Relocation and mobility enter into the discourse of contemporary art with relative frequency. To reposition a practice or engage an audience in a notion of the nomadic is common, and when an institution relocates, the sense of its history can overwhelm. How does one rethink and re-present the past without the trappings of institutionalism and canonization? One strategy is a year-zero approach, restructuring without considering the past. This can be seductive and the weight of any particular history is massive. For younger participants it is simply not their history. This more revolutionary approach is often necessary when a political "cleaning of house" is in order. Here the events of post-1968 Paris in French film and literature come to mind. Another approach, equally seductive, is to present a timeline of events and artefacts, tracing the development and evolution of an institution.
The framework from which to present the work is arbitrary: political, aesthetic or formal, sequential or any number of theoretical approaches according to the curator's personal inclinations. This is perhaps the easiest approach. The curator sets up the theoretical/historical/formal approach and the pieces fall into place. Toronto's InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre is positioned by necessity as engaging in newness: the misleading term "new" media is integral to the understanding of that art. To engage in electronic media is to shift continuously, to call attention to a central aspect of the medium, that of time. InterAccess's relocation to a larger space in a different area of downtown Toronto affords a fresh look at its history and the history of electronic art.
The premise of "This Must Be the Place" is the notion that history, rather than being linear, is fluid, shifting. How to speak of a history of a medium which resists historicity? A museum of media art renders the work toothless, frozen in a moment and depoliticized. Curator Dana Samuel presents a challenge to herself and therefore to the audience: how to survey a history without presenting a survey exhibition? This reflow of information, history, artists and technology into a new context allows the work to remain ever-present, even when the technology used is outmoded. It is in the resistance to the politically troublesome pursuit of the ever-new that electronic art functions best; it makes use of technology as it develops but remains outside industry and mass media.
Vera Frenkel's String Games: Improvisation for Inter-City Video from 1974 utilizes teleconferencing technology provided by Bell Canada. The video installation as presented at InterAccess is, of course, a tracing of an event that took place thirty-one years ago. The string game "cat's cradle" is enacted with five participants standing in for the fingers and performing gestures, word games, and improvised sounds. In studios in Toronto and Montreal two teams play back and forth, broadcasting to each other as playback; each is the audience for the other. They are in a sense merged into a tangled history of video art and Canadian artists' co-ops, utilizing state-of-the-art technology for the mid-1970s. No theatricality was intended on Frenkel's part, the performance and broadcast being destined for the participants rather than for an audience. Viewing this as a variation on Bertolt Brecht's "learning plays," however, can be useful. The internal loop of presentation and re-presentation for an audience who are also the performers can be viewed as a form of epic theatre, where participants play the roles in shifts, without an audience. The idea was for factory workers to perform a play among themselvesa pick-up game of theatrelearning Marxist theory in the process. The artefact of the performance at InterAccess stands as a reference point for an event, but can now include an external audience as a trace of the original production.
David Rokeby's Guardian Angel (2001) literalizes these traces as aesthetics, re-inscribing them within an industrial process. A camera eye reframes random passers-by, isolating them in a projection on the window of the gallery. Here the possibility exists for the audience (those same passers-by) to see themselves within the very surveillance system that is tracking them. The traces of light from cars and other movements on the street are continuously refreshed onscreen as the camera shifts its focus on a singular subject. The loneliness of fragmentation is heightened by what Terry Eagleton describes as the "simultaneous complicity and contempt" that characterizes the urban consumer of commodity culture (Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, 1981, p. 26).
Norman White's The Music Lesson (1984) utilizes trace as an aggregate in this kinetic sculpture. Within a large rectangular box, recordings of children practicing music mix with motors which respond to the pitch of the instruments. White's voice joins in as the cacophony increases in intensity. Chainlink fencing covers the box and the mechanical workings, literalizing the lurking danger inherent in both the trauma of childhood and the fragmentation of urban street life. Nell Tenhaaf's Swell (2003) is an aluminium and Plexiglas structure, seemingly representative of cellular structures. Lights and sounds sense the presence of the audience and increase in frequency to the proximity of the audience.
The works in "This Must Be the Place" respond to the notion of "mass," whether a gathering of physical mass in Tenhaaf's response to audience presence or Rokeby's play on mass spectacle. White's mass of sounds creates an internal loop while Frenkel's participatory mass communication anticipates the convergence of media in the twenty-first century. Likewise the traces found in each of the works create recognizable paths in sound or light, outlining the history of an institution, the material history of electronic art fragmented and reflowed as a living history. > Mark Schilling
The author is an art critic who lives in Toronto.