Critical Distance

Captive and Absent: Lori Rogers
October 29 – November 22, 1997

a response to the exhibition by Vera Lemecha

At the end of this century, technology is taking the place of what we have defined previously as nature. It is the environment in which we are situated and against which we measure ourselves. Rogers’ use of nature speaks not of a desire for reconciliation with the natural, but investigates our situation in the late twentieth century in which the technological has become the natural. Many of us engage daily with technology – automatic bank machines, voice mail, cel phones, electronic mail, the Internet, computer games, word-processing, and so on. In a very short time the use of these technologies has become so much a part of our daily lives that it is difficult for us to fully comprehend our relationship to them and to the way our relationship to the world has been mediated through them. Allucquére Rosanne Stone, restating Marshall McLuhan’s pronouncement, “the medium is the message,” indicates that it is hard to see what technology does because what it does is silently and pervasively restructure seeing.¹ Rogers’ investigation has to do with a venture Stone describes as “not into the heart of ‘nature’ in search of redemption, but rather into the heart of ‘technology’ in search of nature – and not nature as object, place or originary situation…[but] as a continual reinvention and encounter actively resisting representation.”²

As I enter the mouth of the tunnel I confront, on a video monitor, set into the wall, the vertiginous rolling images of railway tracks – in disrepair – no longer functional as conduit between city or town but here able to cause me to roll slightly from side to side as I walk the length of the tunnel toward the twinned rolling tracks at the other end. My rolling gait is partly an effect of the sand beneath my feet which replicates the sandy foundation of the tracks. The abandoned tracks recall with poignancy the position that the railway held, in the popular imagination, of the technology that would tackle frontiers.

But wait – let me step back to my entrance to the tunnel – a machine mantra spills out – a roaring, lulling, dully repetitious noise. From in the tunnel I catch the layered whisper of voices and, at intervals, the jarring interjection of a buzzer-like squawk.

Moving in the tunnel: Technology/Nature
as mediated and mediator

Once again, with firm steps to counter the roll I move down the tunnel toward the rolling tracks on sand – double exposures, layered and shifting.

From monitors set into the tunnel walls sing a discordant chorus of womens’ and technological voices in tentative operatic song. The human and the techno-voices seem to mimic each other – mirroring back and forth.

Nature as simulated, as highly-mediated representation, here speaks to the relations most of us hold with it. The nature most of us know has been trimmed, tamed, made civil and agreeable. Technology is the frontier which challenges us – the broad environment which we identify as nature.

A screen with abstract patterns like molten metal – slower, denser than water – a reference to water but yet it is not water – and out of this substance comes a voice – female, corresponding with something animal and technological.

The boundaries between organic and technological are non-existent here as even those images that we might imagine to be organic and the voices that are human are highly mediated through the technological apparatus.

SQUAWKthe jagged buzzer sounds – disturbing, arresting – and an image flashes on a screen further down the tunnel – too quick for me to get near. I find myself engaged in a strange and graceless back and forth and turning around motion as I attempt to see the images – their movement from screen to screen apparently random – before they close down, move on to another screen – luring me with them.

Interactivity describes our ability to act with – in this context -machines. The higher level of interactivity of a software program or game, for example, the better its rating – generally speaking. In the case of Rogers’ work, the level of interactivity is definitely high. However, it is the audience, rather than the machines, who are called upon to respond to certain demands – success rests on our level of performance.

SQUAWK like a talk show / video game/ computer error buzzer, the squawk signals a misstep – one that is always public.

Tree branches – moving, out of focus, whispering, incomprehensible.

Stone describes “bandwidth” as “the amount of information exchanged in unit time.” The high-bandwidth of face-to-face conversation incorporates speech, gestures and expressions while the narrow-bandwidth of computer conferencing “is restricted to lines of text on a screen.” In a discussion about phone sex workers (telephone also being narrow-bandwidth), Stone describes the interpretive acts undertaken when the construction of desire relies on voice only. “In this circumstance, narrow-bandwidth becomes a powerful asset because extremely complex fantasies can be generated from a small set of cues.”³ Rogers’ video images fall somewhere in between giving us visual as well as aural information. Her installation, however, insures that most of us will not be deft enough to catch all of the imagery and leaves us in a protracted state of desire – and interpretation of the fragments we can capture.

Reeds, cords, breaking, separating, with siren-song – song of sorrow and beckoning – a blasphemous beckoning.

SQUAWK – blurting sound – charged – resonates through my body in its harshness.

Hair-like strands, long, sway in circular motion.

The images shift incomprehensibly from suggestions of nature to suggestions of the body – the hair, the undulating movements – both technologically produced – both speak to our embodiment – the body as site of technology’s encroachment, its investment.

The necessity of my chaotic movement in this condensed space is at once exhausting and exhilarating. I am captive.

My restraint comes of my desire to know – a tension results from my inability to take in the images completely.

The tension created in our sometimes failed and sometimes successful attempts to view the images constructs a new space for the body – an in-between space which lies somewhere between embodiment and theoretical possibility.

Amber velvet fills a screen – colour and touch sensuously divergent from the high contrast graphic quality of most of the images.

The space of the installation speaks to the body’s relations to space and technology and how our situation in both realms is changing – has changed.

The blurt, the jarring inserts – they invade my sliding sideways tango with the screens while they evade my efforts to actually get in front of them – to see them – all the while they maintain control. I am mesmerized by the movement -sinking into deep quiet thought –SQUAWK.

This buzzer sound and the flashed image are playful, frustrating, and annoying – and I have anthropomorphized them before I realize it.

For all of the organization of the space and my rationalization of it, my experience in it remains chaotic.

After being inundated, manipulated, turned in circles by the screens, I return to the rolling railway tracks at the ends of the tunnel. Their ongoingness and seeming stability, are restful – even the machine noise is welcoming.

It now seems familiar – I recognize it and am assured by it – have become accustomed to it.

The White Hall: Technology/Nature
as environmental

The crackle of pebbles underfoot, gleaming, startlingly white pebbles, signals my entry into another sensory experience. The expanse of white emptiness is a relief after the cacophonous dark.

Absent are the referents. This is what technology has come to give us – empty referents – the stand-ins for nature, for embodied experience …

My movements are my own here – no quick turns, sideward slides, required. I can stand motionless and take it all in.

A moonlit winter scene – but just a minute – this beautiful is beyond beautiful. It is too fantastic, too clean, too pure. It is a simulated snow scene without snow, a moonlit beach without beach. While there is less clamor, it is no less a technological construct than the dark tunnel. It stands as nature absent and re-visited.

The brilliance of Rogers installation, captive and absent, like the brilliance of the white hall, the space of simulations she has constructed, are the resonances she has created between nature, technology and the body.

1. Allucquere Rossanne Stone, The war of Desire and Technolgy At the Close of the Mechanical Age. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995), 167.

2. A.R. Stone, “Virtual Systems,” Incorporations, Zone 6, (New York: Zone, 1992), eds. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, 610. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995), 167.

3Ibid., 614 – 615.

VERA LEMECHA is an unaffiliated writer and curator currently residing in Winnipeg. Her curatorial projects have included: The Embodied Viewer; venus as torpedo: Faye HeavyShield; Interstitial Spaces: Reva Stone; Ritual Coping: Joanne Bristol, Bev Pike, Mindy Yan Miller; and Normal: Leesa Streifler.