experiences at new art festivals & new art museums. I was lucky to attend parts of both the Red Bull Music Academy Festival (RBMA) in New York and Mutek in Montréal this year, so those will be the festivals I focus on. With RBMA, there is more to say about the musical aspect, but I feel like a lot of what is said about the musical aspect can be applied to the non-musical aspect.
Although primarily a music festival, RBMA did tout an artistic element. The closest to a ‘new media’ exhibit that I saw there was the Brian Eno generative art installation 77 Million Paintings, described as “explor[ing] a vast set of permutations of visual and sonic elements made by Eno, [and] the result is ‘between music and painting’”. Located in a cavernous warehouse space in Midtown, within a stones throw of Penn Station and the Empire State Building, it was dead silent inside other than the quiet ambient background music that soundtracked the slowly shifting colours, projected on an abstract form. The pace was slow as to be nearly undetectable, even with extreme concentration. I feel it would be an endurance test for some. I spent about half-an-hour inside – I expected there to be more people (about 6 were there) especially due to the torrential rainstorm outside, but the outside of the venue wasn’t easy to see and partially blocked by scaffolding. Odd, considering how visible RBMA was with branding each event and their overall ad campaigns – you couldn’t walk a block in the city without seeing some Red Bull / RBMA advert.
I wasn’t as involved with Mutek as I was with RBMA, not least because of the prohibitively high cost of attending individual events without a previously purchased all-access pass (this was a last minute development and by the time I realized I was attending they had sold out). Mutek was very well represented in terms of visibility – this was the 15th year of them being around, so they are already extremely well established in the greater artistic culture in Montréal. As with RBMA, though, I felt like the music and lectures were the emphasis – I don’t recall seeing much in the way of art, period, that could be related to MUTEK in any direct way. The notable exception wasn’t really ‘new media’, but rather a series of excellent VJ performances during the Boiler Room session inside the SATosphere – a purpose-built, modular theatre for immersive performances like that night. I can’t speak for the visual elements at the other events.
Exhibitions not based in museums have specific histories – they are in temporary locations (often site-specific), and are very well attended. They are also frequently site-specific in the context of the sheer size of the artworks. The RBMA nights were very well attended, and even in the case of straight music events, the agency did well to present the nights in atypical venues – either venues that weren’t music-based [a drone show at a factory in Queens, with bus transportation provided, and a disco night in a dim sum restaurant in Chinatown], or ones that were but catered to a completely different crowd [the Oneohtrix Point Never + Bill Kouligas A/V show taking place at a heavy-metal dive bar in Greenpoint]. I can see this following the idea of temporary, site specific locations.
In contrast to the festival atmosphere, smaller / speciality museums and galleries tend to approach new media art in a more constructive way. The Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie [ZKM], in Karlsruhe, is one of the few institutions dedicated to new media art that combines both educational aspects and museum/ aspects, with the Medienmuseum being the gallery only large-scale museum in the world dedicated to new media. When I visited I was impressed with both the variety of artists represented (from young Asian sound artists to a retrospective of older American works) and also with the time periods (works from the 1960s up until the present day). Also, in early 2012, the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain [MAMCO] in Geneva, hosted a retrospective of the works of Thomas Huber – mostly paintings, but done in an interesting style that reminded me of video graphics and illustrations from the 1980s, and presented in spaces alongside video installations and moving sculptural works that related well to his work. There isn’t much I can say on either of these spaces as much as I can the festivals, although I felt that both of these spaces were much better suited to its presentation style – I can’t see either of these exhibits working out well integrated with MUTEK / RBMA.
Cook & Graham state that “[while] contemporary art and new media art often includes non-museum based periodic exhibitions, but new media art rarely includes exhibitions in museums and galleries.” (216). I understood the latter to mean ‘traditional’ museums and galleries dedicated to more traditional art mediums (painting, sculpture, et al) even if they were not necessarily older works themselves. Nowhere I’ve mentioned had art in any sort of traditional space – the closest was MAMCO, but even that was a general mix of contemporary art forms and not exclusively classical-medium works. Cook and Graham also highlight that mainstream arts festivals, while appearing to be ‘in tune’ with contemporary art, still aren’t adequately able to represent new media art, which – while it does have a history of inclusion – has never been as consistent as other forms (216). I would say that that is definitely true with RBMA, and maybe less so with MUTEK. Both New York and Montréal already have significant new media art scenes, and I don’t feel that they organizers did a good enough job of promoting what was already there, instead transplanting many events to venues that aren’t suited for whatever style of music or art they had planned. I can understand the intentions, but feel that the execution and planning was short sighted.
In his review of the event for Little White Earbuds, Chris Miller eloquently sums up several of the issues he had with the festival. While he felt that, overall, it was a success, he had definite doubts about the approach they took, much as I had. He felt some events, when taken out of their usual places, “goes nowhere towards approximating what makes [them] so great […] why put on a poor version of two very successful New York parties in New York?”. Furthering this, I feel that if RBMA had further breached their output with installation pieces, especially if they were in more visible places (ie. not shut away in a warehouse), they wouldn’t have as much attention, even with branding, as – at least in New York – art is ubiquitous enough to be part of the urban landscape, and many people wouldn’t give it much of a thought. Furthermore, if the goal is to get as much positive attention as possible on your art, having the branding of a large company like Red Bull reduced would be a positive step – it wouldn’t be immediately seen as a cheap ploy to gain consumer dollars.
Miller later states that “the less Red Bull tried to interact with the city and scene that is already here, the better things worked out. When the Academy comes to town, its hard to shake the feeling that the conversation it initiates with the host city is anything other than one-sided.” I can’t speak for other cities that have hosted the RBMA in the past, but I understand where he is getting at here – Red Bull, for all its ambitions, is a primarily profit driven company, and if they see a market that they can present themselves in in a nontraditional manner (eg this sort of festival), then it will look favourably upon their chequebooks. Cook and Graham’s claim on the economics of international art fairs supposes that new media art is at odds with this form of economics – as new media art “often takes the form of a direct challenge to the idea of the commodifiable art object” (7). You can’t take objects like 77 Million Paintings home and put them on the mantelpiece, and even with a recording of a performance in full, there is no real indication of the atmosphere and setting of an event without any visual / sensory indicators. The type of experience that RBMA gives is not immediately commodifiable, but Red Bull is a successful and ubiquitous enough company that they can afford to take risks like this. If they can afford it, though, the question of why they wouldn’t go the extra mile and branch out into another field – say, having art academies alongside music ones – remains unanswered. It would be an interesting prospect, though.