Curated by Edy Fung, ‘MEDIATING SIGNALS’ took place in two phases at Flax Art Studios, Havelock House, Belfast. The first, ‘Tracing Algo-rhythm’ (29 June – 3 July) presented the work of Julie Louise Bacon, Helena Hamilton and Una Walker; the second, ‘Assigning Ambiguity’ (6 – 10 July) exhibited works by Martin Boyle, Peter Glasgow and Michael Hanna.
A lot of written material orbits this series of exhibitions already, with a handout and extremely thorough online text for each phase of the exhibition: “It is your task and your pleasure to interpret the exhibition in any way you wish. Or scan this QR code [to access the online texts] after viewing the exhibition, but only if you really need to.” What might there be left to say? The works are already brilliantly articulated, contextualised and presented across both written and visual experiences.
Flax is an artists’ studio organisation temporarily occupying the space of Havelock House – the former UTV television HQ on Belfast’s lower Ormeau Road. The spaces, though ironically designed to support broadcasts into our homes each day, were never designed to be publicly accessible. They are, therefore, fascinating, retaining much of their broadcast infrastructure in the form of acoustic panels, ceilings crammed with odd alcoves, bizarre cut-throughs (which presumably allowed staff to sneak off-screen undetected) and – the pièce de résistance – a hair and make-up salon that feels more like a film set than the remnants of the sets themselves. In theory, if not in practice, Fung’s programme is framed by text in the manner of film’s most famous receding opening crawl: it is “2045, the world after technological singularity is reached… [we] are looking at works created at the times communication existed.”
Julie Louise Bacon’s work is an archaeology of sorts. Profoundly other, it is presented within one of the multilevel, padded studios. Both in site and content, the audience feels invited into realms that aren’t usually accessible. Bacon’s work depicts intermittent frequencies, transmissions and orbits related to satellites and USSR spacecraft, which all loop, glitch, halt, drop and stagger in their own ways, as if the media and information to support them no longer exists. The works are infused with a huge sense of loss – of knowledge and understanding, of technology, and of a sense of how humanity might (re)locate amidst something much bigger than itself.
Reports from an Agent in the Field (2017) by Una Walker, echoes the Cold War vibes. A four-screen sound and text installation, it occupies the largest (18 x 13 metres) of the spaces. The field, in this instance, refers to the visual art sector, and the work is an archive, assembled from exhibition ephemera collected between 1960 and 1995. Separated into Venues, Artists Names, Exhibition Titles and Dates, these are classifications abstracted from their original context. Their loss is felt in other ways: ‘venues’ presents a rolling script of galleries long gone – Malone House, The Old Museum Arts Centre and so on. Dates repeat like unintelligible binary codes. Occasionally the audio glitches, but it is human rather than machine error, with some slight stumbling or anxious, faint giggling in the delivery of the speech interrupting its rhythm. Brilliantly presented (or unpresented?), the work felt to me like it reflected the futility of the things we hold dear – the affected, ineffectual language that we use to present ourselves to one another.
The staging for Helena Hamilton’s Irrelevant Landscapes (2019) is staggering; a matrix of scissor-lift studio lights and power points on cantilevered wires drop from the ceiling, their shapes creating exact reflections of those on screen. Hamilton’s audio-visual reconstruction of a piece of paper being scribbled upon and crumpled cartographically is accompanied by a Carlo Rovelli quote: “It is possible to repeatedly correct our world view”. Hamilton’s work does the same thing as the others – it is a form of mechanical panning out. Fung’s own polymathic practice, as an artist and musician, also dabbles in ideas and tools that enable us to reform ourselves in light of new information.
The second exhibition, which opened only three days later, occupies some of the same spaces and introduces new ones (swoon – THAT hair and make-up studio). Bedecked wall-to-wall with Hollywood mirrors, Michael Hanna’s series ‘Calculated Error’ (2012-ongoing) includes an assortment of formerly white textiles – clothes and towels – that he dyed pink by including red items in the wash and was funded to replace. Elsewhere, this series of deliberate mistakes showcases a misspelled tattoo (that Hanna then used funding to laser correct); a pair of glasses with the wrong prescription, due to giving inaccurate answers during an eye test (with funding used to correct the prescription). Each time the work is presented, a new error is commissioned – this time, a bottle of snake oil, purchased by the curator.
Back in the largest studio, the space has been taken over by a large projection and a number of small, sensitively lit object interventions by Martin Boyle. They are heavy with the weight of mourning; the film is projected over an air mattress, stuffed with plastic flowers, evoking a recently dug grave. There are photographs of accident sites, skies depicted through windscreens and a large tome on the floor which, accompanied by white gloves, feels like a book of condolences.
Peter Glasgow’s work continues the thread of playful speculation. On one wall, the video game journalist Tim Rogers labours a narrative over a session with Tomb Raider, at each point praising or critiquing not only the character actions (controlled by the player), but the game developers’ cynicism and unsophisticated narrative decisions. The other wall reinvents a form of Exquisite Corpse, as text exchanges between Glasgow and collaborator Sun Park, with a set of rules that are deliberately unclear to the viewer, resulting in a series of mutated instructions and uncalculated entreaties.
The exhibitions fluctuate between micro and macrocosms, simultaneously conveying something both intangibly enormous and poignantly personal. The overwhelming seriousness of the questions posed by each work – who, where, what are/were we? – is also not without levity, through some of the selections and the overall presentation. I was awed by how the perfect spaces AND the perfect artists AND the perfect work could exist within the same building. If Fung hadn’t been curator-in-residence with Flax, would these elements simply exist as co-orbital configurations? Its flawless perfection was so casually worn that I was quite moved to bear witness to it. It’s gone now. And amongst all of the records, traces and eulogies referenced, these words feel like little more than a faint and obsolescent blip. Perhaps it was intended this way.
Michael Hanna, ‘Calculated Error’ series, 2012-ongoing, installation view; photograph courtesy the artist and Flax Art Studios