sbya 2000 bloemfontein
Invisible Cities and Primed Spectators

By Dirk van den Berg
Department of Art History, University of the Orange Free State

Contemplating these essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden and fall in ruins. At times he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to the comparison with the game of chess. Perhaps, instead of racking one's brains to suggest with the ivory pieces' scant help visions which were anyway destined to oblivion, it would suffice to play a game according to the rules, and to consider each successive state of the board as one of the countless forms that the system of forms assembles and destroys.(Calvino 1974: 97)

I visited Alan Alborough's website before his exhibition opened in Bloemfontein. The digital images resonated with imagery half-remembered from a recent reading of Marco Polo's descriptions for Kublai Khan of fantastic cities in Italo Calvino's novel Invisible Cities, in particular this poignant passage on p69:

'Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,' Polo said. 'Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.'

This involuntary cue hinted that Alborough's work might somehow be related to a recent research topic - the so-called scenic tradition in art1. Reading the other essays on this exhibition, I was struck by the fact that they seem to reveal more about the individual authors than about their putative subject. Thus my submission that this exhibition in a singular way foregrounds the role of what might be called the "primed spectator".

Alan Alborough's installation, notably its conceptual framework, may at first sight appear unfamiliar to art public members accustomed to the usual exhibition format - the conventional display of independent works of art in functional gallery spaces. Yet this thoughtful installation corresponds with certain trends shared by a number of experimental projects of the past century - including Marcel Duchamp's industrial readymades, process art and conceptual art, site-specific installations and multimedia presentations. I start with some general observations regarding the repercussions of these developments.

Visual artists are constantly exploring and testing the prospects and limits implicit in their uniquely modern role as exhibition artists2 - the task of engaging and working with the embodied eyes, imagination, memories, expectations, commitments and hearts of spectators, situated within discursive and social frameworks systematically distorted by reigning ideological powers. Thus the idea of canonic masterpieces fragmented into constellations of pieces on display and in reproduction3; the permanence and closure of objets d'art shifted towards dynamic opera aperta and aleatory processes in temporally dislocated display actions4; even the most finished and autonomous works of art are now being disseminated in the rhetorical mode of installations and digital displays5.

Concurrently, the nature of the museum as public exhibition space6, the formats of museum displays7 as well as the meaning of museualisation8 were subject to progressive mutation as well - from a secular temple of the muses to the typical white cell's experimental aesthetic space, to its current status as but one of several links in a chain of multimedia information networks. The art public's share grew and spectators' critical contribution increased in step with these developments. Generally, our role has shifted from that of silent admirers, to that of detectives and analysts deciphering often hidden or unconscious intentions, motives or desires, to that of full-fledged co-creators, the artists' real partners or adversaries in the joint imaginative project of co-operative and situated meaning generation9.

Travelling exhibitions traditionally consist of collections of mounted, framed and numbered works of art, documented in printed and illustrated catalogues, and exposed to admirers and critics from local art publics by means of a series of museum displays. The basic framework is archival. Objects created at certain moments in the past are curatorially selected, secured, researched, displayed and packaged with ready-made interpretations and critical commentaries for an audience composed to a large extent of passive consumers. The ostensive curatorial purpose is to let the works of art speak for themselves. In effect, however, the most significant participants, the artists and spectators, find themselves relegated to a submissive position, being dominated by curators and museums, both as institutional frame and as the silent and illuminated exhibition spaces reverberating with the canonising voice of curatorial authority10.

Alan Alborough exchanged this established frame and practice with an alternative conceptual framework - namely the notion of the gradual unfolding of a new multimedia phenomenon, the emergent meanings of a series of calculated scenes and cultural events with an expanding body of participants. This exhibition does not merely tour as a body of works transported between seven cities. The components in the installation themselves have the procedural structure of a journey that will be completed only once the end of the tour programme has been reached. In each of the cities, at each station along the itinerary, the installation is reassembled to create a different scene. Each time the artist also initiates a set of corrosive processes in the coils on the rectangular pieces, and the resultant traces and brownish stains of each exhibition are preserved in the used coils affixed to the seven capsules and displayed on sheets hung on the walls.

