Strategic Transgressions

By Pauline van Mourik Broekman, 10 September 1997

"It is very tempting to become an angel, but there's a thin line between being an angel and not being at all. Many young artists are tempted by dematerialisation, it's the angel's leap". From the catalogue. Paul Virilio in conversation with Catherine David. Documenta Documents 1, 1996

Thus introduced by Paul Virilio - philosopher of speed, Video Positive97 aimed to caution us about cyberspace. At the same time, it sought to celebrate its levity and playfulness. Pauline van Mourik Broekman wonders what the curators were trying to say...

In early May, the newly renamed FACT (the Foundation for Art & Creative Technology, aka ex-Moviola) staged EnglandÕs biggest electronic arts festival - the biennial Video Positive. This year's event was a collaboration with many other galleries and art organisations and was scattered around twelve venues in Manchester and Liverpool. As in previous years, the event incorporated collaboration programmes as well as symposia. LEAF97 (the Liverpool East European Electronic Arts Forum) offered a critical perspective on the complex - 'East' - European experience of new technologies, the Student Conference offered both practical and theoretical introductions to electronic media using VP97 as a springboard, while the architecture symposium Cosmopolis looked at the ways in which digital technologies are reshaping urban space.

Yet for all its diverse platforms, Video Positive felt strangely familiar. Leafing through the catalogue, and reading about its theme - Escaping Gravity - you couldn't help wondering whether curators Steven Bode, Eddie Berg and Charles Esche could have represented their chosen umbrella terms differently. Although catch phrases like 'Escaping Gravity' are necessarily generalised, they are used as the primary conceptual filter for works shown and so, beyond being of their time philosophically and politically, it is important they are reflective of current practice. Critiquing the impulse to take leave from the body in the virtual life is fast becoming the obligatory starting block of technoculture-criticism - and justifiably so. Yet taking issue with assorted cyber-phenomena on the basis of their complete severance from the body (politic), as many of VP97s accompanying statements did, can produce its own kind of critical stasis. Inadvertently, the dichotomous thinking which is under fire can come to be strengthened rather than challenged.

Does the virtual always constitute 'escape', and 'gravity' the body, or even, as in some of the curators' statements, 'reality'? Do social responsibility, human tragedy, joy and politics only come with the body while play, irony, social irresponsibility and emotional distance accompany the virtual? Admittedly, this oversimplifies things, but an opportunity was missed in setting up such a premise while refraining from asking such questions in the same sentence. Object and Pixel are not divided and making it seem so obscures their mutual affectations in a way that is more pernicious than enlightening. It's doubly ironic since so many of Video Positive's exhibits illustrated this fact. Can we not discuss corporeal and virtual spheres through the interlocking material, digital and symbolic systems that make up both? This means interpreting and using cyberspace as the location of power and sociality that it already is, rather than painting it as an esoteric space of data-angels and Yankee style electronic home-steading. (Funnily enough, the self-proclaimed 'humanist intention' of this sort of premise can end up over-romanticising the net - and digital technology in general - and underplaying its social and artistic significance at the same time). It does not mean ignoring the agenda of social justice that - though not explicitly verbalised - underpinned the theme of Escaping Gravity. Or indeed global information capitalism and its political effects. It means taking cyberspace seriously as something which operates in and in between the virtual and the corporeal - and which is being approached as such by a legion of artists, few of whom were included in this show.

Mind you, Esche and Bode did break some curatorial traditions; or perhaps taboos is a better word. Mixing the blood of the 'electronic' and 'gallery' arts being their most conspicuous transgression. In the context of so many dinosaur-exhibitions thriving on both sides of this particular species divide, this move was long overdue and Bode and Esche made it with some relish, combining artists like Dieter Kiessling with his medium-specific ruminations on video, time, matter and representation and Lyndal Jones with her beautiful audio-visual installation on desire, military technology and sexual selection (Spitfire 1.2.3., 1996) with ones like Julie Myers, whose piece Nosey Parker was described as a "pantomime for the net". Their evenhanded treatment of the collaboration programmes, which provided some very interesting work, was equally important. And even if all their combinations weren't especially sensitive to the work in question, the effect it had - of forcing a reappraisal of their subject, methodology and critical apparatus - was a timely one.

