michael j. morris


control

Start.

My initial experience with Control [command+N, google “urban arts space control,” click page, copy URL, click “hyperlink” “button” in wordpress interface, paste URL], the game/exhibit being produced by Joshua Penrose and Nick Bontrager at the Urban Arts Space City Center Gallery, was a kind of confused amusement: various electronic apparatuses hanging on one wall, faced from the opposite side of the long gallery by a series of blank white canvases. I didn’t know what the machines were doing (but they were doing something). White buttons–almost camouflaged against white walls–punctuated the second wall alongside the white canvases. And at the far end of the second wall was a vintage television playing a vintage video clip of a man pressing several buttons and turning dials on a large computer-like machine. Surrounded by whirring noises, some mechanisms carrying on all by themselves (or so they seemed), and others accompanied by simple buttons–buttons unchaperoned and oh so seductive, their simply stated presence somehow already flirtatious, asking to be pressed–I felt implicated on a playing field suspended between hidden/classified/specialized mechanistic determinism(s), the titillating desire of my own curiosity, and an invisible proposal soliciting my participation.
“Are the buttons to be pressed?”
“Michael, aren’t all buttons to be pressed?”
“Yes, I suppose all buttons are to be pressed by someone. Are the buttons to be pressed by me?”
“Yes.”

I don’t know what will happen when I press any of these buttons, and I feel buzzing hints of intoxication in those moments of anticipation between my finger pressing the button and waiting to see what will happen. Paintings slide along walls. A dvd player drawer opens and closes. A little red symbol at the corner of the screen that says “NO.” I don’t know what is happening when I turn these dials. And it takes me a moment to realize the each time I press one of these buttons a different segment of audio recorded conversation comes through the headphones. The unpredictability is exhilarating, as is the sense of initiation into the secrets of the show as I begin to figure out what each button does. I experience a sense of belonging to the system of what has been designed in this space–even though much of what has been designed is hidden from view, complex concepts and circuitry concealed by walls and masked by simplified interfaces. I feel functional, useful even, because I am participating in the production of what and how the work does what it is doing. It feels good to be a part of something bigger than myself, implicated in the pre-programmed/deterministic function of each user/interface interaction.
“WAR”–a word flashing across a screen, on a vintage computer monitor.
The Gulf War Did Not Take Place by Jean Baudrillard. The mediation of reality and action (atrocious, tragic, violent) through systems of representation and technology.
The naive assumption that what I think/perceive my actions do and mean is the full extent/range of their significance. Trusting the transparency of cause and effect, the transparency of my role in a system of invisible mechanisms.
The pleasure of curiosity and anticipation begins to dissolve, replaced by a creeping anxiety concerning my eagerness to take action, to participate, so cavalier  and so unbothered [exhilarated, even] by the unpredictability of the outcome of my actions. The seemingly simple joy of pressing a button to see what will happen is supplanted by the discomfort of recognizing that my actions completed a circuit in a series of processes and outcomes of which I was ignorant. The actions that I took (take?) were/are always producing more than I perceive, and that unpredictability, previously so titillating, now edges towards terrifying. Certainly I can justify my willingness to participate in opaque (classified, specialized, hidden) operations: it’s an art gallery, it’s just a game, there’s nothing sinister here. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve been given a peep-hole look into something else, something like the ethical dilemma of curiosity, action, and uncertainty.

The three white paintings are blank, but their content exceeds their blankness. Each one is mounted on a machine that slides it along the wall when a white button to the side of it is pushed. Behind the first is a series of unmarked dials. I turn them with absolutely no sense of what each one does. I look around to see if any other pieces in the exhibit are noticeably affected, or to look for reactions amongst the other people in the gallery. Nothing. I press the button again. Nothing. I wait, and gradually the painting slides back into place to conceal the dials once again. Second: a small screen is revealed, and on the screen in a mildly distorted live feed video of the interior of the Urban Arts Space, people milling around the front desk and tables of food. Third: a tiny black peep hole is revealed, and through it I can see the space next door to the gallery, an industrial looking space gutted in a state of deconstruction/reconstructions. Behind each painting is a kind of access to something else: dials with which I interact, not knowing if they are merely decorative or if they are producing invisible effects elsewhere. Of course they don’t need to be metaphors, but I can’t help but think about the hidden mechanisms by which art or painting or even the gallery space does what it does, that which is behind what I’m encountering on the surface of the canvas that suggests that more is happening/being done than just canvas, stretched and gessoed [it’s difficult for me to not think of the history of painting behind the emergence of the solid field paintings that is a relevant background to the significance and even production of such paintings, and how that history functions relatively invisibly behind the austere surface of the canvas]. Behind the second canvas, I am given access to a live feed video, in a sense collapsing space between where I am standing and the inside of the gallery, and a tension between the “stationary” blankness of the canvas and the moving image that it conceals [also, I am struck by the piece as surveillance, and the sometimes explicit, sometimes surreptitious, systems of surveillance inherent in gallery and institutional spaces/cultures]. Behind the third canvas, a glimpse into a world beyond. I am immediately drawn into partial-metaphor, considering how art functions to open access to other [possible] worlds, literally providing us with more to see, and conceptually expanding our potential ability to see.
I am left with a sense of the partiality of my own situation/location and perspective. Control has left me was a strong sense of the hidden complexity of the world(s) in which I am participating, but they are worlds that remain invisible. I sit here, pressing keys marked with letters with a sense of certainty that letter I anticipate with appear on the screen, that strung together these letters will produce words which are then strung together by readers to produce meaning. But what I am doing always exceeds my awareness and intention. When I press these keys, I participate in a complex system of electronic/physical processes that produce a desired result on the screen. I do not know how this happens, not really, and although these processes are relatively benign (suspending for the moment any discussions about the ethical issues surrounding the use of electricity), I am aware of the opacity of processes that previously may have seemed simple, transparent. When I press “publish,” this text enters an infinite field of publics, networks, readers, cultures, etc. etc. etc., and its possible effects can in no way be fully calculated ahead of time. I am willingly participating in systems [of meaning, of signification, etc.] that far exceed anything I can quantify or know with certainty. It’s almost terrifying. And it leaves me feeling very still. My cursor lingers over the “publish” button, and I come back to add one more line of text, one more layer of information to give inflection and direction to the unpredictable action I am about to take (blogging). In this moment, with my finger hovering above this button, the stillness is a tension between the pleasure and anxiety of the unpredictability of the effects of my own actions.

[press “publish”]

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