Soda

72 greetings cards are pinned onto the wall in a horizontal grid. They're the cheap, bright trash that you find in highstreet newsagents, and they have a slightly tortured air about them since each trails a set of wires down into an electronic heart, displayed under a glass plate in the floor. Periodically, it sends a signal along the little cables, instructing miniature sets of perspex arms to swing apart and hold the cards open. We discover that these are 'musical' cards, emitting all manner of brash, tinny salutations. Now it is our turn to be tortured. Essentially, it's a cacophony - although the computer actually selects different sets of cards to open at different times, you wouldn't really know it from listening.

I guess the idea of Lucy Kimbell's Chorus (all works 1998) is for viewers to experience their own rapturous audience of screaming teenyboppers - or at least their greetings card equivalent. And, yes, there is something endearingly sentimental about all these cards opening and cheering at us en masse - a fanclub of arbitrary devotion. However this is diluted by the fact that the electronics seem to be trying to compose different choirs, hence adding an intellectual element to the work. Kitsch does not readily lend itself to such 'higher' ends; let the cards play as dumb as they want, and leave the viewer to intellectualise.

Neal White's 20th Century Screen is also a horizontal block composed of a single repeated element wired up to a central, controlling computer, although in White's case the elements are car rear-view mirrors. But these are no ordinary mirrors; they are top-of-the-range electrochromic mirrors from luxury cars. When a tiny electric current is passed through them, they polarise to blue-black over a period of 30 seconds. Driving at night, this is intended to reduce the glare of reflected headlights; in the gallery, this 16 x 16 grid makes a low-resolution, slow moving, binary screen. What it shows - other than the reflected viewer - is a rolling programme of simple patterns, computer-based images, and the odd word.

This is art-that-does-stuff. You can't just look at it, you have to wait for something to happen. Which is nothing new - think of Kinetic art or, more broadly, popular culture gizmos that stretch back at least to the Victorian's mechanical curios (Kimbell's cards are a good example). The viewer's reaction, whatever else it might involve, always includes an element of 'Oh, look, it does something'. It's fun, easy to grasp, and distracting. If you've never seen an electrochromic rear-view mirror in action, then 20th Century Screen will intrigue. But whenever you talk about art-that-does-stuff, you always end up talking about what it does, and how it does it. There's barely room to ask 'why?' This is not a criticism - well, not a terminal one - it's simply inherent in the medium. However, artists can be seduced by new technology, too; technology in art does not justify itself merely by working.

White's screen, for example, does not really pretend to do anything other than make a 256 pixel monitor from an unusual material. Neither the connotations of luxury car parts, the psychological poetics of 'rear-view', nor even the images themselves, seem to have been fully explored. Kimbell's cards at least manage to throw the viewer away from the simple technologies for a moment and endeavour to mean something, although this has been blurred by the impression that more time has been spent discovering how to make the piece work physically rather than meaningfully.

The final work on show at least recognises some of the problems inherent in cybernetic work. Fiddian Warman and Julian Saunderson's Corrupted Nature seems to know that it is doing stuff just for the sake of it. A level of self-criticality manifests itself in the sheer absurdity of the scenario: two robots performing the Marquis de Sade's short play Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man. Briefly, this is an argument over the existence of God and Humanity's need for excess, yet it is spoken in Stephen Hawking-esque computer voices. A furry bed-type thing (the Dying Man), repents only that he did not give himself up to desire more in his life, while a shiny black box on rails (the Priest), works itself into a tizz over this inversion of the Last Rights. The line 'I was created by Nature with the keenest of appetites and the strongest of passions and was put on this earth with the sole purpose of placating both by surrendering to them', sounds strangely reasonable when coming from a furry bed-type thing.

The fact that this work doesn't convince us that these robots are alive, or dying, is not a problem. In fact, it's their total lifelessness that is so interesting. Refreshingly, it is aware of its own gimmicks and achieves through ridicule a level of self-awareness that robots won't manage for at least another 100 years. The artists' group Soda has just about got that self-awareness - let's hope they can keep it.

Issue 40

First published in Issue 40

May 1998

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