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Fringe technology and grey science (thoughts on the Samsung Art+ Prize)

Radio Mania: An Abandoned Work (still) by Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard

The UK might be thought rather tardy in recognising the digital arts, given that the Samsung Art+ prize claims to be the UK’s first digital media art competition. But perhaps it’s simply that the appeal of certain media or thematics in the arts naturally ebbs and wanes over periods of five to ten years. (There’s a parallel revival of interest in ‘art and science’ at the moment.) What sparks these periodic surges of fascination – for media art, or art that engages with science – is never entirely clear. A European colleague thinks it’s purely the search for funds that is making arts organisations chase after science and technology. UK and US colleagues in academia have suggested the arts are searching for research legitimacy by association. Obviously, in general I have a far less cynical take on it. But it’s true that culture minister Ed Vaizey’s call for arts organisations to exploit “the possibilities and revenue streams that new technologies offer” met with a swift response from the Arts Council, which teamed up with the BBC and NESTA to launch various digital funds. And now we have Samsung’s initiative.

Anyway, the show at the BFI is welcome mainstream recognition for a very broad field of work that’s been around for a long time. And the show has some really good work in it. There were some old favourites, beautifully installed in the BFI’s gallery, as well as some treats new to me.

I’ve long been a fan of Semiconductor’s skill and vision as artists working with moving image. Joe Gerhardt and Ruth Jarman’s work is represented here by a 3D version of ‘20HZ’ (2011) and the spectacular three-screen ‘Worlds in the Making’ (2011), made after a visit by the artists to the Galapagos Islands.

Worlds in the Making – preview by Semiconductor

Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead beautifully crafted their ‘A Short Film about War’  (2009) from material found online and uploaded under Creative Commons license. The 2-screen film takes the viewer around the globe to war zones captured through Flickr photos and testimony from both military and civilian bloggers. The images appear on one screen, while the other logs the sources of the sourced images, blogs and GPS locations.

A Short Film About War (still) by Thomson & Craighead

I was also fascinated by Doug Fishbone’s ‘Hypno Project’ (2009), another two-screen work, which demonstrates how people react to stimuli under hypnosis and examines how we form our beliefs. On the right screen, an entertaining cynical narrative about the nature of belief and cultural conditioning is set to a fast succession of almost subliminal images, while on the left, twelve people watching the video have been hypnotized to respond in specific ways to certain images, fascinating as we don’t know exactly what they’re responding too as they shout, clap, wave or make noises. A neat juxtaposition of ideas.

Hypno Project by Doug Fishbone

It was also great to see the recent work of Hiraki Sawa, as I remember being incredibly impressed by his work ‘Dwelling’ (2002), when I believe he was barely out of art college.

Dwelling by Hiraki Sawa

The standout work for my visit was Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s remarkable and utterly absorbing ‘Radio Mania: An Abandoned Work’ (2009), which I hadn’t caught in its earlier showing at BFI. It’s a 3D video installation inspired by The Man from M.A.R.S. – one of the earliest 3D films ever produced (in 1922) – which transports the viewer into the centre of a rehearsal for an adaptation of a film. Because of the 3D and the small screen, it gives the weird sense that one is watching the Borrowers. And the 3D sound had me taking my headphones off to see if it was coming from somewhere else. Delightful.

Forsyth and Pollard have long experimented widely with re-enactments of cultural works, but a fascination for fringe technology and grey science has been apparent in recent works. Last year, I greatly enjoyed their sound project/radio play, ROMEO ECHO DELTA, at AND Festival. It was broadcast by BBC Radio Merseyside on Halloween, accompanied by an ominous red light in the night sky above Birkenhead. The transmission began with the arrival of a studio guest, their interview then being interrupted with the breaking news of the unexplained red light. It recalled Orson Welles’ radio play of H.G Well’s science fiction novel War of the Worlds broadcast for Halloween in 1938, which sparked panic, and in fact the BBC rejected the first version of Pollard & Forsyth’s play for being “too realistic and likely to induce panic in their listeners”. The artists produced a revised version which was then aired.

Other artists in the show are Torsten Laschmann, Neil Cummings, Aura Satz, Erika Tan, and LuckyPDF, all showing interesting works.

The Samsung Art+ prize exhibition is well worth an hour or two (two if you want to watch it all, as I did). It’s only on to the 29 January. I only hope the artists in it get as much profile as the sponsoring company in this heavily-branded show.

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