In one of Kiessling's Untitled Works (1995 & 1996) - exhibited at the Cornerhouse Gallery - a video monitor displayed what looked like a calm image of a night sky with tiny white stars. It turned out to be relaying an inverted image of ambient dust particles about 2 metres away. Its construction, which placed the viewer very near to both camera and monitor, meant you affected this micro/macrocosmic scene by your mere presence. Once you discovered this, blowing in front of the camera to cause what seemed like cataclysmic cosmic incidents became an irresistible temptation. On the wall in the next room hung a deceptively minuscule piece - Jaap de Jonge's Crystal Ball (1996), which samples and mixes ongoing global satellite television broadcasts into a kaleidoscopic pattern of colours and imagery. This stunning piece also uses minimal interactive parameters to achieve maximum spatial, temporal and phenomenological disjuncture. Its heavy glass ball functions like a trackball or radio dial, giving you access to the broadcasts in a way that feels near to omniscient. For all its psychedelic and fairground references though, it is a dark piece - and one that speaks more about the present than the future. Since you can do nothing but 'tune in' to sound and context-less information which you know is being remixed on the fly by some sort of digital video-bot on auto-mix, it constantly frustrates your attempts to gain purchase on the vantage point you've been granted. Crystal Ball never fully lets you 'tune in' - always slipping off signal. Clearly, it references MTV, club visuals and the zapping mentality, but its flattening of the televisual landscape is very different from theirs as it presents you with the illusion of a refined information access device only to have it shape-shift in your hands.

Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry played host to two large scale installations by Jane Prophet (Sarcophagus, 1997) and Jon McCormack (Turbulence, 1994/5) as well as the 'CD-Rom forest' (including work from the Australian component of the show, '', curated by Linda Wallace). Sarcophagus is the physical manifestation of a long and complex project, yet Prophet's sculpture showed very little of its intricacies. Having spent months interviewing people involved in the medical profession - professionally and as patients - this sculpture seemed an undeniably literal interpretation of the subject. Prophet's intention is to show that being a cyborg - a technologically (and that includes surgically) enhanced/mutated/hybridised body is no painless process of transubstiation. She hopes to bring popular and theoretical fantasies centring on the cyborg body back down to earth. Doing this by delving into the rationale and experience of medicine could have been very revealing. But her gothic object - a classic Frankenstein tombstone-cum-operating table equally inspired by Egyptian mummification as modern cryogenics - which the patient (cyborg) in question lies on top of, did not manage to portray her ambivalence. Although her choice of interaction was excellent (laying your hands on the pitch black body and stroking its stomach triggered Prophet's animations of ripped flesh, invasive metal and flickering code), I was left guessing as to where the well of source material had disappeared to.

Next year, ISEA98 will be part hosted by FACT. It too will be a collaborative effort with other commissioning agencies, galleries and educational institutions and is set to tackle an equally portentous theme (Revolution/The Terror). Video Positive97 may turn out to have been a transitional show, signalling a new attitude on the part of curators, symposium organisers and galleries alike, an openness towards the diversity of contemporary media practices and a desire to look critically at the role of new (and 'old') media in (past and present) global socio-political trends. If much of this year's Video Positive felt like hesitant, almost strategic, steps made in the direction of curatorial inclusiveness, maybe next year's events will be genuinely polemical. Artists are using and dissecting communication(technologies), and with this comes an awareness and, often highly specific, use of their tools and protocols. Although Video Positive97 did and ISEA98 plans to include net and CD-Rom art, the way they were incorporated into this year's event did not bode well. If exhibitions such as these are feeling increasingly like exercises in large scale stage management, perhaps a few Brechtian techniques are in order? Instead, wires are tucked behind heavy curtains, CD-Rom work, computers and modems are hidden or outlawed to dark, cavernous rooms with mouse pads that even mice couldn't handle. It seems the 'black box' attitude towards technology still rules. Until there is an unembarrassed relationship with the technologies being critiqued, these ambitious themes will always feel like a philosophical fait accompli. A blockbuster title does not a revolution make.

Related URLs:

Video Positive 97Documenta-XArs ElectronicaTechnology in the 1990s at MoMaISEA98:Contacts for calls for submissions and other information:<>(John Brady for ISEA98: The Revolution, Liverpool John Moores University) <> (Graham Parker for ISEA98: The Terror, Manchester Metropolitan University)

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <pauline AT>