Simon Biggs @ The McDougall Art Annex
There are a number of issues which arise from the interview between
Fiona Gunn and Simon Biggs that appears in the catalogue
(1) accompanying Biggs' show Magnet, at the McDougall Art Annex,
Christchurch. I shall concern myself with the first, which is the
crucial aspect of 'viewer' interactivity and which is of essential
concern to Magnet itself.
Biggs comments that he does not like the word "audience" because
it implies a passivity:
"It implies a passivity on behalf of the person watching and that
is why I use the word reader, as it implies an activity."(p.9)
The reasons Biggs outlines for this adoption of the term reader
and not audience is that the audience belongs to the theatre and
cinema complex where, traditionally, the adopted viewing position
is one of a seated arrangement. This however, as Gunn questions,
does not necessarily alter or affect the manner in which one thinks
consciously about the relation between ourselves and what we are
watching; i.e. "passivity" does not have to be a physicality. Augusto
Baol through his Poetics of the Oppressed (1974, 1979) realised
that any audience is 'charged', and is a potential 'energy'. Baol
realised that the audience themselves can be so charged to take
act(ion) and are in fact asked to do this - to role play the dramatic
event themselves: changing the scenario or situation as they see
fit or as they so determine. Their's is the interactive ability
to change the course and content of the work itself. Baol's is the
idea of the spectator becoming spect-actor.
It is difficult to appropriate the principle of Baol's spect-actor
to the Art gallery and Simon Biggs' Magnet because Baol worked in
an impromptu, 'invisible theatre' manner, directly in the public
arena, notably in Peru. However, Baol's ideas do illustrate that
an "audience" is not passive in how they think, and do not need
to be physically passive in their role. Even without adopting Baol's
spect-actor, any audience in the theatre or the cinema are still
active. They continually project 'possible world' scenarios onto
the characters involved within the film or production which are
continually re-evaluated as the dramatic advance or narrative changes
throughout the 'production'. Though here, the level of viewer involvement
or 'interactivity' is not as involved as in Baol's practise because
the viewer cannot change the course or content of the production.
The same can be said of Biggs' viewer/"reader" in Magnet. It is
the level of sophistication in the viewer's interactive role, in
terms of critiquing their own actions and involvement (the performance
criteria), and the interactive role itself, in relation to the elements
of the work, that I wish to question in Biggs' Magnet.
The term 'role' is an extremely important one with regard to Magnet.
It becomes even greater, or heightened, when we accept his position,
in a physical sense, that his 'reader' is an active component within
his work. Therefore the viewer should have an extremely important
interactive role. However, the viewer in Magnet only becomes more
than a viewer if and when, or until, they 'trigger' the work itself.
This is achieved by walking accidentally or deliberately through
any one of six spot light sensors which relate to six projections
of three naked male and three naked female figures which, depending
upon the triggering of the sensors, either "fly" or "fall" within
two screens facing each other at either end of the gallery. These
light sensors and projections are divided into two groups. Two male
and one female figure are projected onto the first screen, with
their respective light sensors focused in a row of three upon the
floor in front of each screen, but nearer the centre of the gallery.
The other screen reflects two female and one male figure. When the
'viewer' triggers his/her involvement in the work, he/she might
be labelled a spect-actor. But this is a too empowering label. The
'viewer', when triggering the work, does alter the representation
of the piece - the order of projections and sounds, but they cannot
alter or change the ultimate content or course of the work; for
this has been pre-determined within a system of programming by Bigg's
himself. Perhaps this is a picky limitation of the interactive qualities
and criteria of "new technology art", where the permutations and
combinations of a number of elements are ultimately limiting and
there is nothing the player, the viewer, the reader can do about
it. Regardless, it is not as Biggs' regards, simply a "question
about the poverty of our vocabulary at this time in dealing with
new media like this." (p. 10) This is egotistical rhetoric.
It is a question of exactly what the viewer is doing: what is their
role, and what is the role of the work and how these conflate or
relate. It is insubstantial for Biggs to comment that "The viewer
is not just watching, there is nothing voyeuristic about it, they
are part of the piece" and to suggest that the viewer of his work
is not an audience but is something different or suggest that "it
is the audience interacting with the work that is the theatre."
And further suggest, that "It is they (the audience) who are most
theatrical and it is they who are observed, they are the performers..."
(p.10) especially when the dominant, so up-front elements in this
work are huge projections of three naked female bodies and three
naked male bodies that each, themselves, possess a gaze. It is not
that easy to dismiss these projections. These projections are not
"objects" (2) as Biggs describes
them (including references to puppetry, p. 14); they are identifiable
and each possesses a gaze that looks, actually stares, at the viewer
him/herself which compounds and problematises the interactive gaze
belonging to the viewer. Again, it is not so easy to dismiss them
(the projections) as not belonging to someone else and to critique
your own involvement/interactivity within the work itself.
Biggs perhaps realises this, as he comments:
"The piece will not come into existence until the viewer does something.
It won't make sense to the viewer unless they begin to understand
how what they do relates to what they perceive."(p.9)
But I cannot perceive myself, or others in the gallery at the same
time, as being such strong performative elements in the work. The
viewer who interacts is necessary to further the work but I do not
believe it is the viewer, as performer, who critiques his/her own
actions because we realise that our function in the gallery is one
that can only alter the work, ultimately, in a number of pre-prescribed
ways. And all we effectively do is alter their order. We do experience
changing these and the options are, technically, ingenious which
are heightened when there are other persons in the gallery who also
interchange the work, but the role of inter-activity is one of pre-determinancy
and requirement. It is a requirement in the sense that if one wishes
to further the representation of the work from "seeing hands and
feet" to witnessing the "falling" and "flying" of the naked figures,
one must trigger the work. Therefore the figures in Magnet do not,
as the Foreword in the catalogue suggests, "respond to and mimic
the movements of gallery visitors". That is an over inflated premise
and is wrong. I would suggest the viewer does respond to a course
of programmed action, which is only activated by and when the viewer
stands or walks through a series of light sensors. There is a system
in operation that has been previously encoded by Biggs himself.
It is clever, and the viewer does have fun engaging it and realising
its options, but in the sense of the empowerment of the viewer in
his/her interactive role, it is insufficient and limited.
01 August 1997
1. Magnet, Simon Biggs. Show catalogue; Robert McDougall
Art Gallery and Annex: 1997. (Page numbers appear after each quotation
2. Magnet, Simon Biggs. Show catalogue; Robert McDougall Art
Gallery and Annex: 1997.
Excerpt from Sean Cubitt's catalogue essay "The Angel of Mediation":
"Bloody programmers: never giving the rest of the universe a glimpse. This time,
the word 'object' is visited on us in an entirely new meaning, without reference
to the old. When you say, perhaps, that bodies have become objects, you might
be making a feminist statement. Feminists first understood the cultural upshot
of the separation of mind and body philosophised by Descartes and embodied in
modern medicine, the whole of modern culture for that matter...
...What object-oriented programs offer is a way of speaking in, through, with,
the division of mind and body without falling into the fruitless dialectics
of representation and its objects. To represent is necessarily to falsify: that
is the core belief of post structuralism and deconstruction. But what Biggs
undertakes is not an attempt at reconciling the seer and the seen, but to attract
both into the same space, a space where what is important is not the production
of bodies or representations as objects for the viewer, but where both the viewer
and what she views are subjects, circling each other in anticipation of a communication
which, though it may never come, can be hoped for."