Silicon Remembers Carbon

David Rokeby
FACT, Wood Street (20th April – 10th June 2007)

Reviewed by Jennie Lewis

Born in Canada in 1960, award-winning alternative artist David Rokeby has, over the years, had a massive impression on the world of media arts, and has well-established himself as an integral part of its history and movement. Praised for both his artistic and technological abilities, Rokeby claims he aims to understand the space between humans and computers, and his interactive artworks explore the way in which people see, listen, move, and generally react to their surrounding environment.

Rokeby’s work has been described as a critical reflection upon the way in which technology actually defines today’s constantly mediated world, and invites us into the mysterious and lonely milieu of our apparent surveyor, the computer. FACT in collaboration with DA2 have carefully restaged some of the artist’s key pieces for their current Rokeby exhibition, ‘Silicon Remembers Carbon’, the first major presentation of his work in the UK. The display promises to enthrall and excite the mind through relatively untouched means.

The exhibition begins downstairs in gallery 1 with ‘n-Cha(n)t’, a piece that through fairly simple ideology though entirely astute arrangement, produces really quite fascinating results. It consists of a network of seven computers in total, which are suspended from the ceiling and set against the gallery’s pitch-black backdrop. On the screens are images of human ears cupped in human hands, as if in wait for the words of visitors, which in fact, act as a trigger for Rokeby’s cleverly installed system and form the backbone of the piece itself.

As various words are uttered, the system instantly searches through its apparently vast repertoire for more words by association to the first word spoken. Before very long, all seven computers begin a simultaneous chorus of chatter, quite incomprehensible to the listening ear. However, that the words can also be read from the screen allows visitors to see that the words being said are completely relevant to the first, and the level of preciseness is astonishing, as often the word is almost described by dictionary definition. Being that I was able to visit the gallery during a more quiet period of the day, I was able to wait as the room fell silent. To my amazement, the computers then seemingly synchronized their ‘streams of consciousness’ as it were, and began to deliver to their audience a host of related words in unison. The sound echoed around the dark room and progressively became almost melodic, slowly diluting the silence with their chant, not unlike that of monks in a monastery.

Moving through the exhibition, visitors are soon met with the second piece, ‘Seen’. The work is compiled of projected moving images, taken from footage of the Piazza San Marco in Venice. There are four separate images, each processed through different technological methods; moving elements removed from the architecture, movement trajectories being tracked and rendered, layers of images creating clouds of movement and finally architectural, static elements seemingly empty of movement. Being able to see the reality of movement and moving elements in this way provokes reflective thought and unusual contemplation about shared social spaces, and the accompanying quote to the piece projected onto the adjoining wall, perfectly sums it up.

“I am fascinated by the way we transform the raw impressions streaming in through our senses into a coherent mental picture of reality. So I create artwork that look and listen, and try to make sense of what they see and hear.”

A similar train of thought is very much continued, as is your journey through the exhibition to Gallery 2. The first piece upstairs – entitled ‘Taken’ – is reminiscent of the previous, but instead focuses on shared social spaces within the gallery, once again though, inviting you to become a part of Rokeby’s world of constant contemplation. The piece exists through the assembly of two strategically placed infrared cameras which track the movement of visitors and project such images onto one half of the screen. The ability to examine your own movement allows for some refreshing reflection upon how it mirrors your mood, your thoughts, and how it adapts to different surroundings.

Also, through the projected blur of the mass activity of prior visitors, you are able to compare your movement to that of other people through the coherent representation of a shared experience within the same space, thus entering a whole new realm of self-wonderment.

Just as ‘Taken’ continued brainchild behind ‘Seen’, the second piece in Gallery 2, ‘The Giver of Names’ does so of ‘n-Cha(n)t’, and so my thoughts were now that the exhibition could also be interpreted as an exploration of language. This piece relies upon interaction from the visiting audience, in that they place one of a variety of objects onto an illuminated platform in front of yet another suspended computer screen. The computer analyses the different objects and constructs sentences which are correct in the grammatical sense, but completely irrelevant in the logical sense, yet still manage describe the object in question by association of colour, shape or form. The first object I placed was a lady’s red, stiletto shoe, to which the computer responded, “This is a middle rising foot”, followed by “The breasted fit on the shielding ill in the centre had flung a poor throat at.”

Baffled by the latter, I decided to try another object by comparison, this time a gentleman’s Wellington boot, again came a rather bemused response. “This is a reposeful rest.” Agreed that the computer, at times, retorted with somewhat random corollary, the second-coming reply to the Wellington boot was in fact quite beautiful in it’s composition of language, almost, dare I say, bordering on poetic; “The last fawn in the centre has been buying a somber olive.” Commissioners of the exhibition describe this process as “an expression of the machine’s subjectivity in a flow of artificial consciousness.”

There are two final pieces to visit as you exit the gallery, the first entitled ‘Very Nervous System’ is in the galleries’ media lounge follows on from a piece created by Rokeby in the late eighties, whereby he mirrored movements with sounds from a live jazz band, creating individual composition of music with each new visitor. This time, he mirrors movement with sounds such as running water, broken glass, falling nails etc; generating a melee of natural reverberation, some have even said they heard a lion’s roar amongst the disjointed refrain.

The last piece, situated right next to the exit, is entitled ‘Watch’. Simply showing footage from surveillance cameras placed on the roof of the gallery, though separated into two halves of opposing image. The first depicts moving entities such as people, pigeons and even passing cars, and sets them against a blurred out background of the static surroundings, buildings and parked cars, and invites you to consider the movement around the space you are visiting through time. The other is in complete contrast, in that it focuses on the static elements like the buildings etc, and blurs out the image of people and objects moving through, becoming an almost haunting homage to passersby.

I left the gallery in a completely contemplative state of mind, pondering over the vague reality of shared experiences in shared spaces at different times, and questioning the relationship between humans and computers. ‘Silicon Remembers Carbon’ is perhaps the most indistinct title to an exhibition as stimulating and as motivating as Rokeby’s, through both concept and delivery. ‘Silicon Remembers Carbon’, faintly forgettable by name, but absolutely unmissable by substance! A must-see for art enthusiasts, techno-maniacs, and generally anyone who cares a toss for our ever-developing, continually arbitrate world.

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