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In an age that increasingly exists online and in virtual spaces, Ex Machina invites viewers to consider the role of the physical machine as an artwork, to be experienced through immediate contact. Ex Machina, Latin for “from the machine” refers to the Greek theatrical practice of lowering an actor performing as God from a crane to resolve a dramatic conflict from above the stage, as it were to from the heavens. While far from godly, artists often have an innate ability to rise above a situation and survey the lie of the land, or forecast what may be on the horizon. One of the biggest challenges facing bricks and mortar museums and galleries in the 21st Century is their ability to compete with digital platforms. Unlike physical spaces that require increasing real estate costs, staffing requirements and limited opening hours, the Internet never shuts. Online galleries, artist websites, and a plethora of social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter mean we constantly have art at our fingertips – or so we believe. With the exception of web-based art, even the most two-dimensional of artworks cannot be faithfully represented. For example, does the work have texture, sheen, or is it so matte it sucks in light? After all, even the most sophisticated of virtual reality simulators are only visual representations, and rob the viewer of the subtleties of scent, immersive soundscapes, taste (albeit a rarity in the contemporary art world) and the bête noire of the white cube - touch. We live in the age in which we’ve seen it all, but in the pursuit of artistic all-knowingness, have we forgotten the need to experience art it in its actual state? In part, Ex Machina is a response to this question, and explores the tip of contemporary Australian kinetic artwork, and how the machine can function not only as a tool, but as an artwork in its own right. In order for these artworks to be completed, they require human interaction, and most of all, to be touched.

Although Canberran artist Nicci Haynes identifies as a printmaker, drawer, maker of artist books, and DIY video animation and electronic art, it may never have come to pass if it were not for her background in pharmacology at Cardiff University. After working as a hiking tour guide around the world, she relocated to Canberra and made a major career change, studying Drawing and Printmaking at the then ANU School of Art, and completing with Honours in 2007. To this day Haynes’ practice uses printmaking as the centre of a wheel from which her many and varied investigations branch, but is unimaginable in the present form without her prior experiences. At the core is an ongoing enquiry into the interdependent relationship of the mind and the body, and the distortions and inadequacies of human perception. Haynes’ work manages to inhabit a rare space in contemporary art that is on the one hand deeply thoughtful and provocative, and on the other, ridiculous and outright funny. Her work Sonic Pencils (2016) is one such example – a series of pencils whittled into ever shortening lengths with electrical currents running through the graphite in each, to create a crude and highly playful version of a keyboard synthesizer. As Australian art critic Sasha Grishin wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014, Haynes’ work is “light-hearted without becoming frivolous and it is openly experimental without losing its focus.” For the duration of Ex Machina, Haynes will present both existing works and use the CCAS CUBEspace (a 5 metre square gallery) as a working studio / laboratory for her ongoing explorations. With process and investigation key elements to Haynes’ installation work, her CCAS residency will allow her to grow and develop her work both metaphorically, and quite literally, as it takes over the walls of the CUBEspace and overflows into the main gallery.

NICCI HAYNES Sonic Pencils, 2016/17, pencils, bare electronic components, cardboard

NICCI HAYNES in collaboration with SHAGS The Sound of Drawing, 2016/17, bare electronic components, cardboard

