date 2005
location artspace, sydney
medium mixed media
dimensions variable
photographer artist
collection artists robyn backen & john tonkin

artspace publication

Vinculum is an organisational framework or binding system. It takes the form of a visual language machine where media fragments make up the raw phonemes of an abstracted linguistic process.

a collaboration with john tonkin

vinculum by ann finegan

The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture. Martin Heidegger, The Age of the World Picture, The Question Concerning Technology, 134.

Vinculum: with this obtuse word Backen and Tonkin gesture towards the barrier to signification which is at work in their installation of the same title. Vinculum is a response to a certain kind of image and information overload: the bleeding or seepage of information which leaks out everywhere in an incomplete messaging; snippets of conversation on mobile or phones, or worse, as the annoying noise just below the threshold of decipherability; image fragments briefly glimpsed. In short, the remnants or remainders of the world as reproduced and transmitted through what Heidegger termed, “the conquest of the world as picture” Reproduction technologies, or, more specifically their leakage creates “vinculums” everywhere, the metaphorical barrier of information which never crosses the threshold into signification. In respect of the “world as picture”, Heidegger worries for the sake of this struggle of world views and in keeping with its meaning [Heidegger, 135] that the correlations with signification have become incalculable. Everywhere where (hu)man has been transformed into subjectum and the world into picture. [Heidegger, 135],

Backen and Tonkin take the idea of the subject as subjectum, literally as subjected to, the world as inscrutable, uncalculable [sound and] picture. The usual premise of an art work promoting the disclosure of the meaning of signs has been intentionally thwarted; the viewer thrown back from the usual habits of interpretation in a work which has been designed to limit and frustrate understanding. Which isn’t to say that the installation display isn’t elegant; or that the usual rules of interpretation don’t apply. On entry, a long horizontal band of discreet speakers beckons inspection, particularly as the sound is low and diffuse. But no matter how close the engagement, the viewer soon finds that proximity does not enhance comprehension, but only places it at a further remove. Intimate listening fails. Your ear to the wall, or as close as the frieze of small speakers will permit, you are never close enough to catch the sound which is always on the point of withdrawing, retiring into its own vortex over and over again as you chase it down the line of speakers teasingly mounted at shoulder height. All the same you feel that you have been addressed, signaled to, or rather disturbed, even if you never quite figure out for whom or for what the sound is intended. Were you only overhearing? Actively eavesdropping?

As in our contemporary world glimpses and soundings abound, seemingly in an intensive state of Derridean adestination [destined never to arrive], or destined elsewhere to persons other than ourselves. The world as picture, which so disturbed Heidegger in the heyday of modernity in the early 1950s with the advent of television, in the wake of radio, is now in a state of serious overspill. Everywhere, we’re architecturally channeled into close proximity with the detritus of stray sounds and images, particularly on escalators, in lifts, in shopping malls, anywhere where people are individually funneled from within a certain structured circulation. On route we’re always in a state of inadvertent looking and listening, not subjects with the right to choose but become Heidegger’s subjectum – subject to annoying imposition. Such overspill is a problem because technologies of reproduction so successfully mesh with our perceptual system, the very same which we use to assure our survival. Perceptually we’ve always turned on, always attuned, without overstatement always in a state of semi-permanent arousal as a function of being alive. Processing information from our senses is what we as humans do; a core point underlined by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, in which we are creatures of the mind, conditioned by affect and desire. We can’t help but respond when signals are sent out.

Like MTV, going about our everyday business in our overstimulating cities, we’re in a state of permanent distraction as a function of the desire which is in our make-up. In spite of ourselves we’re subliminally on the make for the next satisfaction, the next pop song, the next bit of talkback gossip, the next shopping special, the state of the trains. We desire to listen, at least to know what is going on. As Lacan said, desire has us permanently on the rails, always stretched ahead in our desire to know(1). Since our earliest days we’ve been trained to tune in. Now, it’s a struggle even to raise yourself to the awareness of a decision not to listen. As citizens of the aural-visual culture we can’t help it: even when only mildly distracted, we’re still on auto-pilot, attempting to decipher what disturbs us, if only to dismiss it more properly. Subconsciously, we can’t not seek the source, and the satisfaction which follows when our need-to-know is fulfilled by the recognition and appraisal of what disturbs us.

