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The Odour of a Rose: Media Arts at the Sydney Biennale

by Darren Tofts

My commission is to survey media arts at the 2004 Biennale of Sydney. The assumption behind this commission is that media arts is part of the vocabulary of contemporary arts practice; accordingly, it should figure prominently in the Biennale. Media arts, that is - not new media. For years I’ve been railing against the continued use of the term “new media”, arguing that it it’s no longer a viable category. Video art’s grown up. Mixed media’s looking decidedly old. Computers and art, new media? Forget it.

Listen, books were once a new medium, technologies that established the foundations of literacy and a different way of relating to the world. Books were the material expression of enlightenment reason, galvanizing cultures around new vectors of thought and feeling through the vehicle of the printed word. Computers and communications networks expanded this project many centuries later, integrating global communities via the electronic word. It was this confluence of new technology and the birth of a brave new world that seemed to be mischievously expressed in Heimo Zobernig’s Untitled (Info Lounge) installed at Artspace. With its trestle tables littered with books and chains it recalled the ancient libraries of the middle ages, the computer showrooms of antiquity. But these books were not chained to the tables, as was the fashion in the days of literary incunabula, they were chained together, forming a linked network of texts, a visual correlative of a hypertext document containing catalogues of every exhibiting artist in the 2004 Biennale of Sydney (including the biennale catalogue itself). My sense of the overwhelming self-consciousness of this work (did it know I was coming?) was heightened by the mirrored walls that flank it, which expanded the reading room into a vertiginous mise en abyme. Starring into this abyss of books and multiplied subjectivity, I was immediately reminded of Borges’ marvelous reading room in his “Library of Babel”, an endless labyrinth of books in which the world and the library are indistinguishable, in which knowledge and the pursuit of understanding cohere into “a sphere whose exact centre is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible” (sound familiar?). Unlike the narrator of that story, who searches in vain for a catalogue of catalogues, I have such a volume at my disposal, a book about other books, an index of artists, a temporary contents page of this medieval World Wide Web.

As I set off for press viewings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art, I was buoyed by the wit and play of Zomig’s reading room. It heartened me to reflect that the very idea of “new” media was being critically explored, defamiliarising the concept of technological novelty in terms of an echo of a new medium from another time, warped into a present when the novelty of our own new media has already become a memory. Clutching my catalogue of catalogues, I continue my journey along the “walkable circuit” of Biennale venues, noticing that the Athens Torch Relay will also be tracing a similar path through the city the following day, no doubt crossing the Harbour Bridge. I wonder if it is design or happenstance that accounts for its motto, “Pass the flame, unite the world”. Another inflection of bridge building between reason and emotion, perhaps? To what occult lengths has biennale curator Isabel Carlos gone to transcribe this city, this time, with her post-Cartesian rapprochement? Either way, the metaphor of bridge building isn’t proving of much use to me as I weave my way from one gallery to the next.

A biennale, as I understand it, is designed to present a snapshot of current art. Traditional art forms are certainly alive and well here, with a wealth of fine work in photography, sculpture, film, painting, illustration, installation, performance (Asta Gröting’s and Buddy Big Mountain’s live event at the AGNSW), even bio-art, arguably the most current and controversial arts practice is represented (de Rijke/de Rooij’s flower arrangement). There is also new media, of sorts, to be found. DVD is the most recent new medium that features prominently in many of the works I encounter, from Loulou Cherinet’s White Women and Amilcar Packer’s Video#02 2002, to Susan Norrie’s Enola and Mélik Ohanian’s White Wall Travelling.

Yet, taking into account the multi-channel richness offered by the medium of DVD, let’s not forget that it’s still video by any other name. And for that matter, DVD is not that new any more. Nor are plasma screens as visual modes of display. Both have been subsumed into audio-visual culture as industry standards in high-fidelity representation. Digital imaging, compositing and other visual effects have also become staple tools of the image maker’s trade these days, not to mention the predominance of visual effects in cinema.

