In Case of Millennium, Break Glass



In case of millennium, break glass Art Monthly Dec/Feb 86 1995: 28-30

It was a warm Saturday afternoon in Brisbane. Outside, you could hear the sound of bombs exploding. Thankfully, this was not a routine nuclear test, but a Jackie Chan action thriller being filmed in Chinatown. This cacophony, mingled with the roar of trucks down Fortitude Valley, provided an auspicious background for the audience gathered inside the Institute of Modern Art. We gathered for Positive Noise, a day of talks and performances around the ideas and practice of sound theorist Paul Carter. Accompanied by the din of capitalism outside, Carter began proceedings by quoting Lacan's Ethics of Psychoanalysis in an attack on the `vulgar noise' of power.

For the Brisbane audience, Positive Noise was a chance to engage with Carter's sound project-pursued during his residency at Griffith University and given expression in the Lost Subjects installation at the Museum of Sydney. In Carter's own words, the Sydney sound piece was designed to introduce voices that are `loud, unruly, despairing, parodic, unofficial, that assert, it seems, their right to a history full of noise.'

It is no easy task to dispel the privileged aura of a museum. At the beginning of the day, Carter admitted uncertainty that his orchestrated polyphony managed to escape its confines `behind the glass'. With a similar lapse into formality, Positive Noise itself concluded with the institutionalised arrangement of experts speaking into microphones in front of an audience seated in rows.

Not for the first time, this series of inquiries into the contemporary significance of substance forms its argument in dialogue with Carter's baroque utopianism. Previously, his critique of stonemasonry was used to more clearly define the role of monumentality in contemporary memorial art. Here, his anti-theatrical project is important for revealing the material structures of power, such as the way microphones support the monological relationship between speaker and audience. The point at issue is whether these can ever be transcended to allow a free play of voices. We are concerned particularly with the role of a glass as a material barrier whose absence will allow the flow of hitherto repressed experience. In traditional museum practice, glass operates as an embalming agent which serves to preserve a particular institutional vision against the competing stories of marginal communities.

In case of reification, break glass

Today, glass is everywhere. On the glass curtain walls of skyscrapers, television screens, shop windows and computer monitors, reality is served on a plate of visual information. Closer to hand, glass encapsulates the material culture of new `wired' information consumer whose lifestyle is glassed in with café latté, Raybans and alcoholic soda. Glass suits a society which values information above substance where sound, smell and touch is filtered out in favour of the more objective visual reality. It's cool to be clear.

But will breaking glass actually deliver a key to release us from this sensory alienation? It is possible to scapegoat glass in a kind of `aesthetic cleansing' based on an impossible ideal of nonhierarchical politics--an illusion which harbours its own, more subtle, forms of power. To explore this kind of possibility we need to do something which is strangely difficult: we need to look at glass. While glass is everywhere, at the same time it is also nowhere-it is merely the membrane through which seeing is possible. We first approach our subject through cinema because it is one of the few spaces where public experience is unconditioned by glass. The fear of competing screens, such as video and lately interactive computer games, provides cinema with a strong motive for suspicion towards a glass-mediated reality.

In case of glass, breathe

Recent film collaborations between Eastern and Western Europe display a keen sensibility towards the pervasiveness of glass in modern life. In Roman Polanski's The Tenant, the inability of a Polish alien to make contact with the insulated worlds of his Parisian neighbours leads to the climax of self-defenestration into the glass awning below. More recently, Milcha Manchevsky's Before the Rain contrasted the polite deceits conducted by the civilised English behind clean glass with the more direct passions of Macedonians whose windows are caked in dust. But if the idea of glass in Eastern European cinema seems a little obscure, you may be persuaded of its significance by considering the film trilogy by Polish director Krysztof Kieslowski, titled Three Colours: Blue-White-Red.

