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Mechanism

2017

Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris, France


Now I will do nothing but listen...
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night...
Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’ (1855)

Andrew Kearney’s Mechanism presents a theatrically-framed constellation with trajectories and ellipses weaving between cardinal points in the Centre Culturel Irlandais’ architectural design and history: between the courtyard and the historical communal buildings housing the old library with its extraordinary collection of philosophical and theological texts and medieval manuscripts; between the allée couverte and the internal gallery space, and ultimately between the constellation itself and the world ‘outside’ which is enticed into this new artistic universe through a dramatically hung silver and transparent veil over the entrance arch. This theatrical turn in contemporary art could be seen as an attempt to mark the exhibition experience as a pure ‘event’, pulling the audience into a metaphysics of presence and immediacy, but also indicating how life itself now seems overtly theatricalised, spectacular and performative — theatrically framed exhibitions perform a kind of self-reflexive gesture recognising the complexity of conditions of reception for any art today. Here you are, an actor on this artistic stage, in this case a ‘cog’ in Kearney’s ‘mechanism’, a performer whose actions and words will filter through to the gallery space via unknown algorithms, rendering you in abstract form, haunting you with traces of your presence in the courtyard captured just minutes before: a hauntology which obliterates the time needed to situate yourself in some more stratified context of memory and space – no time for a more contemplative Bachelardian poetics here as you enter a strange yet uniquely affective mise-en-scène.

The palimpsestic nature of Mechanism reminds us of the manuscripts held safe in the old library, most of which resisted any idea of sole authorship through their communal creation and incremental process of production – overcoding, decoding, recoding. Sounds and ghostly fragments of voices create waves of endlessly varying material, each layer seeming to add itself to the last, not erasing it, but multiplying and expanding it as if sheets of time are moving in tandem with each other. There is a strong Bergsonian inflection to Kearney’s work here – time is not fixed in any linear fashion structured by a narrative impulse, but instead the listener/viewer is pulled back and forth in a more complicated spatio-temporal process where sounds from the outside (which the listener feels some investment in having added to the mix) become immersed in new waves of past and present sonic and light particles – not quite identifiable affects, more akin to what, in philosophical terms are called ‘percepts’, or in the work of Alfred Whitehead - ‘prehension’. The gallery space feels deeply cinematic as much as theatrical – Chris Marker’s La Jetée with its encounter between science fiction, the ‘scars’ of memory and post-apocalyptic engineering, and Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime Je t’aime (also based on experiments attempting to resolve what were irresolvable tensions between memory, perception, and scientific knowledge) come most readily to mind.

Kearney could be said to belong to a lineage of Irish artists who created their own ‘abstract machines’ in Paris (a concept created by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) – Beckett through his experiments with language and space, and Lucien Bull with his groundbreaking experiments in high speed photography as director of the Marey Institute.

Kearney’s machine is a constitutive mechanism - always regenerating, never predetermining, constantly seeking new input – a machine of a very different nature to those machines which become nihilistic through overdetermination, as with Kafka’s machine in In the Penal Colony which breaks down under the weight of moralistic inscription and authority, with signification and representation ultimately creating their own entropic state.

Kearney’s light installation for Mechanism, an impressive tunnel-like suspended structure, appears to communicate through some esoteric code – an aesthetic language of pure rhythm and light. It is framed in the manner of a Victorian curiosity, a found invention which has escaped from history or visited from the future, perhaps a time-machine, certainly a mechanism transmitting secrets, but also suggesting a material, transfigurative potential, transforming sound into light. It communicates, but from some ‘outside’ of language, producing affects which hint at that outside of language Foucault addressed when writing on Blanchot:

“ We are standing on the edge of an abyss that had long been invisible: the being of language only appears for itself with the disappearance of the subject. How can we gain access to this strange relation? Perhaps through some form of thought whose still vague possibility was sketched by Western culture on its margins. A thought that stands outside subjectivity, setting its limits as though from without...” 1

1 2 3 video

The Light engine with its cluster of rings, and its external counterpoint of the silver orb suspended in the courtyard, seem to nod to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s painting AL3 with its orb balancing on a diagonal line, but also his Light Prop for an Electric stage – a Bauhaus-inspired kinetic sculpture designed to produce light effects, shown first at an exhibition in Paris in 1930. Moholy-Nagy’s union of technology and art cultivated an auratic status for the work, despite the fact that it was not created by Moholy-Nagy personally, but by a team consisting of an architect and a machinist, with additional help from the German electrical company AEG. Kearney’s practice fits comfortably into this rich tradition of Bauhaus experimentation, in which light installations are aligned with avant-garde theatrical performances, amplified in Mechanism through the use of silver curtains framing the light engine.

