The 12th Istanbul Biennial and ISEA 2011 coincided this year, resulting in a jam-packed week of activity. At any hour of the day, there was a dizzying array of talks, performances, exhibitions, and art openings across the city of Istanbul. Organizing two high profile, international art events at the same time was a wise choice, as it produced an element of synergy between them. The biennial exhibition was especially attentive to the Arab Spring, and the effect this has had in the region, while ISEA was more oriented to the problems and future possibilities of technology. Taking in both the biennial and ISEA in the same week lead me to think about the power of technology, and its significance for both established and emerging democracies.
ISEA kicked off with a keynote entitled “Time to Live” by the writer and academic Sean Cubitt. Taking its title from the TTL mechanism used in the movement of data across a network or computer, Cubitt argued that the struggle over space and time is a defining aspect of digital media, and ultimately, that time becomes alienated in liaison with new technologies. Time, for him, was once a humanistic force, but has now become something that is used over and against humanity through its instrumentalization. In order to chart the progressive alienation of time, Cubitt points to the development of three forms of media that he sees as dominant beginning in the 20th century — spreadsheets, databases, and geographical information systems. These forms have fundamentally altered the use and understanding of both time and space, resulting in their management and optimization towards biopolitical ends. The grid is the organizational method used across spreadsheets, databases, and geographical information systems, and in the closing section of his talk, Cubitt offered the vector as an oppositional form capable of suggesting new alternatives to the grid. In order to unearth differing structures such as the vector, Cubitt urged artists and researchers alike to go back and revisit earlier, obsolete technologies and practices with a fresh eye.
Sean Cubitt's Lecture "Time to Live" at ISEA 2011
I had Cubitt’s call to re-examine history for new solutions at the back of my mind when I visited the Istanbul Biennial, as the show’s unique premise, organized around the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, seemed to similarly dig into the past in order to find pressing correspondences with the present. Curated by Jens Hoffman and Adriano Pedrosa, the exhibition spread across two large warehouses adjacent to the Istanbul Modern. The exhibition’s design, created by architect Ryue Nishizawa, was comprised of a maze-like series of various sized rooms without ceilings, whose entrances and exits emptied out into passageways. Corrugated metal covered the exterior walls of the rooms, giving it the semblance of a building or home. In the catalog, it was explained that the Nishizawa had intended to mimic Istanbul’s intersecting streets and alleys. If anything, the layout allowed for an overlapping exchange between the wide range of subjects explored in the show, as each room was either grouped works around a theme from Gonzales-Torres’ oeuvre or presented work by an individual artist.
Over the summer, I met with Mark Pauline, director and founder of the legendary Survival Research Laboratories, who gave me a tour of his studio workshop in Petaluma, CA. Since its inception in 1978, SRL has quite literally blazed new territory in the field of performance, robotic engineering and sculpture, producing dangerous, overpowering live shows with custom robots built by Mark and his team. The performances provoke both a fear of and fascination with the power of technology, as well as the potential loss of human control over machines. Extremely affable and intelligent, with a no bullshit air about him, Mark’s technical knowledge was astounding. I’ve been following SRL’s work for years, so actually meeting Mark and seeing the robots up close was a real treat.
Survival Research Laboratories is currently operated out of three large garages in Petaluma, an idyllic, historic town about an hour north of San Francisco. Mark moved to the new location in 2007, lugging 180 tons of equipment with him, when the landlord of his old warehouse in San Francisco decided to hike up the rent after decades of affordability. The Petaluma spot seems perfectly suited to SRL’s activities, it even has a parking lot large enough to accommodate test runs of gigantic, menacing robots, and laidback neighbors who never complain about the noise.
The first garage I got a peek at is the laboratory, where the robots are made.
I met with artist, musician, educator and circuit-bending guru Pete Edwards last week, as he was preparing for his exhibition “Specter Flux” at Long Island City’s Flux Factory, where he is currently an artist in residence. The show opens on June 30th and will run until July 3rd. Since 2000, Pete has sold his handmade electronic instruments through his company Casperelectronics, and performed with his creations under the same name. Over the span of his career, he’s created unique and special instruments out of a variety of unusual items, such as a Jack-In-The-Box Toy, an Amazing Ally doll, megaphones, and a BarbieKaraoke Machine. His work on Casio SK-1s and Speak&Spells; have been an inspiration for many in the world of circuit-bending, and no doubt his output has helped popularize these objects as ideal for these sorts of projects.
More recently, Pete has begun incorporating plastic orbs into his practice, producing them as standalone interactive, color-mixing lights or as components to his machines. These orbs will be central to his installation at Flux Factory, and he showed me a few of them during my visit, as well as a nifty analog synth he built from scratch. Both will be used in “Specter Flux”.
Pete mentioned that he enjoys the mesmerizing quality of the orbs, and the fact that they immediately captivate an audience, regardless of context. Each orb is individually tuned to respond to volume and tone, so that viewers must play with them in order to gauge their sensitivity. The orbs were installed in an elevator at the Tang Museum last year, and Pete recalled, with delight, that despite the seeming privacy of the elevator, that the sounds of visitors clapping, singing and yelling at the orbs travelled throughout the building.
Grafikdemo is a physical wireframe model of a teapot inside a Commodore CBM cabinet. The model can be rotated by pushing keys on the keyboard. Sophisticated lighting of the model makes it hard for the viewer to distinguish whether he sees a real digital model or a fake computer screen. Grafikdemo explores the transition between reality and representation in a playful way.
-- FROM THE ARTIST'S STATEMENT