In his previous suite of ten films, Decalogue, Kieslowski established his moral vision of a contemporary Poland where individual desire struggles with symbolic codes of behaviour. His final act as a film-maker, Red, undoes this moral vision. Contemporary Geneva is depicted in Red as a kind of menagerie whose inhabitants are displayed through windows, only making contact with each other in jealous and defensive phone conversations. The Prospero of Kieslowski's final film is a retired judge who eavesdrops on these phone calls. This god-like view of the world is exposed by a professional model named Valentine, played with Gallic sincerity by Irene Jacob, who stars in an advertising campaign for chewing gum called `Breath of Life'; she angelically walks into his sanctum to liberate him from his misanthropic voyeurism. Out of love for her, the judge confesses to his neighbours and suffers the indignity of his own trial. Valentine is naturally distressed when aggrieved neighbours throw rocks through his window, but the judge himself looks through the broken glass as though liberated from his own emotional insularity. The director's own corresponding renunciation of authority is celebrated in the film's final scene where the cast of Kieslowski's trilogy is given the kiss of life: they are shown on television news being rescued from a ferry accident on the English channel.

For Kieslowski, glass provides a material manifestation for the more intangible maladies of the soul. Glass is in league with impotence, disdain, loneliness, sterility, and emptiness. As an antidote, the Polish director places his faith in the overtly romantic force of female desire (incarnated in his team of star actresses). This detail aside, he shares Carter's belief in a transcendental gesture that will release an élan vital.

Above the glass ceiling

Vilification of glass in contemporary cinema is supported by those who see this ubiquitous material as the perfect symbol for pervasive yet hidden operations of power. Like the operations of shame, glass is invisible and everywhere. In his attack on modern urban design, Conscience of the Eye, Richard Sennett quotes George Orwell regarding the English version of a `glass ceiling': `Whichever way you turn, this curse of class differences confronts you like a wall of stone. Or rather it is not so much like a wall of stone as the plate glass pane of an aquarium.' Given the difficulty of confronting a form of power which is simply a way of looking at the world, we might try a literal detour to its heart.

In medieval Europe, the secrets of glass were strictly sequestered on the island community of Murano, near Venice. In contemporary Australia, an equivalent source is the Pilkington factory in Melbourne. The Dandenong glass factory supplies the vitreous manifold of contemporary urban existence at a rate of 20 kilometres of plate glass a day. If you stand on a wooden platform at a safe distance from the furnace windows, you can see the source of glass in 1500 degree heat--flames licking the roof in a picture of hell on earth. At the other end, molten substance cools into a river of plate glass which is cut into sheets for delivery. Like a natural spring, it operates around the clock-to stop the flow would seize up the entire works causing drastic damage. When demand drops, the river of glass cascades into shattering fragments. In case of oversupply, break glass.

My request to tape this destruction of Pilkington glass for radio was denied without plausible reason. Though this secrecy is probably more the result of bureaucratic inertia than a bogus sense of industrial security, it is a poetic symbol of the scandalous fragility of modern life. I'm referring not so much to the brittleness of glass, but the tenuousness of the world it contains, like the incapacity of air-conditioned offices to cope with open windows. It is this very insulation of technology from life which is the target of contemporary digital eschatologies that promise our eventual liberation from glass cages.

No glass tomorrow

So the story goes. Ubiquitous computing will make the glass screen redundant: processor chips will fit seamlessly into our environment-into our gadgets, clothes and books. An earlier article on digital photography invoked the alchemical quest to put dirt into the computer. A similar transubstantiation of machine intelligence is evident in the goal to incorporate computers into the fabric of everyday life. In Being Digital, MIT Media Lab chief Nicholas Negroponte predicts: `Computing corduroy, memory muslin, and solar silk might be the literal fabric of tomorrow's digital dress'. This distrust of the interface-the enforced separation of life at the desk from real life elsewhere-is the technological parallel to Carter's anti-museum program.

This promised liberation from glass provides the dramatic structure for an installation titled Turbulence by Melbourne multimedia artist Jon McCormack. McCormack's work is popularly regarded as testimony of the multimedia's potential to establish its own unique aesthetic. This aesthetic is free of any craft: the constantly metamorphosing shapes, caught up in a wild fractal dance, are produced by computer algorithms rather than human design.

Turbulence was last seen in a blackened room at the Ian Potter Gallery, University of Melbourne, where visitors touched a computer screen to navigate through his menu of artificial life. The results were seen projected onto the wall opposite accompanied by dramatic stereo sound effects. McCormack's dizzying array of pullulating forms begins to effect a kind of multimedia sublime. In forms called `telesonics', an infinite grid of satellite discs on exaggeratedly long poles opens and closes while emitting violet ripples of energy. The infinitude of these forms has a sublime effect similar to an overview of the forest-that effect of seeing both the wood and the trees.

