Orchestrated Litanies

By Tessa Laird
In Zones of Contact, 2006 Biennale of Sydney

Stella Brennan mediates binaries, fashioning oxymoronic couplets to explain both her curatorial and artistic practice. Nostalgia for the Future (1999) examined “retro-futurism”, Dirty Pixels (2002) explored digital entropy, while Live Stock (2005) looked at “extraterrestrial pastoralism”. In each case, the true subject was the artist’s own conflicted relationship with modernism.

Brennan adores the clean lines of the white cube, whether exemplified by an art gallery or an iMac, it’s the holy grail of Zen purity she covets. Yet she describes this fetishism as a “guilty pleasure”, well aware that these vacuum-sealed worlds attain their beauty through exclusion. Modernism has become the cultural scapegoat of a polyvalent world, but Brennan is far too fond of its signifiers to disengage altogether. Her strategy becomes a reconciliation of opposites, a binding of binaries into uncomfortable unity.

In three recent videos, the artist forces cohabitation between the organic and the digital. Theme for Great Cities (2003) combines images of Lego skyscrapers with Situationist Raoul Vaneigem’s 1961 treatise “Comments Against Urbanism.” The model buildings are fed through software that refracts them into a vertiginous eternity of hard edges, while Vaneigem’s words are dolefully intoned by a computer voice known as “Ralph.”

Citizen Band (2004) features a solarised slow pan across a collection of warty 1970s night-class pottery, while Hundertwasser’s “Mould Manifesto” is read by another automaton, the soothing “Vicki.” The artist has played a cruel trick on these impassioned proto-hippies, feeding their words through lifeless machines. Brennan has no time for Luddites – she founded and coordinates the new media collective Aotearoa Digital Arts, or ADA. Taunting the manifesto makers for their own totalitarianisms, Brennan allows their syntax to be garbled by parodies of humanity.

With White Wall/Black Hole (2005), Brennan replaces the computer voice with a crawling telex, as if written, or thought, in real time. The dot-matrix aesthetic nods to early L. Budd video works, where messages written on a Mac Classic emerged from bursts of snow.

This work is an elegy to the victims of the Erebus Disaster, a black smudge, both on the blank landscape of Antarctica, and on the history of New Zealand, where the disaster and its aftermath created a “cultural crisis” which informed some of the artist’s most profound early memories. Justice Mahon, who headed a Commission of Inquiry into the accident famously described Air New Zealand’s attempts to divert the inquiry as an “orchestrated litany of lies” and the phrase entered the local lexicon.

While Brennan’s imaginative depiction is not false, like Albrecht Durer’s rhinoceros, it is necessary fabulous, an orchestrated litany of subjectivities. Without reducing the disaster to an aesthetic trope, it’s easy to see its fascination for Brennan, for, like dirty pixels, or Hundertwasser’s mould, it left an indelible mark. Once again, modernity is “messed up”; utopia shattered. Brennan’s attempt to communicate the unspeakable belies “objective” reportage. Her heartfelt response is, however, depersonalised by the mechanical text, unless we concede a subjective agency to the machine.

Brennan coopts her viewers into a speculative empiricism reminiscent of the Turing test, designed to fathom whether or not a computer is capable of thought. As proposed in 1950 by British mathematician Alan Turing, an examiner sifts messages from two sources via a Teletype machine, deciding which source is human, and which synthetic. If that proves impossible, the computer has passed the test. Likewise, in Brennan’s works, the viewer can be fooled into believing that it is the machine and not the artist who is speaking.

Turing suggested that humans might savour the mistakes of machines, and perhaps this is why Brennan courts crashes and corruption – those instances in which machines demonstrate the human quality of failure. These ghost-typing, shadow-talking automata speak across the no-man’s land artificial intelligence. In this space between, this glitchy Erewhon, we question the boundaries between hysterical computers, and human error.