Another Space: VR Eyeballs and CGI Limbs

*dumb brun(ette), Melbourne, 2017

Another Space is an exhibition curated by artist Yandell Walton and presented by Centre for Projection Art at Testing Grounds. It brings together artists from Melbourne and abroad dealing with the role of technology in a world mediated by media. The lineup includes artists such as Sean Capone (New York), Xanthe Dobbie (Melbourne), Lauren Dunn (Melbourne), Carla Gannis (New York), Aaron Christopher Rees (Mebourne), Emile Zile (Melbourne), Brett Phares (New York) and Keaton Fox (Cambridge). As part of a collateral event, Xanthe Dobbie and Aaron Christopher Rees also presented at ACMI X’s Experimenta Social (a series of talks curated by Emile Zile) on the theme of Moving Image Futures.

Xanthe Dobbie was first at Experimenta Social, delivering a talk on her practice which deals with online cults of personality (or fandoms) and her perception of this devotional engagement as a form of religious worship. Most of her work comprises digital collages that reference canonical art pieces while conflating queer theory and YouTube graphics. Her collaboration with Tiyan Baker, One Million Views (2016), is exemplary in this regard. Originally devised for Next Wave Festival, this humorous project consists of screen portraits of YouTube stars modeled after “masterworks”, ranging from Lorenzo Lotto’s Madonna of the Rosary (1539) to Martin Schongauer’s The Temptation of St Anthony (1470-75). The effect is one of levity, as she scores the tableaux with rap beats and substitute icons with comical juxtapositions, such as pug dogs with bat wings bearing the face of Tony Abbot. Making the overbearing cultural authority of these pieces far more fun and palatable to the contemporary eye (the idea of classical art belongs to the devouring darkness of an underground Nazi vault). Perhaps to further document her pop cultural vocabulary, the artist presented a work titled 21st Century Greatest Hits Screensaver Pack for Another Space at Testing Grounds. A computer archive that chronicles media events and the artist’s personal history through a queer perspective.

Following Dobbie, Aaron Christopher Rees opened his Experimenta presentation with a slide on his work at Testing Grounds: a VR headset called Tenome (2017). This piece is inspired by a Japanese monster which is seen carrying his eyeballs in his hands – an image that resonates with other screen references, such as Pan’s Labyrinth (2008). Rees employs VR technology to stage this abject condition, providing users with a head set plugged to two round cameras intended to be held in one’s hands like a Tenome creature. Thus, vision is experienced as an unsynchronised panorama that is remarkably disorienting. To calibrate these mechanical eyeballs, the artist marks an “X” on the walTenome’s users, the artist utters terms such as “pseudo-scientific monstrosity” or “zombies”, as those wearing the headset navigate space with the spatial intelligence of a dungeon ghoul: sensing their surroundings with an intense lack of coordination. This humorous component is indicative of Rees’s approach to technology, which maintains a visible distance from the techno-bukkaki sensibilities that often repel in media arts. However, he is careful to note that the work emerges from a genuine interest in perception and the desire to experience an “altered vision” via technological means.

Touching on his broader practice, Rees acknowledged the presence of hand gestures across his body of work. As his photographs and videos often depict or employ them in a similar manner to Tenome. The artist followed with an argument against the trans-human move towards the disembodied mind, a trend that indeed conjures the comical picture of a brain submerged in a formaldehyde jar with flickering lights. According to Rees, to privilege the mind in such a way is to disavow the knowledge acquired through the body and its capacity for sensorial mapping. The attention drawn to hands in the mediation of electronics followed me as I experienced the rest of the works at Testing Grounds, some of which also highlight these extremities. However, Tenome remained a more explicit address of this tension between technological utopianism and the body, as it displaces the act of seeing to facilitate a heightened ocular awareness.

Speaking of gestures, Emile Zile performed a live reading with a video component on the closing night of Another Space at Testing Grounds. This performance featured the artist standing up and reading from a laptop as he projected his image with enlarged eyes on the wall behind him. Like a Skype video conference, the audience could see Zile’s alien reflection in conversation with an overbearingly utopian background that resembled a Mac desktop stock image. His reading was ironically aligned with a post-4k rhetoric, seemingly welcoming us to a future that already seems dated. As Emile Zile’s performance unraveled, flashbacks of Zile’s past works came to mind: particularly the logo miming in Five Production Company Logos in 3d (2010), where he pantomimed a succession of hyperbolic logos, and his equally idiosyncratic performance OMG_sisyphus (2011-13) – in which he treated a heavy stone like his laptop in a ritual of futile dis-connectivity. The artist’s hands now seemed forced to stay still, carrying the weight of an actual laptop that kept him from gesticulating his words. Suddenly, Emile Zile’s proclamations made me aware of my sore back, strained computer vision and the IRL social anxiety that comes after my ‘sassy’ tweets. Indeed, the bodily effects of banal technologies, like the snapchat filter on Zile’s face, became manifest.

Moving on at Testing Grounds, Lauren Dunn exhibited a hanging projection titled Feeds (2017) which observes how food shapes celebrity personas and their physiques – such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s evidently rigorous diet during his bodybuilding period. On the other hand, it also brings into evidence the ocular gluttony of media consumers who swallow Schwarzenegger in a feast of moving images. Suggesting wider connotations, such as the ways in which taste is coded to signify one’s relationship and understanding of culture (locating the consumer as part of a social group). Within this framework, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is somewhat like Andy Warhol’s understanding of Coca-Cola (“you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke”), as the Schwarzenegger sign is a junk product that has gone from starring Conan The Barbarian(1982) to governing the state of California.

Also in the show is Sean Capone’s Secrets (That 1 Weird Trick) (2016), a vertical projection of spectral CGI limbs that appear to scroll the screen like an iPhone that is being manipulated from beyond. While Nude Descending A Staircase (2015) by Carla Gannis is a CGI loop of new media nudes staring at their phones as they descend a post-apocalyptic staircase. And Brett Phares’s InTheEvent-v.096 (2016) is a projected simulation of a standard airplane corridor intended as a meditation on security and fear. Keaton Fox is also on show with a video self-portrait titled The Future of Me Time (2014) which explores the strangeness of self-representation. 

The location of Testing Grounds, which is somewhere in between the “Melbourne Arts Precinct” and the corporate arena of Southbank, reinforced Another Space’s curatorial premise: the collision of the virtual and the real. Indeed, standing in the queue of Aaron Chritopher Rees’ Tenome, I noticed myself giving directions to a friend on Facebook amid posting a picture to Instagram and refreshing my email. Never present. Always absent in some other RSI inducing digital realm, not unlike the one put forth by Another Space. Having visited the site by chance outside of exhibition hours – when all projections and screens are turned off – I also gained a renewed appreciation for the ghostly qualities of electronic media. Neither here nor there, most of these works are conjured with a switch that commands their glowing apparition. A parade of decapitated phantasms (Sean Capone) and fallen beings (Carla Gannis) summoned by Epson.

Ramirez acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Land where he lives and works, the Wurundjeri people. He pays his respects to Elders past, present and emerging of the Kulin Nation.