Culture  Same old dystopia

Ryan Healey embraces the static at multimedia exhibit “No Signal”

Pulsating, static-laced noise ran through my nerves. TVs flickered on and off wildly with delirious intensity. It would paralyze any synesthete – the pixels, the distortions, the entire electric sensory spectrum made painfully visible.

The “No Signal” video installation at Concordia’s VAV Gallery could be used for malicious intent. Entering the gallery, sounds – if you can even call them that – reverberate through one’s ears with a festering swell, a repeated thumping that you’d rather not hear. As you drift through the gallery, the noise eventually seeps into the background, and it is not recognizable anymore. You learn to get by with the headache.

Multidisciplinary artists Vincent Drolet and Hubert R. De Roy appear to be the architects of an audiovisual penal colony for the quieted modern man. Defining their intent as “exploring the impact of technology on the audiovisual sensorium, communications, social structures, and the human body,” one imagines them as angry Neo-Luddites employing a common mode of expression. The exhibit assumes the complete subjugation of the individual to the wave of technology and its byproducts.

But with digital prints entitled “We Are All Machines” and “Dystopia,” and an installation of three seizure-inducing televisions entitled “P3 [electronoisexperimentalanalogthrashvideoshit],” Drolet and De Roy’s commentary on the effect of technology on communications and social structures mostly comes off as a washed-up restatement of what people like William Wordsworth were more or less saying 200 years ago: “The world is too much with us; late and soon / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” If only the Romantics had had “thrash video shit” to work with, it’d be blatant that the statement made by “We are all Machines” has finally become as commonplace and cliché as quoting poetry to prove points.

Yet “No Signal” does achieve its aim: to explore the “audiovisual sensorium” and the human body. A series of prints in the exhibit, entitled “Deterior,” by De Roy, begins with a digital rendering of a photograph of two human heads – barely recognizable and blanketed in small pockets of static. As the prints evolve, the noise collects and a Rorschach inkblot aesthetic takes over in a conglomerate of pixels and uncomfortable colour contrasts.

The exhibit clearly directs us to watch the human being dissolve into thin air – and we all know the culprit because it’s been buzzing in our ears the entire time we’ve been in the gallery. “No Signal” never really shows us why we did this to ourselves, but seems to claim that humans are of a masochistic nature. This reduces a much more complicated element of the relationship between technology and the human mind: the disappointment of creating more problems from our attempts to resolve them. This insight is far more troubling than any short-term physical effects: we cut one head off the Hydra, and two grow back, equally or more horrific.

From this perspective, “progress” in its traditional sense is no longer a goal to pursue, but a terrible agenda. “No Signal” does not address the complete nature of the dynamic relationship between technology and the human individual. It merely embodies the blunt, visceral side of the recognized problem that technology’s white noise is antagonistic to our senses.

Though the installation does not survey the entirety of their objectives, I cannot discredit the artists’ ability to manipulate the human senses and wake up what might have hitherto been softly sleeping. The most harrowing piece in the gallery is the last one, entitled “transmission001 [the escape version]” by De Roy. The same blurred image is projected onto two perpendicular walls in a corner: a man standing shirtless, his head back and unseen. The film begins with him gyrating softly, until suddenly the image starts shaking wildly with loud, irritating broken-record sounds – the man trembles uncontrollably, soon grasping his head, struggling with the rending force until he slumps over. The sounds slow down again, and the man sways like before until he abruptly disappears.

The effect of the exhibit is troubling, more so because of the insidious function of the distortions of sound and image: one never sees them coming. As I stepped out of the building, my head aching and the city now providing relative silence, the cold air stung with a sharper bite, the taste of car exhaust painfully unappetizing. While my “sensorium” spun in new awareness, my mindlessness in the physical world nearly got me hit by a car on Ste. Catherine.

In the guest book of the gallery, someone, most likely derisively, wrote “You are God, you put the lights in the sky.” Man, acting as God, puts the lights in the sky in order to see, but those very same lights are uncomfortable to look at. Drolet and De Roy are no gods, but instead, the wild-eyed doomsayers pointing at comets we’ve all seen before, making us look once more to the streak of light and sound we’ve always accepted. This time maybe we won’t wave them away with impatience and return to our work – no, this time we must look with them in terrible awe.