Electrofringe in Townsville: discerning time, space and tension

catalogue essay

Email [url=mailto::cara@caraannsimpson.com]Cara-Ann[/url] for a pdf of the catalogue. This essay accompanied the exhibition Electrofringe in Townsville, 20 May - 3 July 2011, more information available at Electrofringe.

Image artwork: Samuel Bruce, Art is great to waste time before dying (2010), skull, electronics.

When I came on board in early 2011 to become the new Co-Director and Co-Producer of Electrofringe Ltd, I was asked about where I perceived Electrofringe heading in the next few years. It was the question that triggered all kinds of ambitious ideas – some within reason, and some sky high. One idea however, reverberated with the mission of Electrofringe and the interests of our Board of Directors, my colleague Estee Wah and myself. Taking electronic arts to regional Australia – not just a few artworks, but workshops, performances, artist talks and community participation. While I currently live in an inner suburb of Melbourne, I grew up, studied and spent the first few years of my artistic career in and around Toowoomba, Queensland. This background has ensured that I am passionate about experimental and electronic arts being accessible, and that there is a need for these artforms in regional Australia. It encourages and stimulates discussion around the arts and cultural industries – and can provide support and inspiration for artists who want to experiment and engage with technology but are not sure how to proceed, or if it is a viable career.

Electrofringe in Townsville is an exciting glimpse into the quickly growing field of electronic art in Australia. The artists in this satellite exhibition range from metropolitan to regional and include: Samuel Bruce ( Western Sydney, NSW ), Adam Brown (Townsville, QLD), Steven Campbell and Mitch Goodwin ( Townsville, QLD), Robert Crispe ( Townsville, QLD), Danny Ford ( Toowoomba, QLD), Alexandra Gillespie (Canberra, ACT), and Toydeath (Sydney, NSW ). From Bruce’s contained sound objects that explore death and deconstruction to Ford’s highly engaging interactive video and net-enabled installation – Electrofringe in Townsville is exciting, engrossing and electronic.

Alexandra Gillespie’s series, Insulate the future (2010) investigates technology in domestic situations in terms of comfort, electricity consumption, and the inherent danger of electrical items. Printed on new electric blankets and vintage wool blankets are blueprints of house plans for Canberra. The vintage blankets utilise housing plans from the “Ainslie” (dated around the 1930s) and the Hackett (dated 1963), while the electric blankets have the as yet unbuilt Watson house plans, which is a new development in North Watson, Canberra. Gillespie’s work comes as the debate around climate change, sustainability and eco-friendly design is in the media spotlight. She perceives the electric blanket as a “hyper-comfort device” from a past era that is both nostalgic and disturbing.1 There is an interesting comparison between the housing designs – with less room being given over to green areas, and interior spaces growing in size as the plans become more contemporary. Gillespie takes the opportunity to write personal meditations on the blankets and her concern around the areas of sustainability, design futures, and our current ecological crises.

Still focusing on contemporary concerns regarding environment and climate change is Robert Crispe’s projection work, A Toxic Galax-sea (2011). The immersive projection is ambient, and Crispe works to create darkly vivid semi-abstract scenes that have a psychedelic and mystic atmosphere. The title of Crispe’s work facilitates the context – it draws on three specific ideas – toxicity, galaxy and sea. Crispe is inspired by the incredible natural phenomena of the Great Barrier Reef off the shores of Townsville, but infiltrating the awe of this underwater world is the arcane threat of pollution from oil spills and the effects of climate change. Likening these threats to the infinite expansion of UFO conspiracies,2 Crispe questions society’s complacency to structure one’s universe in the immediacy of experience. A Toxic Galax- sea provokes the audience to face the alien and unknown. To comprehend spatial reality as inclusive of the peripheral and beyond, not just that which can be immediately seen, felt and experienced in the close physical and virtual area surrounding an individual. Crispe does this subtly; he lures the audience into the work with meditative and flowing imagery, while the dark, ominous presence of the ‘Other’ lurks just below the surface.

