Why join this to that to do this or that, or indeed anything at all?
(by Peter Blamey)
Since the IBP ended I’ve been trying to get a handle on a few significant things about connectivity, materials and context that occurred to me during the course of the project, but it’s proving to be a bit elusive. Maybe the best way to do it is by talking through some of the works I made, specifically the two motherboard trees and the framed solar panels.
There were several reasons behind why I made the motherboard trees. Firstly (and despite the fact that the decision was influenced by the fake tree in the kitchen of our homestay) I was interested in making something that through both its form and function bridged the gap between the synthetic, manufactured world of computer componentry and the physical, natural, biological world. Secondly, the trees provided an effective way of connecting Caitlin’s offsite work at Alun Alun Kidul (which takes place between two Banyan trees) to our exhibition at iCAN.
The trees also worked well within our emerging themes of energy and connectivity. In some ways they are almost a parody of connectivity in the way that tangles of unravelled copper wire make and break an uncountable number of circuits within the conglomeration of old computer parts, wires, amplifiers and rattan. The sounds that come out are as complex and unruly as the trees themselves, sounding distinctly electronic one minute, insect-like or noisy the next. They’re also interactive to a degree, providing another opportunity for literally connecting with visitors to the show. However, making these trees in this context had me questioning how this kind of practice related to the broader world of contemporary art. The many late night discussions we had on that subject made me realise that while I was well and truly familiar with arguments within experimental music (which is my background) regarding what I did, my thinking on reimagining electronics and how that sat elsewhere required a little work!
Luckily I got some clues as to where I was heading when I began to think about the framed solar panels. The initial decision to get them framed somehow seemed like a logical one, along with being a bit of an obvious sight gag (given that they’re rectangular), even though at that stage there wasn’t much of a plan as to what else would happen with them. There was, however, something quite satisfying about seeing them framed in and of itself. It wasn’t simply that the literal ‘framing’ of the solar panels somehow converted them into art objects. Instead it was the combination of the panels and the frames together that seemed to break the straightforward technological context of the solar panels, replacing their monolithic, functional presence with something I can only describe as fragility. It’s as though their purpose was being called into question, and that maybe they were now capable of harvesting a variety of energies rather than just sunlight…
Technology is so often marketed to us as a solution, the answer to a question we weren’t quite aware that we’d asked, and hi-tech devices, much like the conceptions of technology that support them, are presented as impenetrable and obtuse – useful perhaps, but deeply unknowable in any but the most general way. But as anyone who has ever dropped a smartphone knows, technological artifacts might look solid, purposeful and monolithic, but underneath they are most definitely fragile. For the moment I’m also calling this quality in my work fragility, but whatever it’s called it’s the opposite of the monolithic, synthetic, functional veneer that the technological artefacts we deal with everyday present us with. It’s not just about breaking the seal on technology, or creating some new device, or an exercise in bestowing preciousness on the ubiquitous, but instead it’s an effort to realise notions of variability within a very different context to that of the consumer electronics marketplace.
This concept of fragility could equally be applied to the motherboard trees (although they operate more through processes of extraction and display, rather than the additive operation of solar panel plus frame). From a conventional perspective, the circuits of the motherboard trees are extremely vulnerable, and subject to chaotic behaviour. Yet they function. I feel that much of the work in the IBP show shares this fragile, almost provisional quality I’m trying to describe. That many of them are not only works in themselves but also portals for collaboration only furthers that feeling.
However, this fragility doesn’t somehow undercut the nature of the connectivity that these works engage in. Maybe it even enhances it, due in part to its unlikely character. In the IBP exhibition light energy produces sound energy, audio signal becomes electrical energy, physical action produces sound, solar panels trigger automated instruments, water power triggers electricity that produces wind power, and pretty much all the same in reverse. But let’s not get hung up on just one take on things – pedal power connects to people power and music; synthetic trees connect distant locations and the actions that take place there to new means of interacting with those places; foot pumps, tubes and funnels produce sound and connect to food, cages and petrochemicals; and many more besides. Most of the works produce sound and provoke listening, and all realise energy in motion and transduction in effect, and in doing so they renegotiate relationships between participants and the concepts and phenomena at play across the exhibition. Sparks fly, fish swim, people are guided by voices and gravity can be seen in full effect. It’s ecology as art.
So, after almost a thousand words I think I’ve ascertained that I can’t describe it, but then again, who wants me to? Perhaps all I want to say is that when fragility flourishes in connective contexts it’s a beautiful thing.