This issue concerned me as I sat in the sun at Circular Quay listening to a West Indian busker playing steel drums to kitschy samples of movies themes and popular standards. Could we still be that hung up about the place of computers and digital media in art? Was the art world really that divided on the issue of interactivity? And was this indifference to interactive art really being articulated in Sydney, 2004? After all, this biennale was based around the very idea of bringing things together, of re-uniting thought and feeling, of suturing ruptures in the psyche.

A line from one of T.S. Eliot’s essays came to mind. In his 1921 essay on the Metaphysical poets, Eliot complained of a rupture in the mind of England in the seventeenth century, a “dissociation of sensibility”, precipitated largely by the poetry of John Milton, that dismembered thought and feeling. For Eliot, the seventeenth century heralded an age of divisiveness, of reflective poets and intellectual poets. It broke from the rugged verbal experimentation of the Metaphysical tradition of John Donne and his contemporaries, for whom thought and emotion were integrated: “Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility”. (Eliot 1976: 287) Enacted in the same century as Descartes’ disembodiment of the mind, this dissociation of sensibility was, for Eliot, a deeply schismatic event “from which we have never recovered”.(288)The organic intensity to be encountered in the Songs and Sonets had evaporated by the time of Paradise Lost and the English language, Eliot mourned, had suffered as a result of it.

Putting aside the question of poesy and mechanisms of sensibility, Eliot was drawing attention to the false dichotomy of thinking of thought and feeling as if they were separate realms of experience. It is suggestive of the same division that Isabel Carlos’ biennale thematic was attempting to resolve, to bridge the historical schism of mind and body, reason and emotion. It seemed preposterous to think that interactive art had so quickly gone off the agenda. Was I witnessing the traces of an ideological partitioning of interactive art from mainstream art traditions? Could it be that the biennale of Sydney, especially this biennale, was acting out the very rupture that was being rejected in its talismanic slogan, “I feel, therefore I am”? By way of contrast, the parallel blockbuster 2004 exhibition in Melbourne (a collaboration between ACMI and the NGV) was inclusive of all current art forms, and interactive media was very well represented – it was in no way marginal to this overview of the present.

To the tune of “Yesterday” I reflect that the 2002 Biennale of Sydney was also fairly light on when it came to interactive art. Maybe Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility was more expansive than the mind of England. Perhaps, like the postmodern, it is a condition, with symptoms, such as disembodiment, missing art and gastronomic regret. The Cogito, it would seem, is harder to inverse than Carlos assumed. If the 2004 Biennale of Sydney is bearing the strain of historical ruptures, of mind and body, thought and feeling, perhaps interactive art is present here somewhere, in spirit rather than body.

Succumbing to division, I see the world differently. Things are no longer what they seem, how they appear to the senses. I’m in a mutely lit room with thick, plush carpet, a Persian rug, a smart bookcase and an elegant wooden desk. I glimpse a sumptuous easy chair in an adjoining room. With the adrenalin rush of transgression I feel I’ve strayed into a gallery office, perhaps that of the MCA director. But other people are here, too, sitting on the chairs, standing and gazing into a mirror, wandering and listening intently to disembodied voices emanating from different parts of the rooms. I realize I’m in an immersive environment, an activated space. An interactive art work.

Click images for larger version

Mario Rizzi, The Sofa of Jung, 2004. Sound installation in two rooms.

Italian artist Mario Rizzi’s The Sofa of Jung is a sound installation, though entering it you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. These meticulously furnished and detailed rooms bear the uncanny déjà vu of a simulacrum, a recreation of Carl Jung’s psychoanalytic studio, dislocated from its original setting in Zurich (hyperreality and the uncanny are also explored in Susan Norrie’s wonderful Enola, which features a Japanese theme-park utopia of the world’s great monuments). Not restricted to tromp l’oeil visual detail, The Sofa of Jung is an affective space, in which our movement in it activates fragments of spoken narrative, reflections and personal observations. If we are prepared to commit ourselves to the work, to give it the time it deserves, we can piece together an account of a complex psycho-drama of sublimated passion involving Jung and his first patient Sabina Spielrein. The other voice we hear is that of Sigmund Freud, whom Jung approached to help resolve his problematic obsession with his patient. Drawing on actual sources, including the correspondence between Freud and Jung and Spielrein’s diaries (recently discovered in Geneva), Rizzi fuses fiction and reality to create a compelling space that allows us to explore the strange algebra of impossible passion.