With some intelligence, McCormack incorporates into the installation the implicit contract between the inert glass touch screen and the wall of fantastic shapes. One of the many quotes that emerges on screen is taken from Goethe's Faust Part II, where Wagner is addressed by his homunculus in the laboratory:

Come and give me a nice affectionate hug,
but gently, so the glass won't break!
It is a curious property of things
that what is natural takes almost endless space,
while what is not, requires a container

Like a genie in a bottle, Wagner's homunculus strives to escape his confinement and take equal part in human life. Similarly, the quest behind McCormack's art is to release his test-tube creations from their confines on the screen into the world of viewers. In effect, they are released into yet another container: the cinema. The closest we can get to contact with these creatures is still by literally touching glass.

Back in touch with glass

While McCormack beckons his creatures' liberation from their glass rooms, Hobart artist Mary Scott does precisely the opposite: hybrid forms evolve inside her computer only to be trapped forever under glass. At a time when speed and reproducibility are celebrated, Scott's method is deeply perverse. Like any modern digital photographer, she begins at the screen layering images, one over the other; and when an appropriate synthesis is obtained, Scott prints off an A4 dye-sublimate image. But rather than end here, Scott uses this print as a cartoon from which she paints onto a thin pane of sandblasted glass. Oils are applied in very fine scumbles and glazes through many layers to produce a seamless image suspended in space 1-2cm off the wall.

Rather than a substitute for human design, the computer is used as a surrealist machine to generate images which the artist herself reproduces. To add to their contrariety, these images take a severe monochromatic form. Self-portrait merges two images: a child's face and a fish trap. The result is quite the opposite to an engaging infantile innocence: the child's eyes and mouth are voids in a latex-like mask. The other image, a fish trap, has a distant provenance: it was taken from a photographic plate made by Scott's own great-grandfather. This narrative of ancestry, woven into the construction of Self-portrait, further grounds Scott's refusal of transcendence. What it produces is a calcified form inviting a tactile pleasure at odds with the austere content.

Like Mary Scott, Kathy Elliott's career is counterbalanced by personal ancestry: her maternal grandfather was a glass engraver from Liverpool. Today the Sydney craftsperson continues this tradition to more artistic ends in treating the forms blown by her partner, Ben Edols. They are rounded forms, sometimes of the dimensions of a child's shoe, other times of a butter pumpkin. These glass objects are typically marked by a small orifice-like opening that has an expressive more than practical meaning. Elliot's material contribution to these curiously inviting shapes is a texture which rewards touch with dappled or striated surfaces. Alluding to the liquid dynamics of her material, Elliott describes her engraving as `breaking the surface tension' of glass. The studio glass movement has traditionally exploited the vibrant hues of glass in works of monumental colour and form. Glass in Elliott's practice is not mere servant to the eye, but a substance with an organic being which is comparable to wood or silver. In case of beautification, feel glass.

Living in the glass age

It was the custom in the guilds of ancient Palestine to name individuals after their craft. The Midrash states: `one who loved him called him "son of a goldsmith"; one who hated him would call him , "son of a potter"; one who neither loved nor hated him, would call him "son of a glassmaker"'. It is perhaps the sterility of glass which makes it such a poor receptacle for emotional attachments, and such a wonderful medium for a modernity anxious to break with past traditions. With a heightened awareness of this loss, prompted partly by the end of the millennium, it is natural that glass be one of the materials targeted as a barrier to repressed vitalities--as enemy to the pneuma of sound and breath.

This is the point where thought is needed. To accommodate the ineluctable realities of separation and difference, some room should be left for the tragic apprehension of alienation--a source of deep struggle for many writers, particularly in classic nineteenth century Russian narratives of resurrection. This is perhaps most accessible in the icy clarity of the Acmeist guild of Russian poets, for whom Anna Akhmatova's meditation on the `sacred limit to any closeness' is a personal hedge against revolutionary utopianism.

As the physical substrate of an immaterial age, we should be cautious about negating glass in favour of a distant horizon. What better way to connect with world we live in than to get in touch with glass.