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People do strange things with electricity?

by Deborah Turnbull on 11 MAR 2011

Dorkbot @ Serial Space, Sydney
23-26 February 2011

Click, click...click...click...BWAAAAAAMMMMMMM<this is meant to be a very loud, very sudden organ sound accompanied by a florescent pink light...both only last for 10 seconds> click, click....click, basement space, ceilings are high for a basement, oops I tripped over the near invisible ledge there <embarrassed>, and what the heck is that over there...<squinting>?

These are my first impressions of the newest Dorkbot exhibition at Sydney's Serial Space, an Artist Run Initiative sponsored by the Australia Council and run by one Ms. Pia van Gelder. Afterwards came, I'm cold, I'm wet, and it's pouring out, don't I live in Australia?...where's the bar?...ooh there it is...

Beer in hand, I asked for a room brochure. No dice. But I was directed with a wry smile towards "the human room brochure, over there, dressed all in black" whereupon I met van Gelder, the curator and manager of the space, and heard all about the exhibition and its creative process. The gist of this conversation is that Serial Space is largely a workshop space where emergent artists come together and experiment, often on themselves, with electricity. There was no particular curatorial vein past the invite to do something strange with this medium, and the artists were selected based on a call that is put out by and then culled by van Gelder.

Encouraged to have a look around, I spied a very raw space, uncluttered,  dimly lit, and host to 6 distinct works and a spot-lit ruck-sack with extension  cords running out of it. Intrigued I started off to the right, where I was met  with a copper construct atop a plinth hosting various light sources emanating  from small tubes. I was reminded of a model for an apartment building, the  white lights signifying the inhabitant's televisions (computer screens?). A  small white box that looked electrical protruded from the front of the plinth. I  cast my hand around it thinking it was a sensor, but it wasn't. I wasn't sure  what to do next, so I looked to the back of the plinth, squinted at the  minute  label, and finally gave up (after about 30 seconds). Hmmm <squint>, David KirkPatrick, you've stumped me.

I moved on <click, click...click; what the?> to the spot-lit rucksack sporting  extension cables and the documentary footage by Luke Calarco. Without  touching much, I examined the cables more closely, and watched a bit of the footage which consisted of the artist wearing the rucksack and folks running  their hands over him. He was grinning quite widely, but otherwise, I couldn't  really relate to what was happening. Hoping for a performance later on, I was blasted once again with a very loud BWAAAAAAMMMMM! and florescent pink light...

...another tiny label told me this next work was Wade Marynowski's "Death by Stereo". Apart from it's quite obvious attractor, I was curious about the composition. Here was a 90s boombox, bubbling with pink paint; bubbling due to the apparent vibrations emanating from it; there was also a dolphin lamp, covered in the same pink paint, but smoothly, neatly, and serenely. This juxtaposition of calmness and discord is only emphasised when the organ and lamp perform their duet of <BWAAAAAAAMMMMMMM! FLORO FLAAAAAAAASH>. Upon closer inspection, both the boombox and the lamp were plugged into the organ, which was placed on its side. I wanted to look further, see if there was a computer driving the sound and the light, but I couldn't without ripping the back off of the organ. Plus the <BWAAAAAAAMMMMMMM! FLORO FLAAAAAAAASH> but a combination of attractive/repellant, so I moved on <click, click...click; huh?>

After tripping on the ledge again, this time in a downwards trajectory, I was lured to a pleather pillow in front of a softly glowing computer monitor. Happy to cover my stumble, I sunk all the way to the floor, and, taking refuge in the pillow, I started to examine the components of Ross Manning's "Trapped Universe". A simple plasma screen was covered in two sheaths of plastic, one that distorted your vision, and one to frame the distortion. However, it wasn't until you closely examine the screen that you realise what you're looking at is a built construct, not a digital one. I must admit I was impressed at the simplicity with which this trompe l'orielle took place and stayed for a while examining and photographing the layers <click, click...click; oh COME ON!>.








Intrigued by a woman who was placing a boxer's heavy weight trophy belt and protective padding on attendees, I left my pleather perch, and tried to eavesdrop on what was going on. The woman turned out to be the artist, Jiann Hughes, and she was encouraging folks to try out her interactive work, "Below the Belt". While I waited my turn, I noticed she had her laptop open and upped my eavesdropping on her conversations to spying on her code. A MaxMSP patch drove the interactivity, and I could see that it was reading an inward/outward motion, likely fed to the laptop via sensors in the belt or headgear. When it came to be my turn, I fired a bunch of questions at the artist, to which she smiled and said, "give it a go, and then we can chat afterwards, yea?"...but, but...!

After gripping the headgear fitted with headphones to my ears to hear the instructions, I found that, as monitored by the boxing title belt, I could perform different breathing techniques to match the different breath techniques that boxers use depending on their weight division. Whimsically thinking about a tinned announcers voice echoing "float like a feather, sting like a bee" I tried out different breath rates. Once I was declared a feather weight (likely for the first time in my life...), I was encouraged by the film avatar, the boxing coach at a local gym who was in fact the user before me, that I could do it, I could win the title! Victory was mine! I pulled off the headgear and reported my winnings, and then true to her word, Hughes answered my rapid fire questions and we quite a geeky conversation about video timing and the software that supports it...<click, click....click; seriously what is that NOISE?!>. Having the artist there to explain the work was pinnacle to my seeing it through, though, as I tried to take off the headgear more than once. Had Hughes not been there to encourage me through it, I would have moved on as I was having trouble hearing the instructions and wanted to have a closer look at the art system. To her credit, she was never short of humans to interact with her computer.

After I thanked Hughes, I moved on to the last work, the presentation of which stole the show. An older style laptop hung on the central cement pillar in the room. It was mounted via two d-hooks, drilled into the screen casing of the laptop, which then hung off two screws drilled into the pillar. The laptop hung long, displaying colourful imagery on it's screen, and dating itself by still containing a DVD drive and sunken keyboard. Below it, a plinth displayed the guts of such a computer, artfully layered so as to create a sort of history of artefacts. This placement created quite a balanced tension between the software and the hardware of a computer, with links to the traditional arrangement of both paintings and sculpture. Not only did this trigger the art history geek in me, but the media stream was quite beautiful in its compilation, even in its name "Infomadream". I wasn't able to meet the artist, Michael Petchovsky, but if I could, I would shake his hand and clap him on the back. This is a stunning work, both conceptually and in execution <click, click...click; alright now...this was getting STRANGE. Could only I hear it?>

Having come full circle, I found myself back at the KirkPatrick work. There were a couple of guys milling around it, drinking beer, laughing, talking. I watched one of them reach over the white box that had stumped me and manually press the wide, flat, almost imperceptible button of a doorbell switch. Guess what? It emitted a loud CLICK, and the light sequence in the structure changed. A HA! That was my noise problem for the evening solved. I performed a quiet facepalm, reminding myself that if something does not respond to my movement, don't forget about simple mechanics. Sigh.

Lesson learned, I settled in to watch Calerco turn off the footage of him performing, strap on the cable ridden rucksack, and weave some conducting wire under his left armpit and around his shoulder. Seems like we were going to be getting a performance after all....

Stop by Pia van Gelder's Serial Space to talk about the next iteration of Dorkbot, she is the 'Overlord' after all...





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