Open Window, presented by the collective of Gavin Bell, Jarrah de Kuijer and Simon McGlinn, is a puzzle of objects as empty vessels within spaces divided by open wall frames.By Lisa Radford.
Open Window at West Space
Open Window is the fourth exhibition commission by Melbourne’s West Space and the third curated by gallery director Patrice Sharkey. The work is from Gavin Bell, Jarrah de Kuijer and Simon McGlinn (GBJKSM), members of the collective formerly known as Greatest Hits. The latter is a name they have been weening us off for the past few years; instead, naming the labour of the individuals as opposed to having them consumed by the anonymity of a group.
A window, as we know, is an opening in a wall that allows for the passage of light, air and sound. Windows have a physical materiality that manifests as architectural technology. They denote inside and out, they perform practical and symbolic functions – think churches and shrines. They act as a threshold between things. For Microsoft, the name Windows demarcated the shift from command-line interfaces to the graphic user interfaces we are familiar with today. The software presented a collapse of a materiality – a building window – into a functioning image – a digital form. In both cases, windows are not the content, but simply a functional structural threshold. It is a threshold that seems absolute until it’s breached – the rain comes in when the weather changes, or Cambridge Analytica monetises the choices you’ve made inside Facebook and then sells them back to you as information.
Open Window implicates us in a structure as soon as we enter the gallery. Occupying the first floor of the old Commonwealth Bank building in Bourke Street Mall, the usually unassuming double-glass doors of West Space have been lined with two-way film so you are confronted with your own reflection as soon as you exit the lift, aware of your own role in observing and being observed. Are you being looked at? Who is looking at you? Unlike a traditional mirror, the reflection is disarming in its darkness, reminiscent of the Claude glasses once popular with landscape painters. As you pass through this threshold, the sightline is obstructed by a structural wall and you’re channelled into the space, instead of walking freely forward. You are implicated, and you are at the mercy of a construction.
An “adversarial image” is one that confuses artificial intelligence, tricking technology into thinking it’s seeing something it is not. An adversarial image can be constructed by applying a perturbation – a highly patterned “noisy” image barely recognisable to the human eye on top of another image you may want to remain indecipherable. Referring to its interference with the image of decision boundaries coded into machines, the term adversarial implies the presence of an adversary, in most cases a hacker. In some ways, this wall as you enter Open Window is a hack. And as we walk through the exhibition, this sense of something being hacked, or the familiarity of an image being altered, persists.
Walk around the wall and the image-as-material form you encounter first is that of an empty tortoise shell. What we often think of as a home within which the tortoise lives, a tortoise shell actually consists of some 60 bones. This shell is fibreglass ready-made, perhaps purchased online, but approximate in scale to that of an Aldabra giant tortoise missing its fleshy body. Be it structure or skeleton, we read something internal as missing. It is confronting in some sense, an image in three dimensions of death. Behind the shell, almost floating on the adversarial wall is what eventually reveals itself to be a flat-packed archive box. The cool blue-grey board, familiar in art conservation and record keeping for its archival quality, has an image burnt into it, as if one of Man Ray’s photograms – light burning into an exposed surface revealing an image negative that has been projected. The nine or so unfolded faded archive boxes are all titled Window. We learn they are UV degradations – a process that points to the time light takes to burn an image. The archive boards, upon which they appear, are rendered as picture plane – their function for archiving literally flattened.
Another window. The burnt image is that of a graphic eye once used online by the SCL Group, the parent company to Cambridge Analytica. It’s not dissimilar to the Eye of Providence that appears on the American dollar bill, the one with its origins in Christian symbology and associated with the Freemasons. Conspire means literally “breathe together”. We understand it as an agreement or plot. Walking into Open Window makes us aware that we have entered into something we are yet to aesthetically or conceptually agree to – a familiar yet strange arrangement of objects. Perhaps not unlike our un-agreement with SCL’s subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica. The walls in front of us, if we continue forward, are unclad – their aluminium frame instead revealed. The appearance of transparency. Behind this wall is the external frame or facade, laser-cut from ply and painted white, of the infamous Texas School Book Depository – now the Dallas County Administration Building – where rifle casings were found on the sixth-floor after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. No more than 80 minutes later, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the assassination of JFK. The internals of GBJKSM’s book depository have been stripped, the casings removed, the content erased, another shell.
