Ill Communication: Advances in Travel and Communication
25 Jan - 23 March 2003
Dundee Contemprary Arts, 152 Nethergate, Dundee, Scotland - UK
Nobody likes to be told what to do, so an
examination of communication as simply 'transmission' would
probably be very unpopular. Some of the artworks shown in 'Ill
Communication' have defined communication in this way, notably On
Kawara's telegram messages to his dealer that read 'I am still
alive'. As Adam Phillips notes in Equals, listening is privileged
in democratic societies, adding, '... people are not identical, but
that it is possible for them to be equal in certain ways, is one of
our modern political hopes. Despite the vivid inequalities of
wealth, prestige, history, talent and beauty there are certain
cultural goods that can be shared by everybody.'1. All art has to
operate within this cultural market place whether the artist wants
to or not. Watching the messages in Jenny Holzer's 'Truisms',
1977-79, rolling across an LCD screen I recognised the doubt and
fear that is thinly veiled by all aphorisms, slogans or truisms one
of which reads 'The only way to be pure is to stay by yourself'.
When Alvin Toffler's book' Future Shock' was first published in 1970, it described amongst other things, the psychological impact of modern communication on the individual. Since then a coy link has been established between the stylish, ironic gesturing of advertising and the ideal of individuality. Key campaigns of the 90s, like Diesel's 'For Successful Living' parodied didactic advertising. More recently Playstation's 'Mental Wealth' and 'I am Wolfman' ads from last year have flattered the consumers' aspirations to express their individuality through a deeper form of brand loyalty.
The infant nation of Estonia has been chosen by Chris Evans to host a public sculpture park called 'Radical Loyalty'. To run the park, a company by the same name has been formed with a board of four members chosen by Evans: Martin Fehrmann, Managing Director of Daimler Chrysler Finance, London; Kari Vaiha, Environmental Manager of Sonera-Telia Telecom, Helsinki; William Davie, Director of Knowledge at Schlumberger Oil, Paris and Cliff Burrows, the Managing Director of Starbucks UK. One sculpture will be conceived by each board member as a response to the phrase 'Radical Loyalty' and realised by a collective of Estonian sculptors. Evans presents us with this project history in the form of sketches, a painting, captions and a hand crafted sign which seem innocent in the context of corporate culture.
Evans has worked very hard to try and understand how large corporations work, to bypass their public relations departments and to kidnap their directors. So, who is the client here? The relationships formed between Evans, the company Directors/Managers, the Corporations and the Estonian collective are hard to define even from a commercial perspective and create the enigma of 'Radical Loyalty'. Like all relationships these are built on communication; conversations, letters and emails that are not on show in the DCA. Without us witnessing negotiation in progress, Evans makes himself less visible to us than the corporate figureheads he names, reducing their sculptures to the status of mementos from furtive liaisons. Evans has politely stepped back to allow his board of directors to take centre stage in a context they know little about.
Our individual sense of time has also been disappearing into the Bermuda triangle of progress—communication, technology and travel—since the Industrial Revolution. Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane present free internet access available for public use three days a week from an Emac powered by a steam engine. The 'Steam Powered Internet Computer', 2002, points to a chronological revolution of industry, information and technology and, through its juxtaposition of old and new, to an impending environmental crisis. Despite our modern sophistication the simple charm of this work is in the operation of the steam engine. Jimmy Loomes, a member of the Scottish Model Engineering Trust has been hired by DCA to operate the machine. When I asked Loomes what the work meant to him he described the 'hypnotic' movements of the engine, the 'simplicity of pushing steam around a cylinder', the 'staggering science' and being able to 'tickle a keyboard', and 'find out about lots of activities on the internet'.
So what unites artists with hobbyists? What do Loomes, Kane and Deller use the internet for? Ordering parts for engines and publishing their websites. There are now limitless opportunities to communicate your personal passions to the rest of the world. This work is another product of a collaborative practice that has involved pointing things out that we may have overlooked (see the artists on-line on-going www.folkarchive.co.uk) but perhaps what this process also does is transform the artists into cultural tourguides and their audience into tourists.
Laura Horelli draws on the inherent irony of the tourist trade in her video 'Helsinki (Turku) Shipyard/San Juan Port' that records the origins of a cruise ship, manufactured in Helsinki, for operation in the Caribbean, with a West Indian crew. With her digital camera Horelli has enquired after every aspect of the design, construction and crewing of the liner. Intercut with dreamy shots of the cruise liner squatting in a horizon that is literally too small to accommodate it are over 50 interviews recorded with engineers, designers and crew, most of whom could never afford to go on a cruise, and who are quite candid about the ship's environmental shortcomings. Digital video has dramatically speeded up the democratisation of moving image production and if the artist had handed over the camera to the engineers and crew no doubt that they would have produced their own equally provocative promotional video.
Western society has been slowly regenerating its media around high-camp celebrity interrogation (most recently in the case of Martin Bashir's documentary on Michael Jackson). In a shared culture of emotional streaking, will our empathy run dry? The Biography of D. C. is the first edition of the free magazine Living and Loving by Aleksandra Mir (see 'AM'261). Living and Loving contains a transcription of Mir's interview with C accompanied by scans of his personal photographs. Mir and C talk about his life in foster homes, his adoption, his girlfriends, his time in the Marines, his enthusiasm for punk and his ideas about fidelity, swinging, sexuality and love. Mir's curiosity about C is keen but not salacious, the interview is edited to present the artist as attentive interviewer and C as a cohesive and direct interviewee. Their roles are clearly defined and C's own strong sense of self-esteem allows you to explore his life story imaginatively rather than witness his confession.
Actively seeking the alliance of your subject through conversation and collusion may allow the artist to evade accusations of voyeurism, but who is actually taking the risks here? Extending invitations to people to participate in making art with the artist can be understood as an inclusive gesture. Alternatively, this inclusion can also be interpreted as the artist framing their subject's passion.
Communication in general is really about empathy, an emotional and cerebral hit that exposes the reasons why we communicate. The moral complexities of all exchange and the sharing of cultural goods are inspiring and overwhelming subjects. To think of your self as equal with another is rare and the artist is unfortunately omnipotent in the gallery where they will always have to work very hard to make their guests feel equal to their host.
Written by Sarah Tripp for 'Art Monthly', May 2003
1. Phillips, Adam, 'Equals' (Faber and Faber, London 2002)