However, in Backen and Tonkin’s Vinculum that very satisfaction - identifying the sound, identifying the image - is forever withheld. Vinculum aims to tease and thwart us. Listeners at the speaker wall soon give up, frustrated by an inkling of something which can never quite be made out. Lacan’s metonymy of desire has us stretched out - horizontally - straining to catch the sound on the rails.

Indeed, horizontal banding is the core trope of the installation. A film strip of moving image cut-ups on the opposite wall complements the line the speakers with another emphatic horizontal, the individual image frames erratically flicking on and off in a randomly punctuated line. As with the sound, nothing can be fully made out. Some sort of switching mechanism determines the sequence of each part-image which can be broadly discerned as fragment of a set which is never fully disclosed. Indeed, if Virilio, in The Aesthetics of Disappearance, had announced that to travel is like filming, and filming like travelling, he wasn’t only commenting on the ability of cinema to figuratively transport the viewer to an elsewhere. Rather, he was making the point that our transportation systems turn our relationship with the world into a kind of ongoing film, simply achieved by looking out the window. [Gondry’s video clip of the Chemical Brothers’ Star Guitar notably cuts the beats into synch with the everyday icons seen outside the window of a suburban train.]

Backen and Tonkin take Virilio’s idea one step further. Not only is modernity [and postmodernity] framed like a movie in the windows of our transportation systems, but the much simpler act of walking the city, or even sitting amongst our media-saturated landscape, turns us into producers of snippets of movies. Zooming past billboards, even at walking pace, we are simultaneously taking in shopfronts, glimpses of mobile picture phones, ads on buses and cabs, and store video screens. The experience of the city is one long movie trailer, its independent fragments only half-realised because you are switching channels midstream. Unless you directly pause with the intention to stop, how much of the world flashes by in these broken up, semi-deleted film strips? Most of the time we’re filtering out images as a protection from overload. A split second of recognition is enough before we zap with the remotes we carry inside our heads. Bergson’s centre of determination on which we focus, in everyday perception, supposedly filters out what is unnecessary to our principal item of attention. But, Bergson, writing Matter and Memory in the early twentieth century in the infancy of film, and even radio, had no conception of the constant distraction through which we are bombarded with snippets of film and sound, counter to the one we are self-constructing in our own mind. If, according to Bergson’s metaphor, everyday perception is a process akin to editing and filming, Backen and Tonkin point out that in the age of advanced technological reproduction, this movie is facing stiff competition.

Backen and Tonkin set out to frustrate and tease at the limits of our perceptual system, to irritate our comfort zone, and the way we subconsciously process a multitude of mini-moments for recognition. For starters, they isolate our tendency at straining after sound - knowing that sound as time-based is not as instantly recognized as visual stimulants but requires the equivalent of the first few bars of the message. Further, sound, unlike visuals, attacks us from all sides as well as from within. As Derrida, in Speech and Phenomena, has confirmed of a long line of thinkers, including Hegel and Husserl, sound in the form of our interior voice of consciousness, speaking out aloud in our heads to ourselves, has always had a priority over vision. And because sound is all around us we have more of a tendency to inattention unless a sound seems to seek to provoke us, in other words, to enter the intimate, proximate space of our own minds, the space of “hearing oneself think”. This is why Backen and Tonkin made their speaker wall so intimate - in order to better tease us.

From experience they know that the noise which leaks from headsets, or worse from mobile phone conversations, even though not loud, is intense in terms of its power of distraction. And they know that on escalators, lifts and public transport, we are particularly susceptible to any sound which spills into that intimate region between our head and our shoulders. Backen and Tonkin intentionally positioned their speakers in one long strip at this intimate height in order to trap us in our attempts at running after signification all down the line. Or, like a flip-book, they know that we will try to modulate our walk to a speed which might release a decipherable message.

