Colouring in the Void
Catalogue essay: Random International, Studies in Motion, Lunds Konsthall, Sweden, 2014.
Redefining the edges of what constitutes a self-image, the Random International studio continually push the limits of playback surfaces. Human resemblance is reduced to its most basic perceptible formation, stimulating interactions beyond the imitation and repetition of familiar gesture in response. Faced with reflections that appear both living and as phantasms, the body becomes an interface in tandem with the sculptural installation; feeding off one other, forming change, shaping the next etching of presence and absence, marking out an impression of the figure in light, space or sound. Yet what occurs during these encounters does not belong purely in the realm of the visible. The reflected body may bear no apparent physical resemblance to our own being. This is a close up form of vision, one that is close enough to touch. Entering into a work made by the studio opens up the space for a new conception of our selves, beyond the flesh, a reflection without a body.
The relationship between vision and knowledge has longstanding foundations and the optic has been legitimised, certified and ratified by art history. Within this ocularcentric tradition – that privileges sight over the other senses – the clearer the vision, the clearer the translation of vision into language; from the seeable to the sayable. To see things more clearly, to gain a better perspective over a situation, to give it a good hard look, to eyeball something: all of these sayings about seeing are bound up in forms of knowledge and critique. Haptic images obscure this connection by reducing the level of visible referents so that other senses are called upon to assist in the process of perception. This kind of visuality is not in opposition to optics; it is not a case of the hand versus the eye, or of feeling as opposed to looking. Haptic perception implies an intimate form of seeing that may involve not just the eyes of the viewer, but also their bodies.
Random International build objects and spaces that stimulate more than the eye; forging a relationship with the entire bodily surface. As we play with their instruments of sense, time, and motion, the score of our interaction is momentarily inscribed and then forgotten. We act like we want to be seen, not as we are, but as we can be in another dimension. Choreography is determined by the reaction between the viewer and the apparatus, so that each becomes a parasitic interface, generating new images of the body in the process. Unlike images, these apparitions do not return. The lights dim, the sound vibrations are silenced, the canvas fades to white. The works lie dormant, latent, and ready to momentarily return to life with the next incoming perception. Nothing remains.
“To work and create ‘for nothing’, to sculpture in clay, to know that one’s creation has no future, to see one’s work destroyed in a day while being aware that, fundamentally, this has no more importance than building for centuries – this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions. Performing these two tasks simultaneously, negating on the one hand and magnifying on the other, is the way open to the absurd creator. He must give canadian pharmacies cialis the void its colours.”①
To give the void its colours. It is quite a beautiful notion. In ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ (1942), Albert Camus’ philosophy of the absurd outlines the contrast between a human need for belief, meaning and value and the unending silence of a universe that forever appears indifferent to such pursuits. We should live without appeal, he says, not prescribing to a world of illusory hopes, yet not despairing over their lack. But how is it possible to colour-in the void? How do we colour-in nothingness, openness, or a vacuum? How do we colour-in the endless and undefinable expanse that lies beyond the outline of our own sensory limitations? For Jean-Luc Nancy, “that which indefinitely trembles at the border of the sketch” ②is the experience of the sublime. “The sublime is:” he writes, “that there is an image, hence a limit, along whose edge unlimitation makes itself felt.”③
This space between semblance and nothingness, between the edge of a line and beyond its border, between what is and what isn’t there, is the playing ground of Random International. Combining complex mathematical algorithms with meticulous craftsmanship, the studio create sculptural installations that are brought to life in the presence of life, or more precisely, with the movement of living bodies. What takes place in an encounter with the work is active participation in its truest sense; we enter into, react with and become a part of the machine. In each moment of interaction, the body and the apparatus combine to form a fleeting artwork that alters with future movement. Like a fleck of glitter momentarily shimmering in the light of Camus’ void and then vanishing forever, all traces of the encounter will disappear in our absence.