What is most impressive about this work is that it seamlessly blends digital technology into the very fabric of the installation. We become part of the work the second we enter the space, conceptually orienting ourselves to it, adjusting to its ambience and figuring out its modes of interaction. The interactive experience of the work is subtle and sophisticated, allowing us to engage with the space intuitively, as if we are eavesdropping on the residue of words spoken prior to our visit. Rizzi’s principles of interaction for The Sofa of Jung were “simple but not overwhelming”, designed to enable visitors to encounter ways of becoming involved in an unseen, ambient world of sound. This certainly seemed to be the case as I watched the behaviour of visitors to the work, coming to a standstill in odd places on hearing a voice start speaking in their immediate proximity, then gazing at nothing, listening intently.

Rizzi didn’t leave anything to chance, though, providing navigational information on the work’s didactic panel: “To experience this work, visitors are invited to walk around the space, walk on the rug and sit in the armchairs”. I was initially surprised and disappointed to read this, given the state of mind I had been in all morning. I felt it was another instance of decline, a sign that the literacies of interaction had not sunk in since the time when Burning the Interface was installed in these very rooms. My concern that interactive art still required explanation was redressed, to some extent, by Rizzi’s rationale for the didactic panel. He argued that although this is an interactive sound installation, visitors would be tentative about touching anything given that they were in a museum setting. While respectful of his position, I was still yearning for that extra bit of daring, for Rizzi to tempt his audience to completely work things out for themselves, to garner the resolve to sit on the chairs without being told, having attuned themselves to the aesthetics of the work. After all, it’s not as if the gallery going public hasn’t been exposed to such installations before, of the new or even old media kind.

By their very nature immersive environments are evocations of other space, designed to persuade and convince the visitor that they are elsewhere. Sound is one of the most important elements in creating this vicarious sensation of presence. Rizzi’s use of locational sound effectively infuses the built environment of the analyst’s studio with a spectral quality. The visual tactility of the rooms disappears as we listen attentively to Spielrein’s diary entries and the narratives of desire, passion and trauma they invoke. These words take us into even more intimate spaces of experience, the sublimated depths of the psyche, revealing traumas and unfulfilled desires of which the patient herself was not fully aware until they were given expression in words, the very words we hear. In this Rizzi has quite literally explored the biennale theme of reason and emotion, creating dual spaces of mind (Jung’s office) and feeling (the analyst’s studio). The talking cure of psychoanalysis is for Rizzi the means of bringing the divided self together, disclosing sublimated feelings to the mind for understanding and resolution.

In an adjacent room I find myself in complete darkness, the only light being the blinking strobes that the didactic panel had warned me of. Still preoccupied with bodiless voices, a voice speaks to me out of the darkness. After the surprise I start hearing the words mid sentence: “…changing ourselves with new technologies of electromagnetism”. As my eyes become accustomed to the darkness I find myself talking to Catherine Richards, the Canadian artist whose work, I was scared to death/I could have died of joy, I’m starting to see more clearly. As we continue to talk about the work I find myself involuntarily touching this crystalline, illuminated glass cylinder (the didactic panel was silent on this issue). The artist follows suit, gliding her hand along the tube. As she does so a stunning trail of blue plasma accompanies her action, responding to changes in the speed, rhythm and direction of her movement. Richards explains how the tubes are responsive not only to touch but to physical proximity, to a range of about three feet. She demonstrates this, pointing out how they become inactive as she moves further away. “Pretending to be a typical museum exhibit” she quips. This reflection on interactivity couldn’t have been better expressed, especially in the context of my experience of Rizzi’s Jung room. It neatly captures the dynamic nature of responsive, interactive art works, their unpredictable modes of behaviour in relation to their visitors.

Catherine Richards, I was scared to death/I could have died of joy, 2000. Installation, stainless steel, glass, electronics, electrodes, electron guns, luminescent glasses. Dimensions variable.

