“The thing of the future is a thing of the past” – Steve Dutton’s commissioned text responses to Neil Webb’s installation The Stars in Us All shown at Bloc in November 2007.
In “Art as Far as the eye can see”, Paul Virillo uses the term ‘Dromoscopy’ to describe the illusion that when travelling quickly, by car for example, the driver experiences the sensation that it is in fact the world which is receding rather than the car speeding through space. 1
One of the defining aspects of the dromoscopic sensation would be the positioning of the subject at the stable centre of fast appearing, (and fast disappearing), reality. At its most intense and self-obsessed, there could be something Canute–like about it, a refusal to accept one’s limits in respect of natural phenomena, but in lesser degrees it serves as an appropriate metaphor for a familiar subjective/objective experience in negotiating time and space.
Neil Webb uses metaphors of movement when describing his work and he has described this most recent piece at Bloc Space as ‘a kind of cosmic travel’. Instead of the scopic, the principle sense here is aural, but like Virillo’s dromoscopic driver, there is still a sense of movement and it is towards interiority and stillness. To some extent there is an acknowledgement of the speed and facts of an external corporeal world, but there is also withdrawal; it is part fantasy, but is also part pure presence.
This installation sets out its stall to produce affects, by effects, and, I would guess, to be measured by them. If the work engages (if it knocks you out), its good, if it doesn’t, it fails. Its success may be judged on if, or indeed, where it transports the ‘viewer’.
Three large, pristine, gloss-black, spray-painted aluminium panels, hang on three of the walls of Bloc Space. Described by Webb as ‘voids’ they reference the monoliths of Kubrick’s “2001”, but these are souped up and fully loaded. There is a nod, deliberate or otherwise, to Rothko, in an acknowledgment of the chapel-like dimensions of Bloc space. There is also an attempt to make the shiny panels appear to hover by the use of U/V back light but it’s never quite clear how effective this lighting is. Unlike Rothko’s dematerialisations, Webb’s panels are still, cold and hard facts.
These panels are also the source, if that’s the right word, of a great deal of sound. They are in fact the unconventional ‘speakers’ of a sound installation but are more ‘metal’ than quiet contemplation. In fact, to think of them as speakers is slightly misleading. They utilise a process of vibration via technology developed by Webb, which he originally used to turn large plate glass windows into amplifying devices. They are speakers, but not as we know them. Against the fourth wall a seating bench doubles as a bass bin from which deep sound rises up through the body.
The sound is loud, very loud, and it fills the space with something unfocussed, lush and ambiguous. It is mostly electronic, spatial, sweeping and filmic. At over 45 mins in length there is a coy promise of a climax, some kind of an accretion and narrative in the work. The teleology of some distant point plays upon the codes and quotes set within it. Through the use of the sound of a mellotron and the mediated sound-clips from ‘2010’ there is a summoning of filmic tropes of space travel, cosmic distances, and outer limits.
There is more than hint of nostalgia here; this is nostalgia as a melancholic response to a loss of feeling. It is feeling the loss of feeling amounting to emptiness in the place where those feelings used to be. The fallible gorgeousness, pure fakery and past-glories of the sounds of the mellotron make perfect sense.
Like much Sci-fi, despite its futuristic metaphors, Webb’s work is a journey into the past. This is nostalgia for the possibility of a future long since gone, an imagined future of the 1970’s and 80’s. It’s strange that the sounds of the future seem so dated and outmoded, like science fiction is something over. When did we move away from a future potential, when did the future become so enmeshed with the present? 2
The thing of the future is a thing of the past.
Ultimately, this is more Dark Star than 2001; it trips you up to remind you that despite all the fakery there is no loss of effect. In fact, fakery is the effect. Significantly, in the midst of the nostalgia and oceanic soundscape it is easy to miss the work’s delicate immediacy. At the same time as the work toys with references to a future that never was, it also vibrates and creates real time ‘accidental’ blips, squeaks, harmonics, vibrations, pulses and sound waves in the present tense, creating a new performance at every turn. These are the product of the relationship between the sounds, the panels, the space, the representations and the body and are wholly unpredictable yet artfully exploited. For me, the work really starts to take place where the sound, imagination and body confront each other. It is here that the work really begins its act of transportation.
The trembling and harmonics, which rise up out of the more musically orchestrated passages, confirm the here and now, and despite their relative quietness, it is these noises and blips, which create the sense of interior movement. It seems almost in spite of the cosmic aspirations of the installation that something is able to take place.
Like resting one’s head against a train window, feeling the slight vibration on the forehead, watching a mark on the window bounce up and down on the telephone wire, the day-dream is rooted in the succession of such seemingly banal moments unfettered by any magnitude or distance of the journey itself.
When Webb suggests that the work is about some kind of travel, cosmic, interior or otherwise, he is right, but more precisely, where we are taken to is limbo, where the primary product of the work is an ambiguous elsewhere of pure technological effect and where the work’s drive towards an end point is ultimately held in total suspension by a heightened awareness of the present.
Steve Dutton 2007
1. Art as far as the eye can see. Paul Virillo. Published by Berg. 2007. P.20. ISBN 978-1-84520-611-6 (Back)
2. See John Gray’s Black Mass for a brilliant account of utopian ideology driving apocalyptical thought. Published by Allen Lane. 2007. ISBN 978-0-713-99915-0 (Back)
First published on the Bloc Projects website.