Again, on the image strip much is promised, but little is delivered. There is no message beyond the formal aesthetic pleasure of a carefully calculated ratio of colour and image-frame. In this latter capacity the image-strip obliquely signals the aesthetic of contemporary architecture’s modular forms. The moving image fragments, in which so little can be discerned, fall back into blocks of colour and pattern. Thus there’s an overall soothing effect, a compensation of design. The speaker-band, in refusing to disclose as signification of a message, narrative or the event [of which it is a fragment], can also be said to deconceal as aesthetic quality, as “sound”. Thus this withholding of meaning, both aural and visual, isn’t without pleasant side-effects, even though we’re left frustrated in a semi-irritated state of weak desiring. As Backen and Tonkin demonstrate, it can be perfectly pleasant to forgo meaning for aesthetics, and imbibe in a little numbing down. It’s like flicking a switch, and turning off the sense-making side of the brain to focus on design.

Backen and Tonkin take us to an impasse - or is it a compromise? - of damped-down noise [both sonic and visual] as aestheticized meaninglessness. As such they offer a sly comment on the habitability of our public spaces. Each new designer mall is architecturally configured to strive for this same blend of aesthetics and distraction. Spaces must be pleasant, the staggering information overload, discreet. It’s as if our town planners and architects have intuitively taken on the lesson of Bergson: the ‘centre of determination’ of perception must always be pleasantly filled. This brings one to a consideration of the vinculum - the bar or line of separation in a fraction or a mathematical sign of division. Who remembers it, this sign of an operation which may always be continued, taken through to its result in, the decimal notation of a dividend? Perhaps more famously, more attention was drawn to its role in semiotics, the science of meaning, whether in its Saussurian, or more recent Lacanian incarnation. In Saussure’s notion of the sign, vinculum is that bar which separates the signifier from the signified, S1/S2, the line of separation. Between the sign and its referent, S1/S2. the vinculum is the bar that keeps them apart, that must be leapt over in order for signification, comprehension, and, ultimately, understanding, to occur.

Thus, by way of a title, Vinculum, points to the horizontal line or bar which is literally, if obscurely, reproduced in the horizontal banding around the walls of the installation. The vinculum steadfastly draws the line which is rarely ever crossed [a pure fluke if any of the image frames of a colour ever line up in synch and reveal a larger part of one of the movies]. A vinculum, as representational image, or even better, the thing-of-the-line as its own image, enacts the barrier or obstacle to the final act of making sense. Ultimate meaning will always be deferred, stalled in the metonymy of images and sounds which proceed one thing after the next, without ever crossing that bar which will deliver sense. Simply we never get to make out the sign in order to draw on our memory banks to confirm its referent. Therefore, it’s not by accident, that Lacan, when he came to distinguish the meaning-making trope of metaphor from the deferral of metonymy, illustrated the latter with a chain of contingent horizontal links: one thing following upon another, never to resolve. Desire on the rails.

f (S…..S’) S = S (-) a

The Lacanian algorithm of metonymy2 focuses on the (-), the minus in brackets which signifies that signification will never be closed: there is always something missing, never filled in, as illustrated by the left-hand side of (S….S1) signifying the sliding of the signifiers as they pursue each other along a horizontal band. Lacan says of the metonymic structure, the signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation, using the ‘reference back’ possessed by signification in order to invest it with the desire aimed at the very lack which it supports. (3) In other words, the ‘lack-of being’, which translates in Backen and Tonkin’s installation to the withholding qualities of the work, creates the desire which can only be manifested by the horizontal sliding of the signifier - one signifier following upon another, always in hope, but without any resolution. The minus in the right-hand brackets of Lacan’s equation signals this lack of closure, and is balanced against the principle of adding [and adding] to the unfinished chain of signifiers (S….S’) on the left-hand side. For, in order to get the idea of metonymy across, signifiers must continue to accrue horizontally as they trace out the line of unsatisfied desire.

In Backen and Tonkin’s image band [computer-driven by selections made in yet another module of the installation] signifiers slide and slide on, one after the other.

