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Learning to Read – exploring academic journals Leonardo and JAR

This week we were invited to read articles from two leading art journals, Leonardo and JAR, and reflect on the style and approach of both as well as discuss the artworks mentioned. For my research I read Perceptual Cells: James Turrell’s Vision Machines Between Two Paracinemas (Leonardo) By Alla Gadassik and Motion Perception: Interactive Video and Spatial Awareness (JAR) by Neil Breyer.

Light Reignfall (photo by Florian Holzherr)

I first experienced the work of James Turrell in 2015, on a visit back to my home town of Canberra, Australia. In amongst the usual routine of catching up with friends and family I found myself with a spare afternoon, and made a trip to the Australian National Gallery.

It only dawned on me later that this visit proved pivotal to my understanding of what art could be and gave me a new horizon towards which to aim in my own creative practice.

“Retrospective” was a huge exhibition, showing a comprehensive catalog of Turrell’s work; installations, photographs, drawings and schematics. Central to the experience was “Light Reignfall”, an immersive work with impressively theatrical exterior staging and construction. From the outside the work resembles a science fiction contraption, somewhat between a teleportation device and an isolation tank, attended by sombre lab coat wearing technicians. Individuals recline on a simple rest which is then slid inside the spherical enclosure. The chamber then acts as an immersive, borderless screen filled with animated light patterns that are synthesised to inspire phenomenological effects. The work is Turrell’s exploration of Genzfeld Effect, meaning “Total Field”, which sometimes triggers altered states of consciousness, hallucinations and other interesting psychological effects.

Inside Light Reignfall (photo by Designboom)

Needless to say, I didn’t know any of this at the time, and tickets for this particular part of the exhibition had sold out the previous year! (Now I understand why). Having missed out on the opportunity to see this at the time, it was fascinating to read a detailed first hand account and analysis by Alla Gadassik in the art journal Leonardo.

 

In her essay, Gadassik gives a first hand account of her experience and simultaneously contextualises Turrell’s work. She draws comparisons between the scientific approach he employs with the approach of avant garde cinema pioneers (“what historians have called Paracinema”).

 

“I highlight the important role of edgeless projection in activating the body as a potential medium of extra sensory transmission – a potential that still remains largely ignored by contemporary developers of emerging viewing devices” 

I found this article fascinating, a brilliant read. What most appealed to me was the clarity and accessibility of her writing as she moves through the historical context for the work, to her own direct experience of it, to observations of third parties experiencing it. Turrell’s work is powerful, moving, ephemeral, and in particular this piece is hard to document as it’s impossible to take photos inside it. Instead Gadassik recounts her efforts to remember what she’s seeing as she’s seeing it, so she can attempt to recreate the images later:

“My mind struggles to memorize, to mentally fix the images, …but they mutate and evade recognition as they flicker in and out of the field of vision”

“During my time inside Light Reignfall , some hues and tones – the aquamarines, forest greens, azure blues – felt like a more external caress, and their related abstract images gave the impression of hovering just in front of my eyes, as if I were watching them in near proximity. Others – fire reds, neon pinks, and electric violets – felt like they flooded the entire body, as if the shapes were projected inside of the head, eliciting a tight pressure that moved throughout my ribcage and resonated down my spine.”

“Couples, families, or strangers following each other into and out of Light Reignfall struggled and failed to explain their experiences, and yet continued in their attempts to verify or confirm each other’s visions. Were they seeing the same animated apparitions?”

I found Gadassik’s passionate description of this shared experience inspiring and powerful. It’s a celebration of an amazing piece of work and makes me want to book tickets to wherever this crazy machine is and go there instantly.

Illustrated rendering of imagined frames of the virtual animated sequence seen during my time inside James Turrell’s Light Reignfall. (© 2016 Alla Gadassik)

Following on from reading this in Leonardo, I venture over to the Journal for Artistic Research, reading Motion Perception: Interactive Video and Spatial Awareness by Neil Breyer.

Initially, I found this essay much more challenging than the previous article. Breyer is an artist creating moving image installations for public spaces, and his focus is

“…focusing specifically on the concept of dynamic feedback, a concept that underlies the emerging theories of Embodied Cognition. … to identify and describe significant ways that interactive video can alter a viewer’s attention to body movements and, by simultaneously eliciting body movements in order to see, alter overall understanding of spatial experience by creating a dual objective-subjective role in the viewer.”

Breyer gives a deep and wide ranging contextualisation of interactive video, public space, video installations, projection, architecture as a video display and urban screens / festivals. Through this section of his essay I oscillated from interest to frustration as he detailed myriad topics that seemed peripheral to what initially I thought the point was, which was a discussion of the artist’s work on a specific piece. On the topic of public space, somehow we get to:

“The myth of peace has pervaded discussion of virtual, mediated public domains as well [6]. Yet, virtual spaces in the public domain (the internet, news broadcasting, blogs etc.) also offer well-trafficked locations for all types of exchange, conversation, disagreement and dissent [7]. While these virtual public discourses are, in some cases, more easily individualized and accessible than physical public space equivalents — they are also, to date, more likely to spread without regulation or verification (virally).”

Only after the semantics and context are established (6000 words in) that Breyer finally gets to a description of his own work, i:move series 2:

The i:move series 2 at Dance Theater Workshop, images by Neil Breyer

“… layered live interactive video with live and pre-recorded, structured improvisation sequences. We designed the installation to transform movement in real time, using a series of changing, processed images that responded to behaviors outside the theatre and transformed them into a second, shadow, performance of real life. Viewers had two, simultaneous and reflexive roles: that of viewer and performer.”

The work is interesting, and has a nice quality to it, however following such a weighty exposition on the history and context of the medium he’s working in it feels somewhat of a let down. In contrast to the previous article, where the structure made me more excited to see and experience the work, this article placed such heavy emphasis on context and theory that I was driven away from actually getting to the author’s own creative contribution. And on discovering it, I was left thinking “Is that it?”. It must be fairly obvious by this point that I think that work should be compelling and affecting on its own merits, and the more contextual groundwork I have to read to fully “get” something doesn’t make me enjoy it more.

 

My honest appraisal of this essay was that it felt like a super deep post-rationalisation. The artist is experimenting with temporal video effects, and the relationship between performers, the audience, public and private spaces, and that is all well and good. However I feel like the theoretical info dump at the beginning of the essay makes this a challenging, unwieldy read.

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