Crucial to Alan Alborough's concept is the assumption that the gallery spaces of the museum circuit may be replaced by any darkened interior. Even more fundamental is the assumption that artist and art public together may take command of the curatorial function11. The role the artist assumes is akin to that of a factotum who co-ordinates the construction, transportation, installation and corroding of the pieces as well as the management of the expanding archival website. He orchestrates an open process of spectator engagement in order to prompt visitors into active participation, transforming their roles from that of passive viewers into self-consciously performing actors, constantly aware of being players in a system of surveillance which registers their reactions and degrees of participation. Simultaneously, the exhibition spaces are converted into sites for dramatic contests between clashing actor roles. However, apart from the audience hum during openings and the sounds of scratching pens and clattering keyboard, the rest is silence. The arena of the battle has been removed into heterotopian cyberspace, the domain that Régis Debray characterised as the "logo-sphere"12.

The spectators are given the opportunity of adding their own responses to the project - both to the installation in the gallery and to the cloud of words surrounding the pieces and their digital images - and thus of joining a veritable choir of voices. The single institutional voice of curatorial authority is replaced by a multiplicity of participant voices. This phenomenon may be compared with Bahktinian heteroglosia, with the following reservations:

  • first, the deep-rooted intractability of the illusive and imaginative kernel of visual responses escapes direct translation into verbal discourse13 and,
  • secondly, the wild revelry of carnivalisation at the basis of Bahktinian heteroglosia is bridled firmly and directed towards a contrasting orientation by the hygienic materials, clean-cut forms and intricate linear patterns of Alborough's installation and website.

    The database of verbal comments thus comprises sedimented traces of writing, "sanitised" as it were by the transfer into cyberspace. It represents merely a collection of clues about the visitors' real embodied responses in adapting themselves to the installation's distinct metaphorical orientation. We have to deduce the imaginary contents of the project by means of deductive processes, by speculating on the project's enduring value, on what will remain, beyond the installation and website machinery.

    Instead of the usual printed catalogue as a record of an exhibition, visitors have the address of the artist's website. A computer is a crucial part of the installation, offering access to the labyrinthine electronic archive of the exhibition, the artist and his earlier work. Visitors are able to visit the scenes and view the digital images from the preceding stations of the tour and also to read the essays, critical commentaries and spectator responses from Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Together with anybody who could not physically attend any of the exhibitions but who does have electronic access to the website, members of the Bloemfontein art public are invited to add their own comments that will become part of the exhibitions in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

    The exhibition does not comprise the usual collection of artworks on display. It is in fact difficult to conceive or to speak here of a truly finished or completed work of art - except in the mediated sense that eventually the "whole" (the history of the project on arrival at its final destination in Johannesburg) will exist in an indefinite mode, as a kind of nebulous scenic constellation14. At that final destination it may be described as a multimedia artworld event that stretched the institutional museum framework; and also as a network of solicited human contacts made available on a relatively permanent website, a supplemental archive completed and ready for the next stage in a metaphorical journey - its nomadic afterlife in cyberspace. Central to the project is its conceptual scope, especially the difficult task of tracing its imaginary profile, exploring the imaginative reach of its complex implications - at first hand, in the presence of the installation, during several revisitings, and subsequently recalling the exhibition in memory and following its unfolding fate on the website.

    Though orchestrator and webmaster of these contingent events, the artist does not openly or personally dominate the prospective viewers and participants from the art public. We are in fact indispensable as his co-workers. In addition to many opportunities built into the installation for us, he specifically invites us to claim a share in the creative curatorial role. He does not prescribe our part in the project, nor does he attempt to control, programme or manipulate the responses of prospective viewers. Solicited as aleatory performance, our subjective reactions, unpredictable input and creative interplay with the installation are nonetheless conceived as integral to the project's eventual outcome. However, to the degree that the installation's emergent system qualities reveal themselves, the spectators' liberating experience of participation is replaced by a rising and discomforting awareness of the project's power of surveillance and control. Spectators who elect not to adapt themselves to the conditions on offer have to resort to deliberate countering measures.