Metaphor, by contrast, is illustrated: f(S’/S)S= S(+)a


the metaphoric structure indicating that it is in the substitution of signifier for signifier that an effect of signification is produced that is creative or poetic, in other words, which is the advent of signification in question, The sign + between () represents here the crossing of the bar - and the constitutive value of this crossing for the emergence of signification.(4)

So the presence of the vinculum marks a threshold to be crossed or not crossed; its franchise determines whether signification is achieved. Backen and Tonkin indicate this limit, building tension into the work, which generates a response that is torn between the work’s ultimate inscrutability - the vinculum literally a line which is never crossed but only extended - and an aesthetic pleasure which forsakes the desire for meaning for the play of pure form.

Backen and Tonkin therefore both counter and play up Heidegger’s fear of the incalculable world picture, and the latter day concerns of Kittler for whom the reduction of all mediums to the digital has produced a kind of ‘eyewash’ characterized by a lack of engagement and meaning. Backen and Tonkin mimic the way ‘noise, or ‘eyewash,’ whatever you might want to call it, is recuperated and aestheticized, in the operations of architects and town planners. Noise pollution, whether of the aural or visual kind, is neutralized by modernism/postmodernism’s formal structures into modular units of a-signification. Design as social solution pacifies and calms irritants. The fragmented film strips of so many unfinished narratives which litter the city are disguised by design. Aestheticized in the same way that text as a-signification has become a motif for clothing.

Of course, not all the spillage is as well managed. Backen and Tonkin emphasize that no matter how aestheticized, how slick the design, perceptual disturbance and constant a-signification is wearying and generates a generalised frustration.

CODA: A-signification, perception, and technological disempowerment. The third component of the installation feigns returning a sense of control to the viewer, under the illusion of empowering the user with control of the mouse-clicks selecting the image-fragments shown on the wall. Twin sentry boxes on the back wall each house a computer. However, each computer interface is set up through a timer on a rapid default mode, such that the speed of image display is too fast for comprehension and cognition. The interfaces (of the two separate computers) might be the same, but they are mind maps of such complexity, and set at such speed, that users are unable to correlate word and fragment. Imagine a vast speed game of “Snap” played as a 1000 piece jigsaw.

Further, each interface consists of a fiendishly detailed data map of words drawn from an expanded index of mind, ironically modelled on the index of Kant’s infamously difficult Critique of Pure Reason. Even if users remain unfazed by the semantic plentitude of signs hyperlinked down through multiple screens, and focus only on a small portion of related semantic groupings, for example, the modulations of the states hyperlinked to manifold or cognition, the rate of image retrieval and disappearance is set such that the user cannot possibly register a direct perceptual connection between word on the interface and the image-fragment projected on the wall Another vinculum is in place, the set-up of the technology riding against limit of the perceptual-cognitive barrier of being able to look in two different places of the screen and the wall at the same time.

The correct sequence of signifieds [the coloured frames] will in all likelihood never be tapped. Again, signification fails to disclose, pertinently not even to the user driving the image sequence. Failure and frustration then paradoxically become the measure of success in this installation as Backen and Tonkin convincingly demonstrate technology’s role in promoting a-signification at the limits of perception.


1 Lacan, Jacques. Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious. Ecrits. [London: Tavistock, 1977]

2 Lacan, Jacques. Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious. Ecrits. [London: Tavistock, 1977], 164

3 Lacan, Jacques. Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious. Ecrits. [London: Tavistock, 1977], 164

4 Lacan, Jacques. Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious. Ecrits. [London: Tavistock, 1977], 164 back

artists statement

A collaboration between Robyn Backen and John Tonkin.

Vinculum has evolved from a sustained conversation around information overload and the nature of ubiquitous communication systems. We are looking for a space between the over-saturated and the stripped bare.

In an attempt to contain our disparate thoughts we have borrowed from a structure built by Roget in the development of his nineteenth century thesaurus. His Plan of Classification consists of six major classes, twenty-four sections and one thousand subcategories, including vinculum, a Latin word meaning a means of binding. Vinculum is an organisational framework or binding system. It takes the form of a visual language machine where media fragments make up the raw phonemes of an abstracted linguistic process.

The vinculum is the processing device at the core of every Borg vessel which brings order to chaos. It interconnects the minds of all the drones. It purges individual thoughts disseminates information relevant to the Collective. [from Memory Alpha, the free Star Trek reference]