Gallery celebrates 30th anniversary

November 17, 2005, vol. 34, no. 6
By Michael Boxall

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Step into a darkened room at Surrey art gallery and what confronts you hangs from the ceiling like a giant thread of DNA.

Or perhaps it's a discarded snakeskin. It has the same kind of indolence as a snake and the impression is heightened by what look like translucent scales. There are 32 of them, not quite circular and twice the size of dinner plates. When you go further and trigger a pressure sensor in the floor they start to change. They begin to talk.

Some turn into disembodied mouths with very red lips and very white teeth. You try to match the words to the mouths, but can't. Others show raindrops pattering.

The shape is not a snake but a river and while the piece is not representational in the usual sense it does portray one particular river: the river of culture and memory.

One River (running) is part of Surrey Seen, a series of exhibitions marking the gallery's 30th anniversary. It's a collaboration between Martin Gotfrit, director of the school for the contemporary arts, and Kenneth Newby and Aleksandra Dulic of the school of interactive arts and technology. All three are working on computational poetics, a research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

“We've been looking at different ways to deal with new media, particularly transferring forms from different media,” Gotfrit says. “In contemporary music and soundscape work there's a notion of media ecology, of creating sounds that are complex and have multiple sources. We wanted to see how we could apply that to video.

“Building on research we've been doing for maybe five years we realized we could create a video diffusion system. In this particular piece not only do we have 32 different screens or movies playing, but also reflections on the wall.”

The sound environment is equally complex. Research assistants posed a series of questions about Surrey to local residents. But it's hard to make out the answers. They seem to float along the river in snatches, appearing and disappearing. Gotfrit cites Glen Gould's radiophonic work as inspiration for One River (running)'s community of voices.
Despite the piece's technological sophistication, the hardware used was not expensive.

“Part of the focus of computational poetics is to develop tools for artists,” Gotfrit says. “What One River (running) uses will have a great application in live theatre.”

The exhibit runs until Dec. 18.

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