Interviewed in the lead-up to his solo exhibition, ‘Orgasmatron (spaces to make love in)’
at Blindside Gallery in Melbourne
Your artwork has technology at its core, as a material and as a medium. How do you treat technology in your work – is it just another thing to be manipulated into form, like marble, wood or oil paint?
Firstly I have to say that I see machines rather than technology being at the core of my work, in the sense that a machine can be any combination of things or events that produce something. So a body (human or otherwise) could be a machine, or a computer, or a combination of sensors, electrons and cables, or colours, or eyes and brain could form a machine. Then its less about the representation or the loaded histories (though of course these are still present), than about re-imagining new combinations and new productive possibilities, new ways of extending potential for all components, inclusive of those that might get labelled as ‘technologies’. Also I think that when artists start to talk about technologies being at the core of the work, there is a tendency for the work to operate as some kind of demonstration of skills or supposed novelty value of the technological media, as a lot of ‘new’ media does. It’s a bit like centering the artistic effort of a painting on the development of a new pigment or brush – its not very artistically sustainable. When Pollock ‘invents’ a new painting producing machine out of a body, a stick and a can of house paint, it’s about how the combination of those ‘technologies’ produce an effect, not about the cleverness of the combination. Similarly, while there are a lot of new media artists concentrating on so called technological advances, there are also those such as Bruce Nauman or Woody Vasulka who have inventively explored the boundaries of the medium without thinking that that in itself constitutes an interesting art work.
Of course at the same time as this, my work doers tend to utilise computers and various electronic devices, and there is definitely an interest in the ways that they combine with bodies, and trying to coax these events of collaboration between elements into non-habitual and potential-laden directions, in ways that neither necessarily preference the bodies or technologies as primary agents. Much of this is about interfacing – so many of our interactions with technological devices seem to be governed by what have become habitual actions – the ubiquitous ‘swipe’ of smart phones and tablets, for example – that curtail the potential of movements and ways of approaching such conversations. I’m always trying to imagine interfacings that, as much as possible, don’t already restrict the range of potential movements. So I shy away from any buttons, anything that has to be attached to the body, anything that might have to be explained about the necessary ways of interfacing – you can go about your business in the space, walking, lying, sitting, being still, there’s no prescribed action (even if certain actions may elicit more activity).
In Orgasmatron I’ve also tried to think about ways that generative programming itself can be made more ‘ecological’. That is, how it can not only be intensively relational to the whole art-event by being responsive or enmeshed within a field of relation with the other components that alter it and are altered by it (quasi-causality), but how the computer programs themselves can be arranged to be responsive to their own evolving parameters and develop, evolve or drift into a more complex network in and of themselves. This attempts to move generative programming away from ‘fitness’ criteria that prescribe outcomes (where new data or outcomes survive in the program if they match certain criteria, a ‘neo-Darwinist’ approach), or a chaotic approach (that injects relationally random data into the system in order to generate change, such as linking cloud movements to sound volume, for example). Needless to say, making a binary system designed for dependability act otherwise is quite difficult, and it is a work in progress.
I’ve always thought that about the term ‘machines’ – it’s why this website is called what it is, a reference to a biological behaviour that could be said to be machinic. There’s always the perception though that machines are mechanic and linear and rigid steel. And logical even. When really, that’s just our attempts at locking down regularity and predictability – ideas that are unnatural and ultimately illogical.
So tell me a little bit about the biological/organic nature of the Orgasmatron. It’s very sexy Andrew.
Yes I think that rigid division between biological and technical is usefully problematised by this notion of the machinic potential of all systems, and acknowledges that both machines and biological entities can act more and less programmatically, though its probably necessary to emphasise that this isn’t meant as some cybernetic conflation of the two.
Regarding the Orgasmatron, I’m not sure if it is ‘biological’. I mean, of course it looks somewhat biological in its aesthetic, but it’s resolutely not biological in its construction. Or perhaps what is biological to some extent is the event of interaction between a participant and the object itself, some kind of sensory conversation between body surfaces and organs and the vibrational forces emanating from the objects. It is certainly an attempt to be speculative and open-ended, which usually does imply more the biological and analogue than digital technologies. Perhaps the hardest thing with a technological object is to saturate it with potential, whereas ‘life’ is always creatively diverging. On its own a technical object like a computer program has at best limited ability to generate anything truly new (even its randomness is based on mathematic equations using Pi, and so gives an illusion of the chaotic while retaining a pattern), so again its perhaps the evolving relations of the art event as a whole that offer some chance of moving beyond this.
