(analog : digital) : (continuous : discrete) The Premises of Metaphor

how are things? Stairwell Installation Project #3: Michael Dumontier and Tom Elliott
March 23 – April 21, 2001

a response to the exhibition by Kevin Matthews

Between the world that is and anything else is imagination, to navigate and render conceivable. Here the compass is largely created by the mechanisms of poetry – analogy is how we provoke this mechanism into revolution; it is what How are things? ultimately pokes at with its own means.

The exhibition comes third in Ace’s Stairwell Project series, a series which seems to have a consistent motif: perhaps because of its spatial proportions, or its historical function as architecture, the stairwell seems to embrace art that somehow prods at the meaning of interstices and overlaps between conceptual realms. How are things? seems to articulate this by baring and probing the very mechanism of metaphor.

This is in no way straightforward, for it goes to the heart of the covenant between representation and vision, the codependence of image and imagination.

It makes more attractive the way that mathematicians express measurable analogy, or ratio – (a:b) : (x:y) = 1, if a is to b as x is to y. This is not usually so clean with words.

The stairwell is, at best, a slice of a world – perhaps, for the sake of this piece, a space between realities. Like poetry, it operates in a gap between boundaries to investigate the workings of the space it occupies as well as its implications for the larger world.

Poetic language itself – which, to be frank, is really all language – is premised on analogy, on drawing and representing things by crossing and comparing their identities.

Historically, Tom and Michael have made machines that eagerly abrade themselves, taking on jobs that wear them down gradually, consumed blithely with their understated missions. As if with endless, self-displacing patience, they chip and grind away, prompting the mind of the beholder to respond in tune. The machines in How are things? have that sort of life, but the authors are here more documentary poets than inventors; the devices probe the basic mechanism of metaphor, something neither Elliott nor Dumontier has engaged in such a direct way before.

On a more concrete level, these creatures are sound machines, governed by a system of timed switches whose apparati are eloquent and visible, orchestrated by a master program that switches between those whose sounds evoke a landscape of weather and those whose evoke a rhythmic soundscape of power construction tools.

How are metaphors?

The sounds are analogous and representational of everyday noises, like the pre-stylistic roots of musical instruments – i.e. the sound for rain sounds as rain does, the saw sound sounds like the sound that a saw sounds. Onomatopoeia is a key root of metaphor.

I’ll try to get at the heart of this with a comparison between comparisons: (analog : digital) : (continuous : discrete).

Technology in our world is often considered under a taxonomy of analog or digital. An analog representation of data is, as the term suggests, analogous; that is, it imitates a waveform or string in a physical mimicry, like contour lines in a drawing. Digital data is represented by a set of units, quantified and approximating analogy like a collection of points in a digital bitmap.

This distinction is itself analogous to the theoretical comparison between the continuous universe and the discrete universe, i.e. that the digital simulation or record is made up of some fundamental units, inherently suggestive of a grid or regime, while the analog is metaphor down (theoretically) even to the infinitesimal. A metaphysics of continuity is poetry itself; a metaphysics of digits allows poetry only at a gross level.

How are things? operates with analog tactics, to the point where analogy itself takes the foreground. That is, the essential relationship is between, for instance, the wind-sound-maker, the wind-sound, and wind as we construct it in our heads for the sake of comparison. What I think Elliott and Dumontier have really done is objectify the very premises of metaphor in the physical premises of the stairwell.

Such concrete reification assists a meditation on the workings of poetry. I mean to say that the installation uses its crude (-looking) machinery to prod not only at itself but also at the conceptual machinery underlying it all – subversive, clever, but best of all subtle.

Really, how are things?

Okay, now the pun. It may seem in a way facetious, but I think that Elliott and Dumontier mean very directly to investigate the phenomenon of things being, and by representation elucidate the way that the world sets out to be.

Art in such a conceptual space aims to chart our imagination, the parameters of possible worlds.

The metaphors of How are things? invoke a dwelling in several realms of simultaneous possibility. Two (or three) realities coexist in stairwell, perhaps implying even more possibilities.

We are in one world. The installation overlays two more onto ours, the sounds from which alternately fill the stairwell. Just flip the switch: in one world, a rainstorm occupies the foreground, in the other, incessant construction sounds, hammering and power tools. Under both are live sounds brought in by a microphone outside the back window of Ace.

The small differences and quiet similarities give an impression of infinitesimal and never-ending shades of reality: what if there were heavy weather right now or a large project being built? Why not? How do these vibrations of possibility, these windows on the not-at-all-farfetched, comment on how we confront and navigate our world?

There exists not only the poetic but also the political implication: the small intimations of parallel worlds in the slice of space that the stairwell describes stand in contrast to the growing stridency of voices around the world decrying the narrow path that the world’s future would follow were global capital to have its way and were fossil fuels to continue burning. That another world is possible is a watchword of global resistance.

How are things?, using the most eloquent of poetic structures, points to a localized manifestation of the possibility of alternate worlds, which in these times we certainly need ‹ especially if these worlds differ only in small ways from this one. The implications are manifold, from small environmental differences to endless clouds and fields of possibility.

With the example of the devices that populate Elliott and Dumontier’s installation we can pursue the building blocks of metaphor, seeing how just a few degrees of imagination can rebuild our world.

Kevin Matthews is a writer, print designer and visual artist as well as Ace Art’s current President. He has a degree in environmental studies (University of Manitoba, 1993) and is currently completing his BFA in Art History (U of M, 2001). Kevin has worked as the Editor in Chief for the Manitoban and is currently a designer for Canadian Dimension magazine. Kevin has written about site works, media installations, performance and visual art.