date 1998
location artspace, sydney 1998; ima, brisbane 1999; universe project eaf, adelaide 1999; flow national gallery kl, malaysia 2000
medium fibre optics, morse code animation, computer, electronic light switches, haelogen lights, lead weights, aluminium and video
dimensions 10 x 4 x 1.8m
photographer ian hobbs
collection artist

Water is a vital (if unnoticed) aspect of the social imagining of new digital technologies. not only are we flooded with a deluge of information, drowning in the endless sea of communications, but we also speak more positively of steady flows of data, and most importantly for the exhibition considered here, the immersive experience of new technologies. Susan Best, catalogue essay

bathing in the elements by susan best

I need a ship to begin my journey. Your eyes will do - Peter Lyssiotis

It’s the liquidity of our eyes that makes us dream - Gaston Bachelard

These exquisite quotes from Gaston Bachelard and Peter Lyssiotis appeared on the opening panel of Harbourings, an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney about Sydney Harbour’s disused industrial sites. Read together the quotes extend the popular trope of the sea voyage–outer journeys paralleled by inner voyages of self discovery–by making our bodies, and those of others, into the medium and the means of transport to other realms. Discovery can be accomplished in the infinite sea of the other’s eyes, there is no need to leave home.

The powers of such dreamy evocations of watery transport are intensified when read against the backdrop of the harsh realities of a postindustrial maritime landscape. Flights of imagination are not a luxury in such a bleak context, on the contrary, they are necessary to think forwards, to think otherwise. Indeed, the Harbourings exhibition highlighted the need to reimagine the battered, scarred and neglected harbour sites rather than to simply lament their all too evident redundancy and wasteful superfluity. The harbour and this state of being, caught between redundancy and reimagining, play key roles in the latest work of Robyn Backen, Littoral. Taking our cue from the title of this work we could see redundancy and reimagining as the outer limits of a highly fluid zone: the littoral zone sits between (and accommodates) the high tide of new visions, firing imaginative powers, optimism, and hope, and the low tide of pessimism, lament, stasis, and slow decay.

Littoral thus names the zone that lies just beyond the walls of Artspace–a small segment of the wavering shoreline of Sydney Harbour–and an approach or attitude to change. The change in question is both geographical and technological. The technological change is perhaps best described as a change in technologies of communication. Littoral shows us a redundant system of communication, the dot/dash of morse code, caught in the flickering filaments of the new carrier of messages: fibre optics. A (nearly) dead digital language is thus carried by the newly ascendent technology of the digital.

Changes to geography enter somewhat obliquely here. The popular wisdom is that geography as such has been transformed by the advent of new technologies. According to writers such as Paul Virilio the new digital sea of communication has swamped 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. There is something of this digital overrun of the landscape in Backen’s work: the morse code of the adjacent military shoreline has been rerouted along more contemporary lines, and markers of safe anchorage–maritime buoys–have turned into luminous balls of optical fibre. But the effect of these transformations is not so much a sense of flooding or drowning–the metaphors of deluge and destruction mobilised to wash away all the old or obsolete obstacles in the pathway of change–rather, these intertwinings of new and old demonstrate what we should now call the “littoral sensibility.” The shoreline presents us with a model for being in the world, a fluid and inclusive comportment towards events. To be littoral is to try to take account of the high moral ground of condemnation of change (nostalgia is simply a gentler form of this judgement) and the low moral ground eagerly occupied by avant-gardists with their desire for destruction (often characterised quite simply by disregard for what exists). Littoral steers through these extremes while also extending the complex play between us and water that Bachelard’s elemental philosophy insisted upon. Indeed it is precisely the references to water that allow the middle course to be steered. Water is a vital (if unnoticed) aspect of the social imagining of new digital technologies. Not only are we flooded with a deluge of information, drowning in the endless sea of communications, but we also speak more positively of steady flows of data, and most importantly for the exhibition considered here, the immersive experience of new technologies. It is surely this feeling of immersion, the idea of continuity with all things in a shared element, that allows theorists like Virilio to presume the dissolution of sharp boundaries: the end of the face to face and vis-a-vis of discrete entities confronting the clear contours of one another. In Littoral the immersive experience is not a removal from the real world, a retreat into the solipsistic bubble of technologically-induced imagining. On the contrary, we are drawn back outside ourselves, back out into the harbour beyond the walls. The dim light of the exhibition suggests the spatiality of night, with the buoys bobbing alongside us we must be in the harbour, participants in the magic of night swimming when reduced visibility accentuates the tactility of buoyancy, the touch of water upon skin becomes a caress. This experience of bathing is at once real and literal–once part of the possibilities of the immediate environs of Artspace–while also having more metaphorical resonances.