In fact, the entire exhibition is a shell. Exposed walls, stripped of their plaster, either reveal or cloister object-images and image-objects that are offputting in scale. A Donald Duck money box carved from foam almost 1.5 metres high, a to-scale chimney resting on wooden pallet chocks. There is the sense that we are in a 3D-modelled game – ghosts in the shell of a larger-than-life Monopoly game dematerialised and then re-formed. Instead of a boot, thimble, top hat, cannon or money bag, we are presented with a server cage, treasurer chest, animal trough, butter churner, a safe cut open to reveal its internal locking mechanism, half a mascot wolf head supporting a human skull, and a casket, which, due to its scale, one assumes to be for a child. There is a disturbing, human-sized, Ritalin promotional figure as well, its two-faced bipolar relation to the world – be it happy or sad – staring blankly back at you, regardless of which side of the wall you are on.
These image-objects are titled Bird feeder followed by their literal descriptor – Tortoise, Ritalin or Casket, for example. The works vary in their material constructions, be they objects the artists made themselves (the to-scale chimney), bought as prefab (the server cage) or commissioned post-production-style (such as the fibreglass Ritalin figure). The visibility of the artist’s hand is subsumed into the architecture of the space and the nature of their collaboration. Surprisingly, each object contains window in its material descriptor. Take, for instance, the Ritalin character, for which the room sheet reads: “Bird feeder (Ritalin I), 2018 Polystyrene foam, filler, polyurethane coating, automotive paint, window”. These objects become either ornamental services to images or containers that have been stripped of their content – there are no books in the depository, there is no tortoise in the shell, there is no body in the casket, there are no valuables in the safe. Containers evacuated, inside gallery walls that are built or exposed as a frame.
The cartoonish Ritalin figure – a re-creation of a promotional pen holder – is the only “container” that is meant to be empty. Its content is its walls – a happy green face and a sad blue face. Ritalin – named by the Swiss chemist who designed it for his wife Marguerite, known as Rita, to give her pep and help keep her weight down – as well as with other drugs such as Adderall, are used to treat disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They are regarded as drugs we use to check-in, rather than to drop-out – a way of coping with a hyper game of atomised-Monopoly, converting our behaviour into capital.
Open Window renders West Space as a physical loop – the beginning of this exhibition is also its end. The game board is not made visible to us, the goal is not clearly defined and we do not know what can be won. Instead, we find a disabling and funny arrangement of objects and interventions. There are perhaps too many works, in particular the UV degradation series. Then again, perhaps we need to be aesthetically overwhelmed by mimetic game pieces in order to consider the structural implications of the scale and breadth of having too many “open windows”.
Windows, both architectural and those in our computers are nodes in a network. Networks are not a new phenomena – arguably, they are intrinsic to our existence. British historian Niall Ferguson has noted that twice in history social networks have challenged dominant hierarchies, both as a result of shifts in our relationship to new technology. The first was caused by the printing press; the second we are experiencing now in our relationship with social media. Issues abound – the Cambridge Analytica data scandal a visible rupture. “Bias–variance tradeoff” describes some of the emerging issues within our relation to algorithms, statistics and machine learning. We see connections where there are none, we miss patterns amid the noise.
In the world of art, the data pool is so small that algorithms are often and easily corrupted. The biases are real – my own included. I know the artists in Open Window well and have previously worked with Patrice Sharkey, director and curator of this commissioned exhibition. Cambridge Analytica skimmed our bias from Facebook and fed it back to us as political news and knowledge. It is possible Gavin Bell, Jarrah de Kuijer, Simon McGlinn, Patrice Sharkey, West Space and I are doing the same. Framed by and in the gallery the image-objects in Open Window may seem obtuse but they are visible: shells and containers for us, the ghosts whose political ideology and behaviour is once again algorithmically ready to mine.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "Window dressing". Subscribe here.