The Vault – Image, perception, the alchemy of light

The ephemerality of Ryoji Ikeda’s test_pattern is much more than a stroboscopic welcome mat for ACT Festival’s primary exhibition space, it sets the stage and introduces several representational tropes and techniques that are picked up on in subsequent works. Ikeda harnesses the digital, makes it immersive, and lets us experience data with our senses – these are themes that other artists in The Vault explore as well. However, in moving further into the exhibition, it becomes clear that digital images certainly do not need to be constrained to rectangular screens and surfaces; ethereal and ephemeral they stretch, spill out, trace new contours, and animate spaces with motion and colour.

For approximately two decades, German artist and musician Carsten Nicolai has pushed the boundaries of audiovisual representation through his mastery of image (and sound) synthesis and a signature austere minimalism. His series of uni installations, for example, augment linear projections to create seemingly endless space. Bookended by mirrors, univrs/uniscope version (2010), unidisplay (2012), and unicolor (2014) obliterate the edges of the frame and expand into infinite imagery. Whereas unidisplay zooms into an abstract grammar of vectoral monochromatics, the more recent unicolor dispassionately cycles through frequency sweeps and stepped colour gradients.

While the limitless horizon of Nicolai’s gradients are testament to the evocative power by which immaterial images breathe life into flat surfaces, we see an alchemical reunification of image and material elsewhere. Almost a decade ago, Berlin’s creative collective ART+COM unveiled The Shapes of Things to Come (2008), a kinetic sculpture produced for the BMW Museum in Munich, mobilizing a grid of 714 hanging steel spheres that moved in concert to render sleek animated waves that capture the majesty of a high-end automobile hurtling down a highway. The sensual and lucid abstraction begat a string of kinetic sculpture commissions that have seen the studio experiment and refine their use of lighting and material, that culminated with RGB|CMYK Kinetic (2015) – perhaps their most divine orchestration yet. In it, five suspended reflective discs glide in and out of formation under the glare of red, blue, and green spotlights that cast RGB reflections in one direction and cyan, magenta, and blue in another. Set to Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds’ ethereal score, the piece is a moody meditation on additive and subtractive colour – and as is the case in unidisplay, reflection is used as a force multiplier.

Displaying a similarly subtle but much more orthogonal approach towards the interplay of colour and material is LAb[au]’s m0za1que 4x4x4 (2013). Past works, such as the 3.5 metre diameter aluminium ring of split-flap displays signalToNoise (2012) illustrate the Brussels-based studio’s commitment to algorithmically-driven kinetic sculptures. While that installation is architectural, m0za1que 4x4x4 is more explicitly contemplative – to be viewed and studied, not stepped into. An installation combining tiles, motors, and light, each square of the chessboard-like grid is automated by a linear motor and randomly extends and retracts. Like ART+COM’s machine choreography the illumination is pure RGB, but those hues only appear within the kinetic sculpture when shadows are cast – creating subtle coloured edges, lines, and accents on an otherwise monochromatic form.

If m0za1que 4x4x4’s fluctuating form is highlighted through motion, the Seoul-based duo Kimchi and Chips’ 483 Lines (2015) employs the opposite strategy in using light to create the appearance of motion. Creators of the illusionary Light Barrier (2014-) series of sculptural arrays of scores of concave mirrors that are ‘activated’ through projection to produce volumetric projections, the studio is as dedicated to the mastery of emerging technologies as they are to optics and the laws of physics. For ACT Festival, they reminisce about the NTSC broadcast standard with a piece that stretches 483 sixteen metre threads and folds the image back several times, yielding a projection scrim with depth. Pixel perfect projections of white light are beamed onto the threads and the eccentric display emulates the interference of an analogue television screen – waves and beads of light shoot across it and form flickering patterns that are complimented by the soft and liminal sound design of Junghoon Pi. A symphony of luminescence, formal geometric games, a reconstitution of analogue media with thread – ART+COM, LAb[au], and Kimchi and Chips offer a spectrum of approaches for unifying light, material, and motion.

Contemporary modes of image synthesis allow for outputs beyond rigid artistic intent. When drawing on sensors, an artist is able to relinquish (some) control and let inputs – or forces – shape the direction of their work. An elaborate optical projection device, Ralf Baecker’s Mirage (2014) measures the Earth’s magnetic field and ‘hallucinates’ variations of the wavering signal. The resulting images are interpreted through forty-eight muscle wire actors that manipulate a mirror sheet, off which a thin red laser line is reflected, beaming a gently oscillating terrain onto the wall.

Meanwhile, the same innovations in image generation and automation feed back into more traditional representational paradigms. For the past fifteen years, Swiss artist and designer Jürg Lehni has broken down instinctive modes of visual expression – drawing and writing – into machine gestures. In Empty Words (2008), produced with Alex Rich, a modified vinyl cutter and custom software interface articulate letterforms that spell didactic messages with neat lines of holes rather than continuous strokes. The latest in his ‘family’ of wall mounted drawing machines, Otto (2015) methodically sketches out Lehni-selected (and interpreted) moments and reflections from the annals of art and design history. Part pedagogy and part performance, it wields its stylus with the same near (but not quite) ‘human’ touch as its earlier ancestors used chalk (Viktor, 2006), felt markers (Rita, 2005), and aerosol cans (Hektor, 2002) before it. Letter by letter, stroke by stroke we’re simultaneously reminded of the disembodiment implicit in most technologies and the gestures and creative expression that make us human.

This infiltration of trusted concepts and bygone media however only begins with technique. Known for playful machinations that continuously marry old and new, Japanese artist duo Exonemo draws on the aura of yesteryear’s technology to make a larger point. In 2014’s Body Paint (series) eerie, monochromatic scenes of painted bodies on painted screens exploit the legacy of traditional portraiture, the everyday LCD display – and the human body itself – remediated into a frame for the post-digital subject.

In a similarly disorienting fashion, Japanese installation artist Nobuhiro Nakanishi undoes conventional notions of landscapes and the moving image by combining time-lapse photographs of a static scenes and stretching the resulting frames across linear arrays of suspended translucent screens. Riffing on cinema’s celluloid and dramatically extending its two-dimensional imagery into perspectival space, Layer Drawing – the Tactual Sky (2013) reads as a sculptural continuum of moments – abstraction by way of aggregation. Once more, the image itself remains ephemeral, etheric, and suspended in disbelief.

Each of the displayed works constitutes a stimulating ‘interruption’ in their own right. As the full spectrum of creative – and manipulative – potential of ‘new making’ become apparent and our flawed perception and fragile frames of reference do as well. When all these elements seem to be at play, as we ‘experience the digital anew’ we’ll find that it’s not just technology that changes, advances, matures. We do, as well.

Photo: Carsten Nicolai
unicolor, 2014
Photo by: Julija Stankeviciene