English sci-fi novelist J.G. Ballard felt the man in the motorcar was the key image of the 20th century, and that it symbolised the elements of “speed, drama, aggression, the junction of advertising and consumer goods with the technological landscape.” He felt it wholly represented civilisation of the time, “the speed and violence of our age; the strange love affair with the machine, with its own death.” Many of these trepidations are at the core of Arthur Wicks’ oeuvre, an artist who has established himself as one of Australia’s most unusual voices working at the nexus of experimental and provocative creative practice for the past 50 years. Encountering his work as a child at Canberra Contemporary Art Space in the late 1980s, Wicks’ work was the kind of stuff that I was equally terrified and in awe of. I didn’t understand what it was about, or the deeper concerns of the work, but nor did I need to. Wicks’ interests in Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics clearly went over my head, but the visceral connection between artwork and audience he strove for clearly hit the mark. Born in Sydney, Wicks’ life trajectory has led him to live in Canberra “for a couple of stints” but is now a longtime resident of Wagga Wagga, NSW. On one of his return visits to Canberra in 1990, he presented the solo exhibition The Battlefield in the Assembly Hall of the Australian Defense Force Academy. It was here that he unveiled the Armored Car (1990), the third in a series performance based works involving human powered machines that addressed his alarm about military power and humanitarian survival. Wicks, dressed in a business suit, and his identity hidden by a rubber mask, famously pedaled the Armored Car up Anzac Parade towards the Australian War Memorial. Looking like the ghost of a politician approaching from Parliament House in a war machine from Mad Max he was promptly turned around by security and sent on his way. This sort of provocative performance came to characterize Wicks’ relationship with his mechanical sculptures, enabling him to inhabit an ‘everyman’ role, and for the machines to address his deeper concerns. Armored Car and it’s numerous appearances in places as farflung as Berlin, and Hoorn in the Netherlands, cleverly managed to take Wicks’ anxieties of the future to a global audience. While peddling the futile war machine along the line of the old Berlin wall, or between the columns of the Reichstag, Wicks projected his fears of rising global military tensions, early signs of climate change, and a potential dystopian future to the world.

ARTHUR WICKS Armoured Car on ANZAC Parade (photographic still from performance), 1990

ARTHUR WICKS Armoured Car on ANZAC Parade (photographic still from performance), 1990

ARTHUR WICKS Armoured Car on ANZAC Parade (photographic still from performance), 1990

Sydney-based artist, academic and curator Pia van Gelder has built her career at the intersections of art, science and technology, and her work Recumbent Circuit (2015/16) is as an excellent example of her multi-disciplinary practice. When encountering the work, one is presented with pairs of conductive copper handprints mounted into the gallery walls, each pair generating an electrical charge with a corresponding soundtrack when touched. By placing one’s hands on the copper pads, a visual medium releases an audio translation of the viewer’s nervous system – Recumbent Circuit, like many of van Gelder’s works, requires audience participation to create a shift in language and format. Working on the principal of electrodermal activity (EDA), van Gelder uses the currents within the body to produce a live soundtrack as ‘played’ by the viewer. This call-and-response between body and context, nervous system and artwork, becomes a deeply personal experience for the audience. This is the direct consequence of experiencing the artwork in person, and cannot be conveyed in simulacra. van Gelder’s artwork is a manifestation of the inseparable connection of the mind and the brain, (and) the body and the machine. Recumbent Circuit seeks to address van Gelder’s interests in the human body as a source of energy, where just below the surface, our nervous systems are both electric, and conductive. As van Gelder says in her artist’s statement for this work “just as the nervous system informs us about our physical environment, so too does the body’s EDA become a measure of our emotional or physiological well-being.” van Gelder’s fascination with the transmission of energy between the nervous system and the encasing skin is prominent in the work, subtly reminding us of the interdependent relationship at play within our own bodies.

PIA VAN GELDER Recumbent Circuit (detail), 2016, electronics, speakers, wood, dimensions variable

While the works of Brian McNamara may sit comfortably next to that of artist and academic Pia van Gelder, he has arrived in the same arena via a very different path. Based in the bucolic surrounds of the Bungendore village in NSW, McNamara is a self-taught experimental instrument builder and sound sculpture artist. His previous careers working in aeronautics, and developing and repairing scientific instruments in the Research School of Biological Sciences at the Australian National University, led McNamara to combine his passions for music, electronics and sculpture – a hi-tech outsider artist from the twenty-first century. To fund this passion, McNamara makes and sells unique electronic objects and instruments online under the pseudonym Rarebeasts – often oddly eccentric in appearance and function, they aim to convey a deeper meaning about the relationship between user and machine, yet manage to remain joyful and optimistic. McNamara’s practice has come to include both autonomous sound-based sculptures, and interactive installation instruments that require audience engagement to fully realize their potential. One of the works included in Ex Machina is Automaphone, a robotic synthesizer that scans A4 pictures and turns them into glitchy 8-bit ‘Chiptune’ songs, a style characterized by vintage computers, consoles and arcade machines of the early 1980s. By using the principals and components of the fax machine, McNamara says the Automophone “scans for light and dark areas on the paper, and uses the information to set song variables such as tempo, scale, beat, note frequency and length.” As the work is experienced in the settings of the gallery, each drawing made by a visitor is played, and then displayed on the accompanying wall, thus building a visual playlist of the ephemeral songs that have preceded it. The Automophone utilises drawing – a technique as old as humankind, fed through 20th century technology, to produce an artwork firmly rooted in the 21st century. McNamara disarms his audience through welcome participation and inclusivity, thus allowing him to address concerns about the way technology and the human mind and body will interact with machines in the future.

