Zzyzx by Mutant Data Orchestra
People Doing Strange Things With Electricity II and People Doing Strange Things With Electricity Too - Kate Seekings
The first dorkbot-sea exhibition, People Doing Strange Things With Electricity, held at Center on Contemporary Art in the summer of 2003, reflected the diverse work and technological and creative interests of the Seattle-area dorkbot-sea community - the ninth in the dorkbot family, founded in New York City by Douglas Irving Repetto in 2000. Now, there are twenty-one of these informal, grassroots dorkbot organizations in cities across the world, with a further four on the way, and so for 2005 I expanded the scope of this exhibit to cover the work of both dorkbot-sea and the global dorkbot community, providing a physical means to encapsulate and encourage the exchange of creative ideas.
dorkbot is all about such extremes and contrasts: the deeply local community with instant digital access to a loose national and international network of like-minded people, who also in turn have a perspective unique to their offshoot's locale. dorkbot-sea meeting attendees range in age from eleven to eighty. Audiences typically comprise 50% artists, 50% technologists - with a 50% overlap between categories. Levels of artistic experience and technical capability vary as widely - and wildly - as the age range, and collaborations flourish. Even attempting to express this in a cohesive way for the exhibition viewer, and for each artwork in relation to the others in the exhibit, was an interesting proposition.
As I was first formulating my approach to the exhibition, an image kept returning: that of a crowded night market in Europe or Asia. As one walks through such a market, one is closely, viscerally aware of one's surroundings, of other people, of their products or their physicality as they brush past, and one drinks in a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells. One is rooted firmly in the moment, in the now, in one's own humanity and the humanity of the rest of the crowd, and reminded of simple, basic needs for food, for drink, for sustenance. And then, suddenly (it is a night market, after all), one looks up and sees, through the leaning roofs and tangles of cables, past the bleaching white of the streetlamps, a glimpse of a sky and the stars beyond - and dizzyingly, one's perspective changes. Suddenly, you're looking back down at the seething market from a hundred million miles away, and you are torn for an instant from the immediate, the knowable, to the unknowable, the ineffable abstract. If it isn't too much to claim, it was something of this feeling that I wanted to capture with the second People Doing Strange Things With Electricity exhibition.
Some works in this exhibition are human-scaled, approachable, touchable. Some are soft, some respond to a hand or voice, behaving, despite their unfamiliar appearances, with familiarity, or at least something close. But even the most seemingly approachable of these works contains a sudden jolt of the inexplicable as the technology driving it, invisibly or visibly, makes itself clearly apparent through the viewer's interaction, proximity or observation.
Some works are the equivalent of that glimpse of the stars: a strange, direct encounter with and connection to that unknowability, an appreciation of a different kind of presence, of a sense of things to come in a possible future, or things already here but far from understood.
Technology is saturatingly ubiquitous; it shapes the most intimate aspects of our lives and the aesthetics of our cultures in ways that we cannot imagine from year to year, let alone decade to decade - and yet so few of us take the time to consider it, to think, to understand throughout our myriad daily exchanges, from the solid flick of a light switch to the millions of solid-state switches inside a computer, its implications and meaning. This exhibition takes work with a thin but inclusive common thread: the use of electricity as a significant component of its creation and/or display, and considers it in the light of artists using technology and technology making art - encouraging the viewer to ponder these things along with the artists who have built the framework for this act of contemplation, interaction or surprise, and the technologies that have shaped and enabled the end results. It gives a framework, a context for thought.
Similarly, the simultaneously-released online and double CD compilation of experimental music and sound art that accompanies this exhibition, People Doing Strange Things With Electricity Too, draws contributions from as far as the dorkbot community reaches, and expresses sonically the kinds of questions dealt with in the physical exhibition: how does the use of technology change, expand, enable, restrict the practice of making art; what constitutes music in these new contexts or in old contexts revisited with a new battery of instruments and understanding, and what about the sounds made - incidentally or expressly - by technologies themselves?
The film screening of rare 1960's Electric Arts, curated by media arts historian Robin Oppenheimer and accompanying this exhibit gives a historical context to the work in the current exhibition and other works created by artists working with technology across the world. It is astounding to see the depth and breadth of the innovation of artists for whom technologies omnipresent today were only just becoming accessible, as they grasped, reinterpreted, re-contextualized and exploded the opportunities presented by early consumable technologies such as contact microphones, sensors, infra-red cameras, video and television in ways still easily recognizable today, but at a scale and scope rarely seen even now. In some ways the very ubiquity of so many of these technologies today means that we have perhaps become complacent about pushing boundaries at the edge of invention. Rauschenberg, Tinguely, Kluver et al challenge us to do more.
Some of the works in this exhibition, or on the double CD, are mildly odd. Some are very strange indeed. Some are funny, some are disconcerting; some are so intense they are almost physically unbearable, and others are deeply comforting. All use electricity; none would exist without it - and these days, with electricity almost as essential as breathing, neither would we. Welcome to People Dong Strange Things With Electricity II.
Kate Seekings curated People Doing Strange Things With Electricity II and People Doing Strange Things With Electricity Too, and puts together the monthly dorkbot-sea meetings.