The bathing metaphor can be used to describes our movements in the electronic matrix, movements which do not need to deny or destroy a concrete and particular location, watery or otherwise. Most importantly, the very insistence and prevalence of electronic bathing is a provocation to reimagine our relation to our environment in general: the milieu of bathing is not an environment held at arm’s length, but one in which we are immersed, we are but part of its continuous extension.

It is precisely this continuous mode of human being/dwelling that is described by Emmanuel Levinas as having the character of bathing: it is a kind of floating in a realm of sustenance from which our individuated existence issues. Such an image takes us home: recalling not only our natal home but also inner, more metaphorical shores–those indeterminate zones of the imagination where we and water meet. At last we return to the shore, but where exactly is that?

light bodies by nicolas strobbe

There is something intimate and disconcertingly beautiful about Robyn Backen’s work as they reveal a common concern with the sensibility of the body and a relation to the formal and material properties of installation.

Verge in rain (AGNSW 1995) played with fluidity, sight, and the environing character of the body, but involved a perfume whose ineffable but memorable sense traced the body into the work itself. ‘Bifocal (‘Spirit + Place’, MCA 1997), a minimalist work of two frames set into the wall with two eyeholes at different levels, marked a teasingly irresistible intertwining of the viewer with eyes that returned the gaze that was being seen. ‘Scales of the Sole’ (Roslyn Oxley9 1997) took ‘Bifocal’ one step further with a series of sleek stainless-steel periscopes which had been transformed into scales, again of varying heights, on which the viewer stood barefoot, and through which you had the uncanny perspective of seeing your sole from underneath. ‘Dots to Data’ (Australian Perspecta 1997) involved a diaphanous web of intricately woven optical fibres suspended just above head-height. This was a work evocative of the night sky, one whose organic quality seemed to transport the unreachable into the palpable, bringing two limits into touch with each other, the celestial and the mundane, where the body touched on what could barely be seen, and where light was no longer simply transparent but material.

Littoral represents a new response to a sensibility of the body and the aesthetical work of art, a sensibility in whose trace we can locate echoes from minimalism, arte povera, and Eva Hesse’s extraordinary forms. While there is again a sense of the significance of the body as it engages with other bodies in space, these are not simple bodies that come into contact with one another in space. Littoral brings us closer to what touches these bodies, it draws us towards a sense and a communication of a body that is not separable from space, an embodiment that takes place as space, in which the body is itself a touch of space, and which communicates through a kind of touching of this irreducible distance. The strings of optical fibre with their intermingling, and fibrous nature falling from simple rectilinear shapes on the wall are metamorphosed into organic spheres whose lights pulse to a message translated from Morse code.