Orgasmatron attempts to experiment with neither focusing preferentially on the technical configuration, nor on the human. What I mean is that the bodies that engage with it are not its complete focus and change occurs not only in the interfacing between biological and technical, but also between a variety of systems that establish complex feedback loops with or without the human. For example, vibrations from sounds alter the colours projected, light variation then effects sound qualities and triggers and so on. There is a sort of relation through ‘infection’ (ie, sympathetic resonance) going on too, with surfaces of different viscosities (skin, speakers, plastic, air) vibrating together or against one another, and also an enmeshing through disruption, where bodies add to or interfere with signals being transmitted, slowing vibrations, creating new light variation through shadows, cutting sounds and dispersing them through a series of speakers, and so on.
I suppose this could be seen to imitate some of the complexity of biological systems, particularly in that it moves the system towards greater relational complexity and interdependence through the production of always emerging differences.
Although I would say that the work is meant to be more sensual than ‘sexy’, if we think about sex in a wider sense perhaps it is that emersion in relation and the care and attention given to engagement with both the sense organs (in their widest sense, with the whole surface of the body becoming a shared organ or site of interaction), and the pleasure in this saturation in the moment that I’m interested in relating the experience to.
You speak a little bit about this relation to the human and imply that the human may only be a small factor in the full understanding of your art. What part does the audience really play then – does your art still continue to exist without a human audience, does it evolve or develop if there’s no human mind to contemplate it?
I think there’s two parts to this. The first is that when I say the work doesn’t necessarily preference the human, I mean that while it engages with the body or parts of bodies and the way that they combine with other parts of the work to produce something, it has less interest in engaging with a human as a preformed or completed subject. So a lot of the interactions are at a physical, subconscious level, which is not at all to say that they are not significant for the way the event develops.
The second answer is that I think there has in fact been a shift in my work, away from interactive situations that, while they tried to engage with bodies rather than subjects, certainly relied heavily on the input from these bodies to generate events. This shift, which I suppose I was already vaguely thinking about, really mobilized after the Entertaining the environment shows that you and I curated last year, and the various discussions around the work. For me it was about making works that created more of a dynamic ecology, with as many factors as possible feeding back into the development and change occurring.
So on a physical level, once a participant has triggered the Orgasmatron to turn on, it will in fact generate change itself, because sound, vibration, light and pressure are feeding back and affecting each other. But if a body is present, that will affect the way things develop, as the body provides its own shadows, pressure/weight, vibrations, sounds and so on into the system.
Its quite interesting when you’re in the system, moving around, because its impossible to tell how you are causing change, even though you are. This was the concept behind the Entertaining the environment shows – separating immersion in the unfolding relation from comprehension of its causes.
You use the ecology in your discussions Andrew, so tell me about your thoughts around ecology, given that most people would think about ecology as the world of the natural environment.
I agree, ‘ecology’ concerns the world and its self-organising ability. Perhaps the difference is whether or not the word ‘natural’ is included, or what is meant by the term. So perhaps if you think of everything as part of the ecology of the world – people, art works, computers, etc, rather than insisting on a separation between human activity and some supposedly ‘natural’ or pre-human world, ecology takes on a slightly different and less oppositional meaning. Then ecology might be seen as any set of things that interact in complex ways. This is closer to the meaning I attribute to it in my art works, which at least attempt to engage the participant with some sort of increased felt connection or relation to other things, though of course there are limits and parts of the work that don’t really evolve relationally in any meaningful way.
I’m going to throw one last question at you now. I want to know, given the complex ideas in your work and especially the rethinking of the way in which an audience engages your art, do you think the artwork you make, and the ideas and way you come to understand it, is an attempt to capture an embrace and understanding of all art. Do you find that understanding art in this way means to rethink ways in which we think about engaging even the more traditionally non-interactive and non-participatory artworks, like paintings or marble sculptures for example?
Wow, that’s a big question… In some ways I think its an attempt to get interactive art to catch up with things that have been happening on pretty sophisticated levels within painting and sculpture for a long time. That is, the kind of subtle and slippery ways that perception, bodies, memory and the visual stimulus of the work provide a complex and emergent relational web. Some art engages with this very explicitly, such as Impressionist painting, Futurist Sculpture, or more contemporary artists playing with perceptive processes such as Turrell, Irwin, Lygia Clark, some of Nauman’s work and so on, but I think these things are always engaged with to some degree in art events. Maybe it is a question of whether or not the work encourages an opening of perception, or an increase in the affectual potential of the participant, so that it works to increase our sensitivities or abilities to relate. Perhaps that’s a good criteria to assess art on, but I certainly wouldn’t like to be prescriptive about such things, or suggest in any way that there are any prescribed definitions of a good or interesting work. Perhaps it is the work that disrupts such preconceptions through making some truly surprising or unusual connection that is the most exciting.
Andrew’s show opens at Blindside Gallery in October. Opening night festivities start at 6pm on Thursday 17 October.
You can see more of Andrew’s work on his website here.