    The pieces consist of common industrial products of plastic, often modular in nature - the typically iterative, multipurpose, consumable or disposable, replaceable or recyclable tissue of our culture and industrial environment. The components from this system of objects15 - pallets, tiles, sheets, rods, links, ties, strips, isolators, reflectors, syringes, clips, pegs, wires, nails, batteries - are mounted in complex constructions, installed in such a way that the clinical textures, neutral colours and modular patterns of repetition acquire an unexpected Aura, extracted in part from the museum environment's scenic values. The scale of the pieces is calculated carefully to engage us bodily as sculpture. Had they been smaller they would take on the appearance of miniaturised clockwork mechanisms; had they been larger the effect of the installation would be intimidating. As it is, the scale and layout accommodate human dimensions. Readily surveyed, the installation facilitates a process of easy adaptation on our part.

    The constellation of pieces could be described as "devices of contingency". They function in a playful manner, like Rubicube constructs or crossword puzzles, ostensibly without the standard verbal clues, though these proliferate on the accompanying website as the exhibition approaches its final destination. Spectators may fill the openings in any fanciful way, projecting meanings on the pieces according to their own wishes, inclinations or aversions. The process is unquestionably arbitrary, yet one is made aware that the pieces are composed systematically from iterated elements, constructed as co-ordinated patterns and processes, in effect creating a playful model of interrelated and multi-levelled order.

    While spectators reflect on the choice of materials, the mounting of the components, the illumination of the pieces from within, the spatial layout of the installation, especially the guided corrosion processes, the installation begins to reveal itself or, in other words, become receptive to our meaning projections. As a multiplicity of possible meanings accrue, it begins to take on the appearance of an operating system, perhaps a machine involving typical sources and transformations of energy with as yet undetermined products and by-products. The functional purpose of the system ultimately remains unknown, since the corrosive stains do not aspire to images with a special status. Nevertheless, being conditioned at institutional level by museum habits, we are primed to search for the intentions of culturally purposeful objects, and to persist in this quest, despite all obstacles and resistance.16

    The destination may be concealed, as in a labyrinth, yet the pervasive effect of integration and co-ordination conveys to the viewer the suggestive presence of metaphorical relations between the manifold patterns and processes. The awareness of related or parallel orders in diverse dimensions becomes the basis for further conjectures. The implication is not that one has to discover a single pattern, a basic blueprint, a master plan or a hidden code. Rather we are invited to elaborate and embroider the key metaphorical model of patterns, processes and transformation synchronically co-ordinated at various levels. The distant that is made proximate, the invisible that is made visible by the installation seems to be a kind of cosmic metaphor or world model which assumes the presence of parallel patterns, processes and orders in nature and culture, environment and history, matter and spirit, site and system, humanity and machine, body and soul, individual and society, home and city.

    The unique manner in which all of this is presented as an installation with electronic archive is a novel invention by Alan Alborough. Yet the fundamental faith in an emergent harmonious order manifesting itself in any arbitrary transformation is an ancient legacy, still vital for recent positions, such as Gödel's incompleteness axiom, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Einstein's theory of relativity. The enduring master metaphor of inveterate parallel patternings has a distinguished history. It includes the work of numerous artists in the scenic tradition - vedute painters like Piranesi, Canaletto, Guardi or Bellotto; futurists and constructivists like Delaunay, Severini, El Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, Schlemmer or Escher as well as a number of contemporary science-fiction utopists. This basic metaphor also governs the thought of philosophers like Spinoza or Leibniz, developed further by the modern exponents of systems theory, from the founders of cybernetics to ordinary web surfers in the virtual worlds of cyberspace. Albert Einstein is probably the most famous figure in this tradition. I propose that his celebrated statement that God does not gamble might well serve as a fitting motto for the installation.


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