While tracing a new theme of portability in Backen’s work to date commencing with ‘Dots to Data’ these evanescent bodies of light also point to the replacement of one communication, Morse code, by another, satellite and global positioning systems. But these bodies are not only organic, woven into shape, but lines of light and communication. The message, the line of communication, touches. The code of Samuel Morse registered the break of a circuit by an on/off switch (originally relayed by hand on a key to a stylus that imprinted, touched, a piece of paper, only later to be supplanted by a sounder, and perhaps inscribed again or relayed by voice). Communication, in this case, takes place in the interruption or suspension of a circuit and the imprint of a discontinuous line. ‘Littoral’ brings this figure of (non)communication into contact with other bodies and another medium: light and substance. It is suggestive of a speed of light that itself would remain incommunicable, and yet which is communicated in the sensation of light. That is, light as an object which has not been seen but which is an effect of sensations, so that Cezanne could write that “light does not exist for the painter” (Light in this case would mark a touch, a certain communication, and an effect of sensation, the sensible, and the aesthetic; as if one didn’t paint light but touched it, as if now it were not simply sensible, such that questions concerning optics and the subject bore now on the touch of illumination in the material and sensible, and to the touch even of a body-sight, and what touches us, as if the body were itself a touch now.) Light’s appearance is not apparent. We can never see it, there is no limit from which we can look back at it, so that light marks an irreducible limit. This fascinating alienation of light in the spheres brings with it, as it were, a communication of a line in touch or contact with itself differently.

Touch is an incommunicable sense. And yet touch is something that affects us, it is a singular experience without a concept with which we could calculate it, and hence an experience discontinuous with mere rational communication, though it touches on this also. To speak of touch in this case (even as one might say “this touched me”, without however being able to touch it directly or explicitly, since touch already broaches on an unassimilable union) would also be to speak of a nonidentical of experience, an experience that is communicated indirectly, or rather in the indirection of a touch and a sensibility, an embodiment whose experience is presented in the temporary and its incompletion. What is touched and what is seen, accordingly, would not mark a communication of experience equal to a transcendental form, but an experience that touches on what is not given and what cannot be given. Which is to say that if this or that touches us, or that the body is a site for something that touches us, this touch is given as an interval, and even as the sublime and ungraspable. The body, then, will have marked a passage, a threshold, and a sense of what touches in its interval. A passage and a transmission of the ephemeral and a communication of the temporary, the temporary of the touch of space. Which would also be to speak of a sense that could unmask one’s own and that touches on its difference, even as touch marks the interval of a difference it can never touch (hence a touch that takes place through exposure, but not one that is given strictly in the opposition of the external to the internal).

To speak of touch and the communication of sense would be to speak of an aesthetics of the temporary and the finite (again, not an aesthetics of the purely reflective self, the universally rational and free subject which is the classical model of modernity), one which, lacking an absolute style or final form in the metaphysical, takes place contra Kant as a purposiveness or finitude without end. This would be a zone that is not identical, one that is irreducible to the Same, and which moreover can never finally be determined or given a proper name (Beauty, Truth, God) but which, instead, indicates via a communication of ciphers the singularity of a site which is not single, and which could no longer be determined by an unambiguous intuition. If such a site, a kind of non-site, is significant or valuable (without excluding here the significance of such a non-site for epistemology, a citation of the nonequivalent site, a site without equal) it is, perhaps, because it draws us to and touches us on a crisis’ not only to the littoral/literal site, but to this incommensurable relation in which site takes place and hence to the communication of a certain community.

