Almost an embrace

I was reading Realtime's review of Vic McEwan's installation at Wagga Art Gallery and thought I'd write down some thoughts I'd had while attending. The image shown comes from there, a pic of the installation credited to McEwan.

Shortly before I left Canberra earlier this century, there was a weird sort of arms race among the increasingly upmarket bars in the suburban shopping centres. They seemed to be outspending each other on bathroom renovations.

One near the house where I was leaving exceeded my expectations and transformed their humble pissoir into something approaching a liminal experience for me. It seemed as though patrons were required to piss on the walls of the bathroom itself, although it was more obvious when sober that only one wall had a glass layer and then a drain below. Subtleties are often lost on me.

Anyway, I still remember the magic of approaching the dimly lit toilet and feeling the luxury of beer flowing out of me in what appeared to be lavish surroundings. It was a moment I remembered when visiting Vic McEwan's Almost An Embrace installation at the Wagga Art Gallery.

The square-shaped trough sits in the middle of a darkened room. On the walls are projections of water twinkling as they descend in streams. Above the trough hoses hang and streams of water descend. Your eyes slowly adjust to the subdued lighting but not enough to feel as though you can see everything. There isn't much to see, aside from a ramp to avoid tripping on hoses and a hum from the behind the movable wall lining one side of the gallery that suggests a computer.

When visitors first approach they must overcome any resistance to being wet and engage with the streams. If they are in suitable contact with the metal trim on the trough and the upper part of the stream, the audiovisual content will change to a rhythmic flashing of lights and percussion. Triggering successive hoses reveals the water will trigger audiovisual content in other musical keys.

My kids aren't particularly accustomed to art galleries and had little resistance to getting wet. They didn't have much luck triggering the work though. I had a better understanding of the circuit that needed completing, showing them the trick. They explored it a little more, finding the changes in the key of the audiovisual content but not making the leap to playing the trough like an instrument.

By coincidence, after we left the exhibit we met Vic McEwan on the stairs. I shared my observation that the kids hadn't been encouraged to engage with his work and he replied to the effect that a good instrument doesn't give up it's secrets easily. It led me to think about the inevitability of art being misunderstood by an audience in all but the most commercial of mediums.

Downstairs, in the main part of the Wagga Art Gallery's viewing areas, was another exhibition that used similar technology to trigger audiovisual content. The Wired Lab worked with students from the Karabar Distance Education Centre during their quarterly program that provides positive face-to-face social interactions and collaborative learning opportunities between students and specialist teachers.

This exhibition presented the outcomes of these workshops which explored the nexus of art, science and sound. The colourful panels had triggers for audiovisual content embedded within them. It took me a few minutes to make the connection between the technology mounted on the wall and the wires hidden in the artworks, but once I showed my kids they raced around looking for all the triggers.

While both Vic McEwan and The Wired Lab's installations used similar technology and had triggers that weren't immediately obvious to the audience of one adult and a few kids, it was interesting to see that the kids lost interest in the content once it started playing. For them it was enough to find the trigger, before racing on to the next one. It made me think the content in both installations could be more engaging.

Which leads me to the idea I have to repurpose Vic's infrastructure. The running water reminds me of a urinal but it also leads me to consider how all water is recycled and how there's a similar process that happens with music. As there are only a limited combination of notes that sound pleasing, music is a limited system that recycles itself. I'd like to see Vic's fountain trigger music from a variety of musicians, as a way of commenting on how music flows like water through us all.