There are sparkling orange oceans, glowing graphics that replicate scrunched cellophane and portals into the unknown, but the sky is the dominant image of Jodie Whalen’s video installation Endless Blue Edge. The artist manipulates sunset shots taken across Western Sydney to construct a testament to the sky’s mutable, always-in-motion glory.
The work is almost like a sped-up remix of James Benning’s film Ten Skies (2004), featuring 10, 10-minute static takes of Californian skies, capturing what Benning called “found paintings”. But while Benning’s precise, still shots brought human intervention into sharp focus through the offscreen sounds of whirring helicopters, thrumming engines and workers’ chatter, here the interventions are forcefully digital. Whalen deploys strobing light, saturation and colour gradients filled with purples, ambers and aquamarines. There is a soundscape of metallic techno moving in time with the pulsating, flashing imagery. These layers of artifice do not conceal but instead underscore – making the sky more expressive, more lurid and more alive.
The work reminded me of Elaine Scarry’s book-length polemic On Beauty and Being Just, which argues that beauty does not mask or distract us from important political issues but instead turns us towards justice. Beauty decentres, permitting “us to be adjacent while also permitting us to experience extreme pleasure, thereby creating the sense that it is our own adjacency that is pleasure-bearing”. The sky, one of Scarry’s many subjects, is an infinite source of beauty we all benefit from – to be in its thrall can push us towards being in service of something other than ourselves.
Endless Blue Edge is one of several works commissioned for BLEED 2022: Biennial Live Event in the Everyday Digital, a collaborative festival between Melbourne’s Arts House, Sydney’s Campbelltown Arts Centre, Taipei Performing Arts Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei.
In its latest iteration, artists, often working in collectives or pairs, foreground existing beauty – of bushland, birds, forests and skies – in order to explore degradation, diaspora and memory. The festival bills itself as a “six-year project exploring how the online makes us feel”, where practitioners are asked to create hybrid works that feature one aspect that can be experienced in a gallery space and another that is a digital offering, to be engaged with online.
For a while now, art institutions have awkwardly attempted to intertwine digital art into their spaces. Often they have either sloppily grafted their exhibitions onto a website or treated the internet – and the art it has spawned – as an afterthought in their curatorial practice. There is also the question of whether we should expect, or want, these organisations to be stewards of this relatively new frontier. While BLEED goes far beyond these pitiful stabs, there remains an inability to recognise that the demarcations between online and offline life are obsolete. The question of “how online makes us feel” is almost as vague and ineffectual as asking how life makes us feel. The internet doesn’t bleed into our lives – it forms the fabric.
Language to adequately capture the internet’s subjugating effects remains out of reach, while the aesthetic surface of much digital art remains unchanging, preoccupied with the past. Across the digital works I saw online was a persistent nostalgia for the ungainly, ugly aspects of the internet in its earlier iterations: antiquated monitor displays, shoddy pixels, chat boxes, clunky augmented reality. Of course, this isn’t only a yearning for style but for a purer, more naive era, when the internet appeared as a portal into knowledge and new worlds, rather than the vortex of cruelty and capital we now know.
In room2.fm async, for instance, artists Patrick Hase and Anuraag Bhatia have built a private, quasi-chat room that doesn’t connect strangers but instead urges introspection. The pair have programmed sound work and visuals that change every three days as the sun sets. When I first went on, I heard “IT / THAT” by Aarti Jadu, a track full of choral vocals that became warped. When I was ready, I was encouraged to respond with my thoughts, with as little or as much information as I wanted.
Another time the site was playing a sound piece entitled “a lighting ridge opal mine anxiety” by amby downs, where I heard trains rumble, water droplets, boots hitting the pavement and the hum of machinery. Or so I thought. Maybe it was none of those things and I was just hearing what aligned with my dusty, rural fantasy of the town. With no specific goal or outcome generated from these responses, room2.fm async allows the participant’s mind to meander, a state that is difficult to conjure online when every little action is seized upon for profit.
Studio Kiin’s Au mino ni nanuma is a re-creation of a Web 1.0 desktop, filled with webpages and folders on iTaukei people’s (Indigenous Fijian) fortitude and possible futures. The work is a stark convulsion of political history with personal memory. One webpage brings up contorted, buffering images of native birds from the island of Kadavu that are vanishing under deforestation and colonialism. In the West, we are so often eager to ascribe historical authority to information systems, rather than humans prone to forgetting or misremembering.
But the internet is not an indestructible vault of truth and information. Data and details disappear habitually and without reason. Au mino ni nanuma asks what will be left once these corrupted jpegs evaporate. Another bird – specifically the wedge-tailed eagle – swooped across my phone via augmented reality in Dean Cross’s you can never touch your shadow. More compelling was Cross’s documentation of where he initially came across this bird of prey – at his family’s farm on Ngunnawal/Ngambri Country. In a continuation of his work Right Lands (2015), the artist retraces the boundaries of the farm on a quartered screen, capturing tufts of dead grass, wire, fencing and a nearby lake. It is a slow work, interested in how landscapes both shift and remain static over time. A sense of melancholy pervades the video, with its janky hand-held camera motions and the audible breath of the artist: a memorial for land constantly in peril.
But the art featured in BLEED is also concerned with forging something new under the spectre of decay and deprivation. Take the musician and artist Chun Yin Rainbow Chan’s Sap. The audiovisual piece reimagines the saccharine songs of 20th-century Taiwanese pop star Teresa Teng, mutating them into galactic, ghostly fragments that are beyond recognition. The four audio loops can be clicked and played in whatever order the responder wishes, each represented by rotating pink globs embossed with Teng’s face. The work is a playful summoning and a lesson in remembrance, Chan giving her audience the ability to assemble an echo that haunts across time and borders.
BLEED 2022 continues online and live at Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, and Arts House, Melbourne, until September 25.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Bleeding edges".
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