Each tiny glowing bud dotted along the delicate lines of the gridded brass structure that comes together to form Future Self has been soldered into place and it seems fitting that such a painstaking task was performed by hand. Activated in response to the detection of human presence, the sculpture transforms into an ethereal mirror that offers an illuminated three-dimensional depiction of our bodies in light, hovering before us like an uncanny stellar constellation. Unlike a traditional mirror, there is a slight delay in the representation that allows participants the rare experience of being able to walk around their own image. Defined by the space at the edge of our bodies, we are figured as much by the lights as we are by their absence. Each image formed has the slipperiness and unstableness that Nancy describes in his essay on the sublime as being a certain gesture of the infinite “that takes place on the border of the limit, and thus on the border of presentation.”④
This condition of being at the edge of the limit, of trembling on the border of positive matter and negative space, is a hallmark of Random International’s work. It is what separated the moving bodies from the pouring rain in their exceptionally popular Rain Room installation that drew daylong queues during its exhibition at the Barbican in London and at MoMA in New York (2012-13). The crowds drew in order to draw themselves into the downfall, to etch their own figures in the dry space that formed around their moving bodies. What It Isn’t, the group’s most recent work, also speaks to this transient rendering of presence in absence. What is formed and unformed here is an audio portrait of the body, defined in its movement and stillness through an ensemble of rattling vessels. Strung from the ceiling of the Lunds Konsthall are scores of finely blown glass tubes, each containing its own little pellets made of brass. The suspended vials vibrate in an echo of moving figures presenting themselves within the space. Sound is generated kinetically in an audible reaction that encompasses the entire surrounding architecture and environment. It is no coincidence that the studio continues to research into the operations of natural formations such as swarm behaviour in their practice. What It Isn’t hums overhead in a buzzing chorus, interpreting bodily action into a moving mirror of sound that invokes the call of a flying rattlesnake, slithering invisibly in the space above our heads.
These apparatus do not enhance human functions in the way that a camera can extend the eye or an electronic device might simulate memory. They are not prosthetics, but portals. What opens up before us is a way of approaching movement as a generative force, and of transgressing the ocular world of images. The haptic experience offers a kind of consumption that is not visual, but that absorbs into the body through its surface. Laura U. Marks describes how “haptic images do not invite identification with a figure so much as they encourage a bodily relationship between the viewer and the image.”⑤ The self appears as a projection that emanates from the skin and onto the world. In the dance with these transmutated self/others, the dynamic relationship between body and machine develops new forms of movement and interaction, new ways of interacting with and of seeing our selves.
As with motion, vision here is transient. Self-Portrait makes visible a moment of presence, an impression of facing this strange temporary printing machine that both records and erases our own image. It presents us with a surface capable of infinite playback. In this sense, it could be compared to a mirror with short-term memory. Much like the other two pieces in this exhibition, what we are presented with is a reflection of our own bodies, delayed in time, perceptible and then eternally forgotten. We are invited to take part in the process, but we leave no mark of our trace. This act of negating on the one hand and magnifying on the other again recalls Camus’ writing on the way open to the absurd creator. “Creating is living doubly,” he writes. “It is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing.” ⑥ The work of Random International can be understood from this point and perhaps, just for a moment, we too can colour-in the void.
What could these studies in motion teach us about our future selves? Intimate and ephemeral, an encounter with these delicate machines expands our conception of how a portrait of the self might appear and that it is always in flux and inseparable from the animate body. What is brought to life is the realisation that there is no self that can be contained within an image, that this mask is a shield that can only show us how we look at what we look like – and what we might like to see. The self is always somewhere else, before and after the image, interior and exterior to the body. Random International invite us to sense our own behaviour. What becomes apparent is the affective properties of movement on future sensation and perception, not only of our own selves, but of the bodies and matter that share our proximity. Within and beyond these porous interfaces, Studies in Motion may also serve to advance an imperative for empathy – and at the present moment that surely is another subject worthy of our attention.
- Chantal Faust 2014
①Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (London: Penguin, 1977), 103.
②Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘The Sublime Offering’ in A Finite Thinking, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 231.
⑤Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002),
⑥Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 87.