Like Time Lords, the boffins have regenerated… and this time, they’re artists! That’s one conclusion to draw from the Kinetica Art Fair , (4 – 7 February), dedicated to kinetic, cybernetic, electronic and light art in the P3 Gallery situated deep in the concrete underbelly of the University of Westminster campus in London. The first thing you see is Ben Parry and Jacques Chaucat’s Milk Float in the subterranean car park- a mad, clunky installation of animated wheels, horns and pulleys on a milk float. It’s one of many amusements to be had at the show, and it demonstrates art’s latest fad- using and fusing technology, whether digital, steam-punk or Heath Robinson. Is technology the ticket for art’s future, or merely the provider of tools that become obsolete as new technology replace them? Is technology the messenger or the message for the artist?
Digital technology generates much of the easy-access eye-candy art of the present. At Kinetica Art Fair, there was no shortage of screens of digital wizardry, and Berlin gallery [DAM] even exhibited a rendered film co-authored by a Second Life artist avatar, Gazina Baboli. Digital art, though, is best when it reflects reality. Flutter, by London-based Cinimod Studio, is a row of 44 screens showing a spectral, virtual butterfly, its flight sliced into frames, each animated. This is nature dissected and amplified by technology, not for science but for its inherent beauty. Tenderpixel Gallery’s stand had another example of new digitally-enabling paths- Jeremy Woods’ My Ghost is a simple, legendless graphic of his movements over 10 years around London as tracked by GPS- an elegant, organic personal psychogeography.
Many installations feel like the future. Rosaline de Thélin’s Homos Luminosos hangs ghost-like figures of light in cascades of optical fibre, like people teleporting into the Starship Enterprise, but with a stark white-against-black aesthetic. Jason Bruges has 30 small PSP screens on a mobile called Screen Cloud, and seductively, they display different colours as it turns. Lewis Sykes offers a future of sorts to the ancient art of bell-ringing in P.E.A.L. Pass your hand through a light column in a virtual ‘campanile’, and a bell is triggered. The sequence played becomes a polymer-like graphic in a magic circle on the floor.
There is a certain romance in manipulating technology, personified in the image of the white-coated boffin. The artists on show at the ArtHertz stand don’t wear the coats but exemplify a focus on weird retro-gadgetry. Andrew Black uses classic Nixie tubes in his intriguing No Numbers computational machine, and makes an off-mains incandescent bulb shine with sound that you bring to it. Sarah Angliss’ Ealing Feeder is a sinister musical box of bells holding a doll, inspired by the 30s obsession with electricity to replace domestic servants. This is a taster of the ambitious Electricity and Ghosts show planned for Battersea Power Station, which plays with the concept of the ghost in the machine. Boffins can come from anywhere, like Hungary’s Rudolf Pacsika. His splendid Generator is a mad electric pendulum, its weight a screen display of his son apparently pushing it to swing.
Boffins as artists, though, are not a new breed. Bruce Lacey, a survivor from the ICA’s pioneering 1968 show Digital Serendipity, resurrected his original robot R.O.S.A. B.O.S.O.M., which stands for Radio Operated Simulated Actress Battery or Standby Operated Mains. She’s a big girl who once played the Queen of France at the Royal Court, and as well as telescopic red lips and a supply of confetti to court with, she uses aircraft engine parts. This is still as charmingly whimsical as it must have been back in its day, and unlike the ersatz past of, say, steam-punk, it is an authentic past. Other 60s veterans were also exhibiting- a piece by Liliane Lijn without her trademark cones, and two recent light boxes by Peter Sedgley, called Windomes, where reflection and refraction create a pure, featureless infinite regression. He says of the technology back in the 60s: ‘it opened up a new dimension in materials, a new palette’.
Nowadays, technology comes with a guilty conscience, and Kinetica is planting a forest in Colombia to offset the fair’s carbon footprint. But imagine an overcast, windless day when fossil fuels are spent- few kinetic works would then perform without that day’s electricity. Dutch Hans Kooi’s sculptures are an exception. His big, colourful Alexander Calderesque works float solid elements that defy gravity. There are no strings- just magnets. This more abstract style is as bright as any glowing tubes, installations or contraptions.
Technology and art is in vogue, reflected in shows like the Royal Academy’s recent Earth and Victoria & Albert Museum’s current Decode. Concept may blur with whimsy, or even gimmickry- but frontiers are being pushed, just as in the 60s. The big conclusion from Kinetica is that technology in art is a medium that still risks becoming the message.