It’s the sound that provides the first clue of something amiss. The loud, low growl of audio feedback fills a room already awash with bright green glare. Sitting upright in a shabby armchair is an inscrutable figure. Both feet rest evenly on the ground. Both arms rest evenly on the chair. Its head is turned away from us, directed towards a small, glass-topped coffee-table. On top of the table is not a television set, as might be expected, but a Line 6 amplifier from the 1960s. This is the source of the noise.
There’s always something strange about encountering a domestic space within the white walls of the contemporary art gallery – especially when the domesticity is as deftly evoked as it is here, in I, The Thing in the Margins – Mark Peter Wright’s solo show at IMT Gallery, London (until 22nd November). Here, however, such domesticity reinforces the strange otherness of the central protagonist, covered all over in the black and white artificial fur of a microphone windshield. I know it’s artificial because I can see the maker’s label on its neck. The Thing – as Wright refers to it/him/her – is a kind of cipher – for Wright, both as artist and as trained audio recordist – and for the objects of scientific observation: living animals, natural (or unnatural) phenomena, other humans. Here, The Thing has no face – no features to read for signs of life. If the origin of ethics is the face-to-face encounter with the other, then what ought our response be to this thing that is neither human nor animal, alive nor dead?
For there is, unquestionably, a response. The Thing is not merely an object. We project upon it a kind of consciousness, a personality perhaps (alone here in its sitting room) or at the very least, a gaze – a direction of attention. In his “attention schema theory” of consciousness, Michael Graziano has argued that consciousness originally arose out of our brain’s evolutionary need to model the attention of other animals. From there, the brain started to model its own attention, and so consciousness arises as material information: “described by the brain, not produced by the brain”. In Graziano’s model of models, consciousness only exists as a kind of feedback loop. No wonder it’s so loud in here.
As a site of emotion and subjectivity, the self is removed from all scientific activity, from measurement and from documentation, from reason and from argument.
But surely The Thing cannot be conscious. It cannot respond to our presence: it is merely a costume, an empty body suit, the artist’s skin, donned for a photograph, shed now, and placed upright in a gallery. The photograph [above] depicts the suit in use, the artist as The Thing, walking among trees, looking towards the camera in conscious echo of the famous frame 352 from Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin’s 1967 footage of a female Bigfoot. Just as that film has spawned decades of debate, so much of this exhibition is also an exercise in contested fakery.
Across one wall a microphone crawls, insect-like, down from the ceiling. On the floor another traverses the highly regular mountain topography of a neat grey square of foam sound insulation. It is recording our every sound. Here Wright plays with the language of audio surveillance – a bug, a fly on the wall – while also examining the relationship between technology and the non-human, between sentience and agency. It’s easy to think that technology is a uniquely human achievement but, of course, it isn’t. Wright tells me, for example, about the early shellac gramophone discs made from a resin secreted by the female lac bug. Bees, we might add, build structures; spiders lay traps. Here, the microphone’s twin receivers are arranged in what is known as the X-Y pattern in order to improve stereo recording. They look just like mandibles.
Meanwhile, the iridescent green that bathes the room emanates from a green-coiled eco-lightbulb hanging down low above the floor-based insect. Green is the colour of nature. “To be green is both a lifestyle choice and a badge of honour,” says Wright. I can’t help thinking of green screens – the technology by which the film industry incorporates human actors into landscapes of elaborate, computer-generated fakery. “Green is also the colour of toxicity,” says Wright. Green: the colour both of the natural and of the unnatural: Marvell’s “green thought in a green shade” perhaps.
We may live in a culture that is more obsessed with the self than ever before – gazing in the mirror, recording, archiving, and endlessly disseminating impressions of ourselves in word and film and text. But this is strangely at odds with the dominant ideology of contemporary western culture: science. While individual scientists may tell you otherwise in private, in public, the institutional laws of science are unequivocal in their espousal of objectivity. As a site of emotion and subjectivity, the self is to be removed from all scientific activity, from measurement and from documentation, from reason and from argument. Science takes place in the third-person passive. This is what Thomas Nagel called the view from nowhere – a position now coming under increasing fire, from without by the likes of Donna Haraway and from within by Rupert Sheldrake, who has written eloquently against the use of the third person in scientific reports.
But science is not alone. Many disciplines have long aspired to the condition of science – psychology, history, economics, even – once upon a time – anthropology. Mark Peter Wright is trained in sound recording and oral history. What he’s noticed, he tells me, is the way in which the identity of the recordist is routinely excised from the final recordings. The worry is that, by concealing the active agent behind the recording process, the power relationships that underpin any act of recording or archiving may be concealed. As the likes of Carolyn Hamilton and Isabel Hofmeyr have argued, the archiving of oral utterances is not a passive, straightforward process – and this goes for animals as well as for humans.
