Tegan Bristow and Nathaniel Stern’s exhibition Meaning Motion reminds me of the question of whether a tree falling in the forest, with no one there to hear it, makes a sound.
When you enter the main chamber of the Wits Art Museum, all is quiet and the space appears empty. It’s a nonexhibition, until you approach one of the walls.
From then on it’s magic and mayhem, as each piece is responsive and you trigger the artworks. This is no place for passive observers. The artists expect you to be active in giving the works meaning, cleverly breaking the implicit rules of “looking” at artwork in a gallery setting.
The interactivity relies on cameras and motion sensors and clever programming code. Bristow and Stern use the technology of the Microsoft Kinect – a motion-sensing device that comes with the XBox video game console – in their work to capture movement and then to translate it into digital expression, projecting it as a large-scale artwork.
The exhibition is comprised primarily of seven distinctive interactive works. Bristow says: “Many people think that interactive art is limited to a certain way of doing something … but the work comes from such a different place and we both use the medium in very different ways.”
Stern comes from a performance background. His four works, grouped as Body Language, explore his concern with the relationship between the body and text, and how we perform text. He sees language as a physical object, and language and text as being part of who we are as a body.
The impetus for a joint exhibition came after Stern used Bristow’s work as a central reference in his upcoming book, The Implicit Body, based on his PhD research. Stern is an associate professor of art and design at the University of Wisconsin [Milwaukee].
Bristow lectures in digital arts at the University of the Witwatersrand. A painter, she changed career direction after mistakenly attending a computer science lecture.
“I had my class down for the wrong day and was blown away that you could write programs,” she says.
Her work combines her engagement with surface and visual aesthetics with the maths of digital code.
Taken together, the works talk to and across each other.
Stern’s elicit is about the agency of movement. He wrote it for a dance performance and it responds to how fast or slowly you move across the space, emitting spurts or great gushing streams of letters to form a poem that you can never read.
In stuttering, your movement induces a series of phrases, repetitious sounds and the static associated with being lost between radio channels.
If you slow down, you get to explore the screen more fully, as one would quiet a stutter.
In enter, red dots outline your body as phrases float around you. When you grab a word from the screen you hear a line of poetry being recited or a choice phrase such as: “If there’s one thing to get in the way of a good time it’s other people.”
Bristow’s Chalk Vision is a subtle piece that explores the visual and material quality of programming code and how it understands motion.
She says: “It’s an aesthetic exploration of what’s called computer vision, how the camera sees because the camera is our primary sensor.”
As the numbers grow, each person is represented by a tree. The more motion, the wilder the trees become until the leaves fly off and the space before you empties.
Bristow says it’s about spirituality and mathematics, a piece about loss as it separates the rich and intensive quality of bringing people together with the emptiness once they leave and are no more.
While Stern’s work was developed as a body, Bristow’s works were created out of specific moments, and not deliberately as an interrelated whole.
Unsaid is a response to the 2009 elections. You stand before the screen, an upright microphone prompting you to say something. As you speak your face is covered with a Jacob Zuma mask, your words are thrown back at you and the phrase “leave it unsaid” flashes across the screen. Bristow says it’s the third incarnation of this work.
“This is the first time I have put faces on the masks directly. I was very frustrated by a real sense of a lack of agency. There was this feeling [at election time] that we were contributing so heavily to something. Everyone was tweeting and Facebooking but in the end I was looking at what power do I actually have. What can I as a small individual within the technology realm actually contribute? And does the technology dissipate or actually contribute to that sense of agency?”
She calls it “quite a nasty piece”.
“It’s horrible to you. It says say something and when you do it gives you a short moment and immediately cuts you off, shushes you up. It creates a constant loop of never being gratified, ever.” Politics summed up in a moment.
The exhibition creates an exciting and thoroughly disobedient gallery space that encourages you to move your body and to gesture wildly to get a desired response.
It’s fascinating for its appeal to adults and children alike. Beyond, or as part of, the complex layers of meaning created by the symbolic images, interactivity, performative aspects and the humanising of technology and programmed code, you are compelled to perform funny walks more reminiscent of Monty Python, rather than to view it in the dignified manner of someone appreciating art.
Meaning Motion is at Wits Art Museum, corner of Bertha and Jorissen streets in Braamfontein until August 18.