International Symposium on Electronic Art (isea98)
Liverpool and Manchester, the cradles of the Industrial Revolution, experienced yet another upheaval last fall, the Ninth International Symposium on Electronic Art. The Liverpool part of the event had the grandiose subtitle of “Revolution.” The Manchester event carried the equally provocative “Terror.” Isea98 dealt with the ways that science and technology inform the process of thinking and creating art. While the lectures and work were engaging, a much-needed theoretical context to explain those suggestive titles was lacking.
The exhibitions were organized by FACT (the British Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) with Charles Esche as the lead curator. The first International Symposium on Electronic Art was held in Utrecht, Netherlands, in 1988. In the words of Wim van der Plas, one of the founders, the initial motivation “was to create a bridge between artists using technology and those in the scientific community whose discoveries have made these technologies possible.” This year’s “Revolution” exhibition dealt in particular with the relationship of man to the machine, and with the way we communicate and perceive the world around us through technology.
Isea98 was an intense event that permeated the city of Liverpool with a multitude of works ranging from sound installations to performances to interactive pieces and club events. One of the most engaging pieces was Retinal Memory Volume (1997) by British artist Luke Jerram. It was an immaterial piece of sculpture, constructed in one’s optical nerve. The viewer was asked to enter a dark room, sit on a chair, and be exposed to three flashes of light. The afterimage of the most recent visual information, that of the chair, emerged in the eye with sharply defined lines. During the third flash, a white corner and floor were revealed at the side of the room, and by looking in that direction the viewer could position the image of the chair into the space. An ordinary object, often used in drawing classes, became in this work a fleeting retinal afterimage.
Digital technology has extended the representation of reality and its metaphorical significance. British artist Gina Czarnecki’s Stages, Elements, Humans (1998) is a life-size video projection of an endless row of men and women on a black background, confronting the viewer as though from behind a glass showcase. They made slight movements in complete silence, as if discovering their bodies. It was not clear whether each isolated form was a photographic representation or a digitally reconstructed image. Depending on what the viewer believed about the origins of these beings, this piece could be seen either as an assertion of the common corporeal bond that unites humanity or as an affirmation of the power of science over the essence of anthropos.
American artist Kristin Lucas was commissioned to create The Screening Room (1998), an interactive installation. Her initial motivation was “the ’70s optimism towards consumer electronics and the ’90s fetishism about compression.” The Screening Room consisted of a white cube-room barely big enough to fit two or three people. A wall screen on one side showed two pre-recorded videos of the artist as a teenager and as a grown-up. These personas were shown in the same white cube, as if in search of one another. Hidden lipstick cameras projected the image of the viewer on the very same screen. The pressure-sensitive floor functioned as a menu that triggered either the cameras or the looped videos. The viewer thus became an actor in what seemed to be a maze created by a technology that can inform and entertain or isolate and alienate.
A low-tech, small-scale sculpture by Australian artist Nelia Justo, Pursuing Paradise (1997), combined traditional weaving techniques and storytelling. Copper wire strung on weaving frames outlined birds and plants reminiscent of Oriental prints. The inner parts of speakers were exposed and looked like ornamental flowers. The pieces were diminutive, like small children standing silently in the corner in a space where all the other installations were big, intricate, and loud. To appreciate Justo’s work the viewer had to bend over to listen to a narration about the ancient silk trade between Asia and Europe. It was a beautiful and poignant piece.
A lot of emphasis was given to sound artists and sound installations. Australian artist Nigel Helyer created Ship to Shore, which traced the history of Liverpool as a port city. The sounds emanated from speakers installed on a buoy on Albert dock. At first, this piece seemed nostalgic: sounds of water mixed together with music. The song, though, was “Amazing Grace” written by John Newton, one of the richest slave traders in Liverpool. “Amazing Grace,” according to Helyer, “is [Newton’s] bid for personal salvation in light of his crimes against humanity.” By reinserting the song in this locale, Helyer makes a statement about human nature as well as about local history. A few of the residents in the newly refurbished condominiums at Albert dock were insulted that these sounds invaded their gentrified domain.
British artist Keith Piper created the interactive CD-ROM installation Robot Bodies to explore issues of race and color in science fiction and computer games. His starting point was Sojourner Truth, the robot that explored the surface of Mars in 1997, named after a former black slave. Piper’s work commented on the absence of representations people of color in the creation of android, cyborg, or other artificial life constructions.
One of the most painful and distressing pieces I have ever experienced was Pol-Modell 7 by Austria’s Granular Synthesis, a name Kurt Hentschlager and Ulg Langheinrich have been using since 1991 for their collaborations. For this piece, which took place in a well-known dance club, they worked with singer Diamanda Galas, who often vocalizes sounds that seem to have been produced by a machine. A flickering image of her face was projected on eight screens, and the whole room vibrated with sound, making the viewing of the piece an intense physical experience. The projected image flickered so rapidly that the viewer was never quite sure if it was the face of a man or a woman. Through deconstructing the human form and voice, the artists created a yearning for wholeness and coherence.
At isea98, human experience collided with technological processes. The weak point of the exhibition was the catalogue, which lacked a desperately needed text to describe the intricate works. The success of the symposium and exhibitions lay in the fact that they did provide a forum for interaction and exchange of ideas among artists, scientists, the public in general, and more particularly, the residents of the city of Liverpool.