Communication and community- as if these terms were not in some sense embodied in the broach of light and form, or even to the sight and sound of a hand tapping a message in the distance. What kind of community might this be, except a community of bodies at the limit of distance and in its indirection. A community of communication perhaps, then, transparent like light and lacking the apparent - as if the body in the sublime of a nonapparence were its lack, a difference without correspondence and a difference for embodiment. The sublime, of course, is held to be distinguishable from the beautiful and the natural for Kant. The work of art, like the beautiful or the natural it is argued, attends to an end or a purpose insofar as it is an artwork, a purposiveness Kant founds in a subjective universality. But this metaphysical aesthetics calls on a transcendental rationality and subjectivity which is nevertheless incapable of being presented. Nonetheless, nature and the sublime (the sublime being an incomplete end) transmit to us communications that are grounded, following Kant, in nature’s speaking to us figuratively in a Chiffreschrift, a writing or communication by code or cipher (let us recall, too, the detour of the history of the cipher, zero, sifr, that came from the Arabic world and India, the forgotten of Europe). The aesthetical judgement, like the experience of agitation in the sublime, takes place in an intermediate zone, that of the littoral - a region of communication, a region that is only a touch as Jean-Luc Nancy has shown, a touch given in the proximal relation of harmony and disharmony between reason and imagination and which, like the literal shore of the littoral, is not a determinate object but an intermediate zone, a community of the intermediate and intermediation, the “between” of the limit of the two which is the littoral and irremediably singular space that touches and takes place between high and low tide. Touch always overreaches itself, and fails to reach itself. It will never have touched this touch, stood outside of it, and discovered it literally. Which is not to say that in a touch whose suspension has been delimited the literal does not touch us. This suspension of the interval and its rhythm points to a sublime law of touch, one in which the limit touches its limit, an internal limit that remains in excess of it. This, at least, remains true of its classical formulation where the limit, in touching its limit “the absolutely great” will have been surpassable rationally. Thus, for literal thought, the sublime is restricted, its non-immediate difference made present by virtue of the literal mediacy of the rationally immediate. And yet, the sublime in this case will have been erased and assimilated within a limit, only to locate a tear internal to that limit which it is in excess of, setting the unity of the internal into a kind of ek-stasis. But how will the sublime have been possible, as the sublime, if not in this interval and touch? How, again, will this be possible without the monstrous of a reason let loose unlimitedly? The touch of the limit, here, marks a crisis across in which the end is aporetic, one that can only be touched upon in its suspension, and in which Kantian purposiveness is now without end. Crucially, this would no longer constitute the privately subjective realm of the classic formulation, since the universality of the rational in the purely subjective appears precisely as a symptom of a finitude without end. Additionally, the regulative of the Idea is not presented or given because it too is registered in the oblivion of this crisis, hence its classical formulation as timeless and transcendental - not because it expresses the universality of the form of reason, but because of the incommensurable rift or failure of the universal limit, one that cannot be given.

The nonappearance and unpresentability of this uncanny ‘between’ of the littoral in a sense returns us to the body as a haunt and an inhabitation of place, itself repeated in the flickering balls - transmission in the installation from Merleau-Ponty: “Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space. It applies to space like a hand to an instrument and when we wish to move about we do not move the body as we do an object. We transport it without instruments as if by magic, since it is ours and because through it we have direct access to space”. But this figurative body and its code is not within our comprehension. It is incomprehensible, it haunts and inhabits space even as, perhaps, it is this inhabitation of space that is always already a passage, a zone whose internal limit is a certain identity. And hence, too, a littoral/literal zone, a zone where you will have “heard a ray of sun laugh and cough and sing”, like this other communication from Alexander Graham Bell in ‘Littoral’. Here, then, a zone that is a performative event, one which takes place and is given in a liminal inhabitation that touches on its distance, a touch which can only be repeated through a rift. A sublime and aesthetical body, mobile, presently performative, and between. An other body whose edge passes through us.

Morse code animation for light switching

Morse code tapping


Interiors and the Architectural Imprint by Phillip Kent, Art and Australia vol 36 3

Art sensor by Jacqueline Millner, Real Time, 24 April/May 1998

The water works of Robyn Backen by Susan Best, Eyeline, Spring 1998

What is installation? An anthology of writings on Australian installation art edited by Ben Genocchio & Adam Geczy


Thanks to Joshua Raymond, John Tonkin, Ian Hobbs, Annemaree Dalziel, Stephen Jones, Sue Best, Nicholas Strobbe, Lyn Tune, Rodney Berry.

This project is in two part the first is showing at Artspace and then in Brisbane at the IMA.

Kindly sponsored by Australia Council.