BRIAN McNAMARA Micro Touch Mk II, 2017, IC, wire, LEDs, plastic, wooden microscope box, 25cm x 35cm x 11cm

BRIAN McNAMARA Automophone (installation photo), 2015, IC, wood, wire, steel, plastic, 45cm x 20cm x 20cm

As a child growing up in Canberra, my parents and I would drive through an area of bushland on my way to school, and they would sometimes remark, “Stelarc was hung from that tree with shark hooks”. No doubt it was a very effective technique to shock a talkative child into silence, however the extreme limits to which Stelarc pushed himself seemed to have the same effect on all involved. As the story goes, Canberran writer, curator and art critic Peter Haynes was entrusted with the duty of putting the hooks in that fateful day, and was most shocked by the ‘pop’ sound they made as they came through Stelarc’s taught muscular skin. Although Stelarc’s practice has evolved greatly since the Suspensions project (an iteration of which was seen as part of Act One, Two and Three in the 1980s), his focus remains on the limitations of the body and its potential obsolescence in the digital age - thankfully in a far less gory manner. He is an artist of immense importance in the world of performance, technology and the body, of which his continued investigation places him in a unique position to experience firsthand what it means to be human, post human, or transhuman. Transhumanism, as suggested in the 1950s by British eugenicist Julian Huxley is “the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and to arrive at fuller fruition” – the concerns of which can be seen in the three video works included in this exhibition, Rewired/Remixed (2015), Propel (2015) and Stickman (2017). At the core of this suite of works is Stelarc’s connection to technology, documenting performances where the machine is an extension of the body, or vice versa. Propel: Body on Robot Arm shows Stelarc strapped to the end of a giant orange machine in a warehouse, his trajectory, velocity and orientation choreographed by computer programming (as with much of his work, he is both artist and artwork). The ensuing ‘dance’ is carried out by a six degree-of-freedom industrial robot operating within a three-metre task envelope, for the most part graceful, but all the while looking capable of bringing up the toughest of stomachs. The accompanying work Propel: Ear on Robot Arm uses the same machine to carve a human ear the height of Stelarc (an ongoing motif), and mimics the first performance in replacement to the body. While Propel, Stickman and Rewired/Remixed are primarily external investigations of the body and its sensory inputs, Stelarc’s belief is that we will one day be able to augment our bacterial and viral population within our bodies with the assistance of nano-technology – to hack the body from inside. Stelarc’s drive to interrogate the limitations of the body with the assistance of prosthetics, robotics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence has led him to a deeply unique place not only in the world of art, but for humans as a whole. In a world that increasingly questions what it means to be human, Stelarc suggests ‘we should dismiss the idea of an individual body and to begin to think of the body as an extended operational system.’

STELARC Propel (performance still), 2015, HD video with stereo sound, 2’00’’ duration

STELARC Stickman (performance still), 2017, HD video with stereo sound, 2’14’’ duration

STELARC Rewired/Remixed (performance still), 2015, HD video with stereo sound, 2’21’’ duration

While curating Ex Machina I feared viewers might experience an icy or emotionally detached experience through my investigation into the role of the machine in contemporary art, potentially leaving them feeling removed as one can feel from a painting behind glass, in this instance purely due to the cold-hearted nature of the machine. Fortunately the exhibition slowly began to reveal itself as a very personal experience for the viewer – from these contraptions something deeply humanist has emerged and has spoken of our need for intimacy, connection and compassion. As we look to the roles that technology, robots and artificial intelligence may play in the future, there is a growing fear of human obsolescence. We may be a very long way from potential futures as imagined in science fiction, but for as long as we humans have skin, there will be a need for touch and its emotional response.

Alexander Boynes, September 2017



EX MACHINA @ CCAS (2017)  

'Ex Machina' featuring works by Nicci Haynes, Brian McNamara, Stelarc, Pia van Gelder and Arthur Wicks, curated by Alexander Boynes