The velvet curtain

Home Up The velvet curtain Lost for Words State of the Art


Dialling blind. In dialling a number, there is often a slight pause before the connection is made. A thin crackle of sound covers the distant business of clicks and beeps as the network negotiates a meeting. Accustomed to a dozen calls a day, this space has little meaning for us. What happens when we reach the edges of the network? Making telephone connections from old Soviet communication systems can leave you marooned in this echo of emptiness. Are such phenomena a new language for expressing more fundamental experiences of separation and loss?

Come into the open. Offline refers literally to a space beyond reach of communication networks. It’s strange to think that this space might previously have been the reality that everyone once took for granted. Perhaps it is only in attempts to rise above reality that its hard surface becomes disturbingly apparent. Think of the ‘cold turkey’ experienced by those who suddenly find reality raw of a habitual narcotic haze. Jean-Paul Sartre seemed to find it in a drug-free way by withdrawing from thinking, and confronting the ‘facticity’ of things. Maybe today we discover it in system crashes, in the reception shadows of mobile phone networks, in information-deprived countries, in sleep, in frustration… in fewer and fewer places. What happens when we turn flick the switch off? Are we then on something like the ‘open sea’, where events occur beyond the reach of reason?

The tea cup in a cattle yard. The information network seems a Platonic world with neither forgetfulness nor memory. Once uploaded, a thing is beyond the troubles of a material world. By contrast, the downloaded world offline is exposed to mortal forces that are constantly at odds with human intentions. Take the fate of a letter in the wilds of a postage system. The letter can be lost, mis-sorted, mis-delivered, disfigured, rained upon, attacked by snails or dogs, stolen—all before arriving in the clutches of its intended recipient. At first, wired communications seem so much more reliable and convenient. But might there be a moment of hesitation, when we find particular messages that can be better conveyed through the vulnerable passages offline?

Schattenneid. There may be something ineluctably nostalgic at the heart of the digital revolution. The desire to transcend the material world may have at its core a search for the essence of corporeal reality. The main workshop for this revolution, the graphics program PhotoShop, has developed sophisticated means for removing traces of its digital identity. Its main set of filters offer specialised means of blurring, feathering and smoothing over otherwise jagged pixels. Might we see the drop shadow—the ubiquitous filter that now pervades text headlines in various print cultures—as a symptom of this obsession with animating an inherently cold medium? Will the standards of digital media always be measured by the material world it purports to deny?

Nude objects live! In imagining the impact of the digital revolution on material arts, the default thinking poses the question: When will they catch up? ‘Will crafts, painting and sculpture meet the challenge of the twenty-first century?’ By such thinking, the material arts must always lag behind. Is there another kind of thinking? Perhaps as a Zeitgeist phenomenon, the digital aesthetic encompasses work made with and without the aid of a microchip. Some of the strongest work in contemporary Australian ceramics explores the language of unglazed forms. The exposed body now confronts us with a surface that caresses the eye, almost as though it had been formed with PhotoShop. Is it possible that this soft hardware shares with digital artists a fetish for warm reality?

The velvet curtain. Jean Baudrillard once described modern society as ‘fanatically soft’. In the age of ‘soft capitalism’, as christened by Bill Gates, it is hard to find any wall, boundary, barrier or conceptual category that has not been relaxed. Most of us can remember a time when this was not so. During the Cold War, the world made sense as an opposition between two tribes. Any confusion of the two was cast as betrayal, collaboration or reformism—of sleeping with the enemy. It seems harder to make moral sense of a world that has dissolved this opposition. Might it be that the prevalence of blur in today’s design is an attempt to represent this condition?

This exhibition contains contemporary works of material art whose construction intimates a response to the digital world. Visitors are invited to explore a gallery in which objects of art are displayed without any accompanying information. Instead, visitors are supplied with a map to guide their journey. At the conclusion, ‘offline’ visitors will be offered something pleasing to taste.

Those who visit the exhibition ‘online’ will be encouraged to contribute a personal story to a memorial database of lost objects. This database is designed to explore the way in which certain objects have housed important relations. Unfortunately, given the limits of technology at this time, online visitors will be deprived of anything to taste.

Kevin Murray©1997

Page last edited 27/04/03