Mechanism’s silver orb, moving back and forth in the courtyard of an institution which has harboured so many philosophers, cosmologists, theologians and artists over the centuries (and many heated debates no doubt in its courtyard and allée couverte), summons up the movement of thought itself and the speculative processes brought into being by such arguments, endlessly shifting, and beyond dialectical resolution. The concept of ‘celestial orbs’ (and Kearney’s orb certainly has an air of the celestial about it) has one of the richest and most complicated histories in any history of ideas – drawing as it does on a veritable trove of theories about the cosmos, the nature of matter and movement and, ultimately, our response as humans to that ‘great unknown’ of the Universe we find ourselves spinning in. Ideas emerging from a medieval cosmological mechanics became foundational for future conceptualising about what could be called the ‘machinic’, along with evolving laws of dynamics. In the fourteenth century the logician and natural philosopher Jean Buridan, Rector of Paris University, wrote "God, when He created the world, moved each of the celestial orbs as He pleased, and in moving them he impressed in them impetuses which moved them without his having to move them any more…” 2

Mechanism’s luminous, self-motorised Orb, devoid of human control, reminds us of age-old antagonisms between philosophies of immanence and transcendence.

Kearney’s artistic practice seems to find its most striking affinity though with the imagination of Edgard Varèse. For the Paris-born composer, sound was living matter. Varèse sought to create ‘sound objects floating in space” – to spatialise sound. But it is one specific unrealised project by Varèse – L’Astronome – which seems to haunt Mechanism, and which Mechanism seems to dramatise so effectively (if fortuitously).

Film and sound theorist Frances Dyson argues that no other work of the post-World War 1 period “addressed sound as a compositional material …within techno-utopian and dystopian themes, more than Varèse’s collaboration with Antonin Artaud in his unrealised project, L’Astronome begun in 1928” 3

Varèse provided Artaud with a rough sketch of the project (an opera) in 1932 from which Artaud wrote “There is no more Firmament”, based on a story in which an astronomer invents an instrument for ‘celestial telegraphy’ creating instantaneous communication with the star Sirius, only to precipitate the catastrophic radiation of the earth. Varèse, heavily influenced by Bergson’s theory of matter as something always in a state of becoming, wished to join forces with Artaud and his profound challenge to representation itself in his work The Theatre and its Double. Artaud envisioned a theatre wherein the spectators are immersed in a light and sound environment which might produce a trance-like state and in which “the spectacle will be calculated from one end to the other like a code […] like so many rays of light”.

Kearney creates an installation in which sound matter becomes re-defined through an aesthetic and metaphysical machine that defies linguistic representational models. It is as if Kearney, in Mechanism, channels Varese’s dream of conjuring voices in the sky, as though magic, invisible hands turning on and off the knobs of fantastic radios, filling all space, criss-crossing, overlapping, penetrating each other, splitting up, superimposing, repulsing each other, colliding, crashing.”4

The intergalactic theme of L’Astronome, with its inventor’s use of numerical codes to communicate with the cosmos, finds its present day artistic expression in Kearney, in his immersive light and sound constellation created for Mechanism and his enigmatic cosmic orb trajecting time and space in the courtyard.

Essay by Katherine Waugh

Notes

1/ ‘The Thought from Outside’ in Foucault/Blanchot, Zone Books 1987, p15.

2/ Buridan ‘Questions on the Eight Books of the Physics of Aristotle: Book VIII Question 12’ English translation in Clagett's 1959 Science of Mechanics in the Middle Ages p536

3/ Frances Dyson, Sounding New Media, Univ. of California, 2009, p334

4/ Cited in Henry Miller, “With Edgar Varèse in the Gobi Desert,” in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (New York: New Directions, 1945), 163–78