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digital light: robyn backen's optical fibre works by susan best

Abstraction is a more potent vehicle of the unfamiliar than figuration. . . Lucy Lippard

Light has probably always been a consideration in both the display and production of art, however in the mid-1960s light takes on a new importance: it becomes an explicit ingredient in the work of art itself. As Robert Morris explained in his "Notes on Sculpture, Part 2" from 1966: "the better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light and the viewer's field of vision. The object is but one of the terms in the newer esthetic."

This opening of the work of art to include its surroundings and the spectator is often argued to mark the beginnings of installation art. Installations, we know, blur the boundary between art and non-art, spectator and work, art and life. They include not only the spectator's field of vision, but their motile bodies as well. Indeed, engaging with installations is often seen as an immersive experience rather than a disinterested act of aesthetic contemplation: one is inside the space of the work, not outside looking in. This term "immersive" also figures prominently in the discussion of digital art and technology. Often, however, the gentler possibilities of immersion's watery metaphorical ambit--pleasant connotations of buoyancy or absorption (of the spectator's attention)--give way here to far less pleasant sensations such as being swamped, inundated, flooded and unable to get one's bearings. One example from the urban theorist Paul Virilio suffices to convey the general flavour of these discussions. He argues that digital communication networks have destroyed traditional notions of space and place: . . . the old vis-a -vis of streets and avenues is effaced and disappears. Thus, differences between positions blur, resulting in unavoidable fusion and confusion. . . . From this moment on, no one can be considered as separated by obstacles or by significant 'time distances'. With the interface of monitors and control screens, 'elsewhere' begins here and vice versa. Virilio's description of the "fusion and confusion" produced by the interface is the dark side of immersion. For him, the interface destroys our sense of discrete places and sweeps away the concomitant concept of positionality. But without specific positions, what happens to the subject and his or her "field of vision"? It is this difficult question that guides Robyn Backen's interrogation of new technology.

Backen's works take digital technology, as it were, out of the box. There is no screen or interface here translating digital information into analogue form, rather she uses one of the raw materials of the digital revolution itself: optical fibres. These conducting agents that are usually concealed from view become in Backen's hands very concrete materials, materials with specific properties to be given form. This concern with materials is not exactly a regard for the purity or truth of materials. In any case this material is not one that lends itself to this dictum. Fibre optics are usually formed by an amalgam of substances: a hair-like core of glass or polymer is encased in successive layers of transparent cladding.

Backen's engagement with this material is an unusual amalgam itself, an amalgam of destruction and revelation, or destruction as revelation. Again, the method deployed is a kind of unveiling or taking apart to reveal the inner workings. The fibre is at once used utterly conventionally to conduct light and information in accordance with its usual industrial and telecom-munications applications, but the information conveyed or displayed is not digitally encoded, the message is in the obsolete language of Morse Code. Poignantly, the message of the work in this exhibition is the last Morse code message sent by the French Navy: "eternal silence.

This is our last cry before our eternal silence." This message, translated into dots and dashes of flashing light, is not sent invisibly from fibre end to fibre end rather it spills out all along the length of the fibre. Backen has cut and scraped away small bits of the protective layers that sheath the core of the fibre. It is this creative destruction that lets us see just what the fibre carries. In other words, a message conveyed by light is placed in our field of vision. The destructive act reveals the fact that the fibre is a medium, it carries something, and yet this animated fibre is somehow more than this; more substantial, more thing-like than the role of self-effacing medium usually allows. This is partly because the fibres are so clearly being used as an artistic medium as well as a medium for communication - they are shaped, formed and crafted in the work in this exhibition, eternal silence, fibres are crafted into clusters of tethered circular forms, but in previous works they have been used to make a canopy (Dots to Data 1997) a kind of cascade (Littoral 1998); an enormous net (Catching the Harbour 2001); and a curtain-wall (Weeping Walls 2000). The forms are essentially abstract but often richly associative, hence I've referred to Littoral as a kind of cascade. In that work fibres started from the wall then flowed down to their termination point as circular forms, which, in that context, seemed to almost diagrammatically show the circular motion of waves. Similarly, in their aerial formation, the components of eternal silence may be suggestive of stars, globes or planets and the age-old messages of light we belatedly receive from afar each night.

Such associations seem to confirm Lucy Lippard's contention that abstraction is a more potent vehicle of the unfamiliar. The hidden materials of communications technologies are altogether more comprehensible when given suggestive abstract form. Most significantly, as forms in our field of vision they are open to our imagination. In other words, we have sufficient distance from these works for critical contemplation. This is the lost lesson of minimalism and postminimalism that Backen reprises. Backen's installations don't seal you into a technological bubble as so many multi-media installations now do, rather she places the substance of digital light technologies in the space of the spectator. We can then imagine speed of light global entanglements but without imagining we too have become positionless, infinite, or ominpotent.

by Susan Best 2003 

research text

(9 Morse code light generators, 9 sets of fibre optic balls)

Research background 

The ES advances the ongoing exploration of light and space within installation practice. Since the 60’s artists have work with the perception of light. The purpose of the ES was to examine significant shifts in phenomena of light communication, specifically Morse code.

Research contribution 

Obsolete analogue Morse code messages were generated through material of the digital revolution itself: optical fibres. The slender light filled fibres were used as an artistic medium as well as a medium for communication--they were shaped, formed and crafted. Generating energy and perceptual shifts in space by introducing multiple layers of sound and light.  ES was one part of a larger immersive installation curated by the art director Robert Wilson of Einstein on the Beach acclaimed. Poignantly, the message of ES was the last Morse code message sent in late 1990’s by the French Navy: calling all…this is our last cry before our eternal silence.

Research significance 

The project IP was realized under the auspices of the Cultural Department of the City of Milan. This constellation of artworks was shown at the famous Palazzoin central square Milanerected 1233.  The exhibition realized an interdisciplinary installation including diverse world cultures.The exhibition luminaries included Phillip Glass, Heri Dono, Shirin Neshat, and Wole Soyinka. Prior to the lavish opening, Armani and other Milan dignitaries where introduce to the astounding installation. A large photo of ES featured in the Milan newspaper. In addition to the catalogue, the exhibition received widely by media. The overall budget $15,000. 

credits

Concept and Design - Robert Wilson

Project Management - Change Performing Arts

Asia Pacific Curator - Willie Valentine