I was scared to death/I could have died of joy is a poetic meditation on the relations between our bodies and electricity, the electricity of our bodies and our technological environments. The mind/body split is very much present in this work. Within the glass tubes we see something vaguely organic, delicate glass-blown sculptures that are at once beautiful and familiar, yet strange and alien at the same time. In her catalogue essay Frances Dyson describes them as “the right and left lobes of a brain with a trailing ‘spinal column’ that tapers to an ambiguous, reptilian tail”. Looking very much like something out of H.R. Geiger, these halved brains suggest not only disembodiment, but also dismemberment, the dislocation of the mind from itself. Dissected and placed on display in their canisters for inspection, they very much look like surgical specimens, a connotation reinforced by the stainless steel “clean” tables on which they are mounted. Struggling, perhaps, to communicate with the other, there is an unavoidable sense that some mysterious relations still exist between the two parts, a longing for wholeness, for integration.

Catherine Richards, I was scared to death/I could have died of joy, 2000.

In this we can read a dystopian allegory of what we are becoming in the age of telepresence, of networked disembodiment, of cyberspace. The physical act of touching a glass tube activated by an electrode plays out this larger cultural and social process whereby humans have become increasingly spliced into electrical and cybernetic circuits, from using mobile phones to communicating via the internet. I could see how it would be very tempting to see the work as a commentary on loss in the age of electronic technologies, the loss of our humanness, our organic wholeness and integrity. I find this a little too simplistic. For Richards, too, there is more to it than this.

These partial brains are far from being the abject remainders or detritus of networked humanity. The pulsing rhythm of their fluorescent glow suggests that they sense our presence and that while apparently disembodied, these minds are not divorced from feeling. The interplay of thought and feeling is lyrically evoked in the dynamic behaviour of the plasma and its emanating hue, which for Richards is the materialization of specific emotional states of fear and joy. In this Richards’ work resonates with ongoing critiques of the very concept of disembodiment as a condition of telepresence, which argue that the sensation of disembodiment paradoxically requires a body to begin with. Telepresence is a conceptual understanding of a particular kind of embodied experience, the sense and therefore vicarious sensation of being where you are not. I left the installation thinking that these canisters were vital and dynamic, integrated sensibilities that would have no trouble feeling their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.

I had my fix of interaction. The world of art seemed to make some kind of sense again. But questions still remained unanswered. Was the work of Mario Rizzi and Catherine Richards reflective of the current state of interactive art? If so it suggests a process of interpolation, a creative appropriation of the technologies and techniques of digital media into hybrid, mixed media practices, of which the digital element is one component. This is not untypical of a lot of work one would see in a dedicated exhibition of digital art today, so in this sense it is an accurate reflection of the state of interactive art in 2004. The international art world has had at least fifteen years of conspicuous media arts practice with which to digest the creative potential of digital technologies and the aesthetics of interaction.

In this respect it could be argued that the 2004 Biennale of Sydney offered a perspective on this process of cultural absorption, the translation of interactive art as an emerging, spectacular and discrete practice into the mainstream of contemporary arts. Reflecting on this during the course of the afternoon, the idea found some resonance in Terry Smith’s inspiring talk on the place of biennales and the meaning of contemporary art. For Smith, both the biennale and the contemporary shared a common value, nowness. Not wanting to define the contemporary in periodic or epochal terms, Smith was interested in teasing out its meanings to do with being in and of a particular time. In doing so he shed light on the role of biennales to capture something that is happening here and now, rather than survey broad movements or trends. In this respect, the work of Rizzi and Richards in the context of the overall exhibition could be seen as a growing maturity in interactive art, its inclusion as part of the evolving vocabulary of contemporary art. Well, it’s an interpretation and while it makes sense, it’s not one that I’m entirely satisfied with. I’m still piqued by its counter side, the possibility that interactive art has yet to be fully embraced by mainstream art culture, a thought that doesn’t bear thinking about. We’ll see what happens in 2006.


Eliot, T. S., (1976) “The Metaphysical Poets”, in Selected Essays, London: Faber and Faber

Darren Tofts is Associate Professor of Media & Communications at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. He is currently writing a book on Australian media arts.

This text was first commissioned by Artspace, and published in different form in Criticism + Engagement + Thought, ed Blair French, Adam Geczy, Nicholas Tsoutas, Artspace, 2004.

Images courtesy of the artists and the Biennale of Sydney.