Cultivating Frequencies

I have just completed the proofs for an article on Simon Ingram’s Radio Painting series for the next issue of Art New Zealand.
Great works, fabulous conversations, and a chance for me to test out some of my thoughts around gallery machines and VLF in a media context I don’t usually get to talk about often.
I will post the link to the full article when published but some highlights follow.

Simon Ingram

A machine paints. Slowly over one evening it dips a brush in a small pot and marks out a canvas. In a considered and methodical way it measures space and time with a detached almost abstract air. Connected to the artist through a kind of proto-subjectivity the machine scans the electromagnetic spectrum. It is making paintings drawn from the inaudible and invisible VLF frequencies found between 3kHz and 30kHz (the machine’s antenna collects those in the range of 18 to 25 kHz best). The behaviour of the machine is automatic, as if it has forgotten itself. This self-making painting machine might be the ultimate removal of the subject of painting were it not for the human painter present and alert, watching for anomalies. The art is the result of a long process and accidents need to be checked. The finished work is a painting, a discrete material thing, but really it is not so removed from the objects and networks that made it.

In Simon Ingram’s Radio Painting series we sense the presence of a new kind of painting. Paintings made by a networked self-making painting machine that is connected to the universe. Just what are we looking at? This machine, the entire assemblage, is a technology; an extension of the artist’s body in Marshall McLuhan’s sense. The Radio Painting series results from a sequence of material conversions of unseen and unheard information. Some of this is the stuff of the hobby radio enthusiast. A custom built tuner amplifier attached to a coil type antenna consisting of 129 turns of tinned wire wound around a circular armature gathers in signals sent to submarines and feeds the transmission into a spectrum sound analyser that performs a fast Fourier transform (FFT). (This mode of isolation and tuning across a spectrum makes it possible to chart solar activity.) Magically what cannot be heard or seen becomes sound and image, which are further transformed and translated by code and software and then aesthetically graded before being downloaded, enacted and turned into paint. The signal becomes the mediator between the sun and receiver; between a world of energy and a world of information. In this way the self-making painting machine is a new kind of abstract assemblage that pushes mimesis aside and engages in a direct play between energy and information.

The artist has stepped back and painting as a generative activity that has at its heart a set of economic and aesthetic problems, has become a machine. This is not the catastrophic machine of ecological damage and societal control but the machine as interface that breaks down ontological spaces between being and things. This machine is linked to procedures and constraint, constraints that become content providers and markers of things. Constraints are things that artists go looking for. Jean Tinguely made machines for self-destruction that momentarily occupied noisy spaces of creation within galleries. Nam June Paik made machines that extended the spaces between artist, material and viewer. Roxy Paine makes painting and sculpture machines that push at the notion of the machine as an object in itself or as a means of fabrication. Paine’s Paint Dipper (Painting Manufacturing Unit) (1999-2000) is designed to produce art autonomously through repeated action. Paine’s machine takes the place of the artist. Ingram’s machine does not. Instead, like Paik’s it occupies an extended place where the artist and machine are elements of an assemblage of multiple networked encounters. As part of the machine, Ingram is translating energy and generating images. The complex of behaviours that result includes also the viewer and the space of vision. Ingram has created an extended space between the painter and the canvas, a space that is not only occupied by the machinic operations of the self-making painting machine but by us, the viewers. As we enter into this communal space the oscillations of abstraction become clear. Radio Painting offers certain forms of thought, captured frequencies that inhabit a material world unseen and unheard, yet pervasive. This arrangement of meaningful relationships implies that that the painter is no longer alone with his canvas, the model (in this case the VLF antennae) is insistently present infecting and traversing the axis of composition. This is the immediacy of the abstract experience desired by Morton Feldman. Immediacy made possible in stages by a self-making painting machine. The energies that it finds are ‘of’ the world and form a new kind of aesthetic assemblage.