Samuel Bruce’s works, Art is great to waste time before dying (2010) and Minor Summoning (2010), are carefully constructed sculptural sound objects exploring the social ritual of art making, the occult and electronics as art. Art is great to waste time before dying acts as memento mori to remind society that death is imminent while also addressing Bruce’s concerns regarding the production of art. In some ways, the two collide, as the work can become a twofold memento mori for both the mortality of humans, but also the mortality of technologies. Kim Cascone quotes Nicholas Negroponte in his essay, The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post-Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music – “The digital revolution is over.”3 This quote from 1998 demonstrates the temporal nature of the electronics industry, clearly seen in 2011 as new smartphone models are superseded within 6-12 months of being released. The abstract noise emanating from both of Bruce’s works clash against eardrums, bemoaning the short lifespan of technology and warning of our fragile mortality.

Steven Campbell and Mitch Goodwin’s collaborative video work, As I Stood Idly By... (2010), explores the disparity between the corrosion of reality through time and Australia’s remote and increasingly disparaging relationship with the monarchy. Focusing on issues relevant to the contemporary condition (both physical and virtual) Campbell and Goodwin explore nationalistic traits of self-determination and ingrown fear of the unknown and Other. The work wrestles with national and commonwealth history, the contested documentation that records the passage of time and the physical residue that echoes the decay of modernism. It is a struggle to validate actions, appeals and changes – the relationship is juxtaposed against the floating neon visage of the aging monarch. As I Stood Idly By... also searches to predict the future and how “We create the technology and then we become the technology”.4 The quote, taken from an interview with John Brockman in Lutz Dammbeck’s documentary, The Net: The Unabomber, LSD and The Internet, serves as inspiration and a reference point for Campbell and Goodwin, who not only question the impact of media on society, but seek to deconstruct the archive within a local context.

Danny Ford’s web-enabled work, New Flags (All Day Vape variation) (2011), uses the genre of alternate narratives alongside queries of social media platforms as mediums for political engagement. In Ford’s alternate narrative three groups vie for alliance (or popularity) in which the “alliance station” is the video that the audience encounters.5 The video consists of short ambiguous lo-fi vignettes that become a campaign or promotion for the viewer’s ‘membership’. Ford has generated specific QR codes that incorporated into each “New Flag” that can be read on viewer’s smartphones (with barcode readers) and are linked to Facebook groups. Ford tracks the membership numbers at a web location. Ford is inspired by propaganda campaigns that use media platforms – ranging from Northern Korea’s government propaganda including the seemingly ridiculous 2004-2005 campaign,“Let’s trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle” to the political campaigns forever running on Facebook and Twitter. Ford is investigating whether a populace, that is willing to put their name (as individual’s) to a brand or movie or idea, has a heightened potential for political engagement. It brings to mind certain types of sci-fi novels and films, such as the George Orwell classic Nineteen Eighty- Four,6 or Norman Jewison’s film Rollerball (the original 1975 film, not the 2002 remake)7. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts a world controlled by Big Brother through an insidious and all encompassing propaganda campaign. Rollerball creates a futuristic vision where corporations have control over the populace through the ultra-violent game of Rollerball.8 The game serves as the ultimate propaganda tool as world decisions are determined by game outcomes. Ford’s alternate narrative is sculpted almost as a critique on these propaganda campaigns, the viewer is able to engage with the campaign but in doing so is liable to be drawn into an alliance becoming a part of the ‘game’. There is hope however, as shown by both examples, that the individual can indeed fight against the system and subvert the power of governing body.