Even silence is not without its complexities. Silence can be respectful – it can mark a passing or leave a space open for the other. But there is a long history by which certain groups have been silenced, their agency removed along with their voices. To be silent is often to be powerless. In Wright’s work, however, to acknowledge that the recording agent is neither silent nor passive does not form an act of empowerment. Rather, to place this marginalised figure centre-stage is to explore what is being claimed by the removal of that figure: the power of objectivity, unmediated representation, universality, the truth – plain and simple. Is the truth is ever plain or simple? “If things were simple,” Derrida once said, “word would have gotten around.”
We often think that only the weak need run or hide; but hiding can bestow power too.
In Wright’s work, it is Wright himself who steps out of the margins. This exhibition therefore provides an extension of previous work – a performance entitled I Suck for 2014’s Art Licks Weekend and a recent book for Corbel Stone Press, Tasked to Hear (which I reviewed elsewhere on The Learned Pig). In the book, as here, Wright includes much that would be left out of a traditional field recording: the bleeping of the recording device, for example, or the rustling of papers. Field recordists have a horror of such sound pollution, which ruins the “signal-to-noise ratio” and sullies the purity of the recording. Wright plays on this idea of fear or disgust, citing in particular HP Lovecraft’s short story, The Outsider. Here, in the gallery, The Thing is the distorted figure of the recordist holding up the microphone to himself – or at least pretending to. The feedback loop, it turns out, is pre-recorded.
The power of silence is further explored in the second room of the gallery, through what Wright refers to as a “sound essay”. Contact Zone #2 consists of a series of audio-rips, taken from YouTube videos and edited together. The videos are from a range of photographers and wildlife spotters, stalkers and hunters, each explaining to their audiences how to disappear in the wild – how to become silent and invisible. I mention the cross-over between the languages of hunting and of photography (“aim”, “shoot”, “capture”). Wright tells me that the microphones next door are known as “rifles” and “shotguns”.
This cross-over is accentuated by the way in which the audio essay is displayed: a single head-sized speaker hangs high on the wall, half-concealed by a draped camo-netting. The resulting form is reminiscent of the hooded figures in Tim Shaw’s Abu Ghraib sculptures. It is, like The Thing next door, another way to hide oneself, but it draws attention to a different aspect of the power hierarchies of concealment. We often think that only the weak need run or hide; but hiding can bestow power too. If knowledge is power, then to be unknown, unnamed, off-the-map, is not only to escape the power influence of others; accompanied by self-knowledge, of your own location or identity, unshared with others, it also exerts a new power of its own. Why else would the military be so concerned with technologies of camouflage and concealment?
Playing on this relationship between the powerful and the hidden, Wright presents us only with sound; the identity and location of the speakers is concealed from the visitor. Wright places our attention solely on the things they say and the noises that they make. “Be in the dead space,” says one. “Always, always, watch your shadow,” advises another.
What becomes especially interesting here is the way in which, by attempting to disappear, the speakers in fact place increased emphasis on the physicality of their own bodies. There is much talk of tracks – of the heel pads of dogs, or the negative space between heel and toe. We are advised to mimic the heel-toe “stealth” walk practiced by some native Americans, also known, incidentally, as the fox walk. Like meditation perhaps – which requires deep, sustained thought in order to transcend thought – walking of this kind requires a precise attuning to one’s own body in order to effect its disappearance.
There is something contagious about this focus on the body. I find myself mimicking the instructions of the speaker. But it’s hard to do the heel-to-toe fox walk in leather-soled loafers on the hard floor of an art gallery. Wright also repeated these steps while installing the exhibition. On the day we meet, he is suffering from a long-standing, unknown, back problem that hinders his movements. The fox walk eased the pain. This is not the first time that Wright’s back has affected his work. “Back pain” is one of the recurring physical observations noted in Tasked to Hear, and the condition has increasingly prompted him to think about how we privilege “access” to nature, and what abilities are unthinkingly implied in such discussions.
On an iPad in the final room, a short looped film shows Wright dressed as The Thing struggling to hold the pose required for the final photograph. There is something comic here – he is dressed head-to-toe in black and white fur – but also tragic. The artist, no longer invisible recordist but suddenly thrust into a position of painful visibility and prominence, is suddenly powerless, unable to stand up straight on his own for long. He looks back at us, straight into the camera. No eyes, no face, no sound: we can only project a model of a consciousness and respond as we, ourselves, see fit. It is another feedback loop. It too may be pre-recorded. It’s hard to say for sure.
Mark Peter Wright – I, The Thing in the Margins is at IMT Gallery, London until 22nd November 2015.