Touching the Invisible is the SAT (Society for Arts and Technology, Montreal, QC) Gallery's first installation – always exciting to visit a new gallery especially during its first show. On the night I attended with a friend, we were the only ones in the gallery, much like having an amusement park to ourselves.
Our guide, gallery curator David Jaques, was an excellent and endearing host, and I suspect this gallery has great things in its future. And despite the undeniable fun of moving things and mixing drinks with our brain waves, the Swedish-born installation never manages to transcend – at least for this reviewer – a sense of industrial gimmickry.
The text accompanying the exhibit argues a sensible piece about “challenging our preconceived notions of flux and mobility, on thought and matter, on time and space.” But these challenges seem lost in the emphasis on clever utility. And the impression is reinforced – or perhaps created – by the diminutive presence of critical discourse in the show. Of the 31 artists who collaborated to create these admittedly fascinating devices, none apparently had an overtly critical stance towards science, engineering, technology or Western society's fetishization of technological progress. But let me begin at the beginning…
Upon entry to the gallery we were greeted by our host and handed a catalogue for the show containing brief essays and “keywords” for each installation, a sort of cryptic meaning-finder of clues to help us access the intellectual territory of exploration for each work. At the entrance, we were confronted with the first of six projects, Delaymirror, video images of ourselves delayed 3 seconds. We were confronted by ourselves as we just were. It was enough to sever the tie between self and image. Quite fascinating. The impulse to play emerged immediately, and also to judge. It was hard to pull myself away from the “call and echo” visual game — a playful Narcissus-maker, perhaps.
Our next stop was the Monochromeye. Here, we were asked to place a soft silicone skullcap on our heads, part of which covered our eyes, and to also place a small light sensitive probe on our index finger. Pointing the probe at light elicited a flickering of colour – of just one colour – a few millimeters from our eyes. As I drifted around the gallery, pointing my finger first at the track lighting above and then at the street level windows, the flickering light changed colour. This installation felt incomplete. Perhaps the technology is more innovative than I can appreciate, but the experience was mostly uninteresting, and the clues in the catalogue seemed prosaic – “information reduction”, “image”, “overflow”, “data”. The issues being addressed are of urgent concern: everyone I know is confronted with one version or another of information overload. How to keep up with it, how to remain professionally relevant, how to sift and navigate through mountains of materials for the substantive streams and trustworthy sources, the commercialization of public information flows and ominous threat of “net neutrality” – these are some of the issues piling up on the shoulders of the overcrowded “information highway”. The blinking LEDs seemed, well, largely inane by comparison.
At the next station we played Mindball, by far the most fun of the projects. I sat at one end of a table, my friend at the other. Both of us strapped on brainwave readers. On the table was a small ball, under the table was a sliding magnet that corresponded to our brainwaves. The goal was to get the ball to roll (by moving the magnet) to your opponent. This would only happen if your brain was calmer than your opponent's brain. I immediately lost the first game. Being competitive, I flexed my rusty meditation muscles and soon was on a winning streak. It's not hard to register the tension between competition and achieving a quiet mind, and the game is a playful reversal of the frenzied and unhealthy escalator of emotion and one-upmanship that dominates so much of Western society's public postures. Again, the catalogue's clues seemed clumsy by comparison – “telekinetics”, “paradox” and “desire for gain”.
Remotehome linked one station in the gallery to another through the internet, the implication being that any two places on earth with on-line access can also be similarly linked. At one station, motion sensors carried movements in the gallery as commands to swiveling ceiling lights and remotely activated mechanical levers under a lounge chair. The catalogue clues suggested – “remote intimacy”, “omnipresence”, and “mediating architecture”. It is startling to think about this kind of remote access to private space. But the installation falls flat, emphasizing a stylish celebration of creature comforts to the exclusion of remote access' more problematic implications.
Hellhunt was a quirky display of images found by a webcrawler program that searches the internet for images that have a pentacle in them. It prints them out with the pentacle drawn into the image, and then sends an email to the website notifying the owners of the situation. The catalogue clues were “paranoia”, “interpretation”, “artificial intelligence”. Not surprisingly, the images were often anomalous – children, cans of soup, wedding pictures. It is not so much the installation that was of interest, but its history. It was conceived in 2000 and first opened 11 days after the 9/11 incident. In that context, and so many years ago, the installation surely had a poignancy. Only a few years ago webcrawlers and image recognition software were new and alarming.
And finally, Brainbar, the automated bartender that mixed us the “drinks we deserved” after we strapped on a brain wave reader. After a few moments, a small cup slide back and forth under the spouts of six bottles, three with alcohol and three with sweet syrups. The drinks were terrible, but it was true, our brains had silently ordered for us. And, of course, it was fun. But, also of course, it felt a little like a cheap trick. The clues – “metabolism”, “integrity”, “immaterial currency” – were not much help. The technical virtuosity was formidable, but intellectually it felt limited. The drinks poured really had nothing to do with our brain waves, or us, they were merely outcomes from a random order triggered by an electrical reading.
I don't want to sound discouraging to the SAT, nor to the artists in this show. Interactive technology is the new big thing in contemporary art culture. But where the show stumbles (and this to me is the essential question to ask as technology increasingly competes for a larger share of our creative and financial attention) is in its ability to incorporate critical discourse into its dominant celebratory, utilitarian and playful tropes.
Touching the Invisible, produced by the Interactive Institute, Smart Studio, Sweden. SAT Gallery, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Oct 25 – Nov 29, 2006.