Adam Brown’s, Buncefield Records and Tapes are a group of works that pay homage to, and form relationships between, several eras and situations. On Sunday 11 December 2005, The Buncefield Oil Storage Depot in Hertfordshire, England had a number of explosions due to the overfilling of one of a fuel storage tank (Tank 912).9 Claimed to be Europe’s biggest peacetime blaze by media, it measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and could be heard more than 100 miles away (160.93km) with claims of people hearing the sound as far away as France and the Netherlands.10 A faulty fuel gauge caused the explosion and Brown plays homage to this minor piece of equipment through Buncefield Records and Tapes. On a series of cassette tapes are data tracks, which can be decoded as images through Brown’s DIY free software. These images are representative of the experience of waiting for a category 5 cyclone to hit whilst in a flimsy tin hut on a tropical island. With no means of evacuation. While the Buncefield explosions occurred without warning, Brown evokes the waiting tension of Cyclone Yasi and its unknown force. Accompanying these tapes (of which free copies can be obtained by bringing blank cassettes to the gallery) is The Situationist (Bunce001), a customised hard shell case for Apple’s Macbook Pro, with a handmade sandpaper finish. Drawing on Debord’s 1959 book, Memoires (featuring a sandpaper cover) and the post-punk band The Durutti Column’s first album for the label Factory (which came in a sandpaper sleeve), the laptop case jabs at the fetishes of collecting functional objects for their appealing looks, rather than content.11 What Brown does is effectively convey the depth to which we rely on art to comment on societal conditions, while providing the audience with a means to taking home these snippets of information to contemplate and perhaps add to the collection of functional objects kept for physical appeal.

Re-appropriating children’s electronic toys and wearing cartoon-styled costumes are the circuit bending experimental band, Toydeath, featuring Big Judy, GiJoe and Super Dad. Toydeath have put together an eclectic range of recorded performances that encompass the viewer in colour, horror-pop and re- wired toys. Toydeath have attracted a cult following partly due to the quirky costumes, but also for the highly skilled compositions played live without the aid of loops or samplers. Toydeath are constantly creating new instruments and building on their toy box. It is the older toys within the collection however, that draws the audience into the performance and Toydeath experience. Many of the older toys are sentimental reminders of childhood fun – drawing on toys from the late 70s onwards.12 This re-appropriation of electronic toys are prompts to re-look at the impact that mass production has had on culture, and how children have been learning how to count, spell and talk from electronic toys for over three decades.7

Electrofringe in Townsville represents a small sliver of the depth and diversity of Australia’s growing electronic arts scene. It is an exciting time to be in Australia as the wealth of electronic arts expands our awareness of the reach of technology as an artistic, social, cultural and political tool. Australian artists engaged with this artform are looking forwards to a future that is sustainable, culturally enriched, and uses technology to share positive messages, personal concerns and question the impact of mass media. This exhibition is an astonishing glimpse into how culture is quickly changing, and how the notion of the Renaissance man (or woman) may not be as dated as once thought. As technology enables us to expand our creativity and ability to reach out globally, it also allows us to become knowledgeable in many fields.

Cara-Ann Simpson May 2011

1 A. Gillespie, artist statement to Cara-Ann Simpson via email correspondence, March 2011.
2 R. Crispe, artist statement to Cara-Ann Simpson via email correspondence, May 2011.
3 K. Cascone, The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post-Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music, in C. Cox and D. Warner (ed), “Audio Culture: readings in modern music” 2007, The Continuum International Publishing Group, New York and London, p. 392.
4 J. Brockman in The Net: The Unabomber, LSD and The Internet, Other Cinema, Berlin 2006.
5 D. Ford, email correspondence with Cara-Ann Simp- son, May 2011.
6 G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, First published 1949, reprinted in 2000, Penguin Books.
7 N. Jewison, Rollerball 1975, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.
8 J. Marmysz, Cultural Change and Nihilism in the Rollerball Films, available at: http://marin.academia. edu/JohnMarmysz/Papers/132987/Cultural_Change_ and_Nihilism_in_the_Rollerball_Films, accessed 7 May 2011, first published in “Film and Philosophy” journal, vol. 8 2004.
9 Buncefield Investigation, available: http://www. buncefieldinvestigation.gov.uk/ 2007, accessed 7 May 2011.
10 guardian.co.uk, “11.12.05: Buncefield fire 2005”, available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/buncefield 2011, accessed 7 May 2011.
11 A. Brown, artist statement to Cara-Ann Simpson via email correspondence, May 2011.
12 D. Taylor, ‘Jump Button’: The Toys Had It Coming – Musical Outfit Toydeath, 25 February 2008, from GameSetWatch, available: http://www.gameset- watch.com/2008/02/column_jump_button_the_toys_ ha.php accessed 28 April 2011.