by Jodie James Elliott
Originally posted January 2013
Catalogue published by Stride Gallery, 2011
On my bookshelves, among the volumes of texts and novels, there continues to this day to be about a dozen or so VHS tapes. It seems they have always been there so I seldom notice their presence anymore but they still exist. Some, in their original cardboard boxes, are identifiable as popular films from the 1990s. Others can only be identified by the hand-written labels applied to their sides: July 1996, or Art Project: Chair. I have a vague memory of what these titles mean but since I no longer own a functioning VCR, there is no way for me to view them. And since I imagine it is now becoming increasingly difficult to even buy a new VCR I have already accepted the possibility that I may never view them again. Conversely, some of their companions, my books, have been printed as far back as the 1920s and 30s. Their contents remain easily accessible and will continue to be so for as long as paper is able to maintain its material integrity. In both cases, the data is only as good as the device required to access and interpret it.
I feel such concerns are shared by Toronto artist Laura Moore, whose newest collection of work, Kernel Memory, enters its thesis on the material premise of permanence: marble. The acorns and pinecones that effectively signify perpetuation seem to be in direct contrast to the USB storage devices, clear signifiers of the fleeting nature of our 21st century culture of information. Yet somehow both permanence and perpetuation continue to resonate.
Upon initial engagement the work responds to a temporally localized and idiosyncratic form of expression of our own cultural tendencies. An opportunity exists to approach this point of entry in a techno-economic context, demonstrating that the object’s referent – although subdued by its nonfunctioning nature, and tempered by its fleeting necessity – is still rendered heroic by virtue of the same dialect that once articulated the gods of antiquity. That is, material and scale.
Scale, as a point of interest in itself, announces its interest in the observer’s body. Here, the artist approaches Minimalism as a strategy of spatial engagement, monumentalizing technological devices as expressions of Western humanity’s metaphysical ambitions in the context of historical art practice. It rationalizes the observer in a manner that Hal Foster might have called the contemporary crux. The body, “not in the form of an anthropomorphic image or in the suggestion of an illusionist space of consciousness, but rather in the presence of its objects, unitary and symmetrical as they often are, just like people.”1 Although Foster suggests that this phenomenological experience emerges unaffected by the influence of history, language and power, the works that comprise Kernel Memory reference our penchant for delivery over content, albeit surreptitiously in this case by deliberate deployment of material. Whatever data such devices may theoretically contain is rendered irrelevant by the tangibility of their presence and crafted objecthood.
But another sort of data is also implied. The acorn, the pinecone: all seeds that contain the information sequences necessary to perpetuate their respective species. This is not so different than the intended purpose of a USB flash drive after all. The urge to see contravention within the nature/technology dyad therefore wanes. Moore deploys these concepts in tandem to mutual effect where, in particular, it may be argued that the form of the flash drive is a borrowed signifier. Novelty flash drives can be found often inhabiting amusing forms such as cassette tapes, teddy bears or even beer cans. Indeed, it is possible the consumer might encounter a functioning flash drive resembling an acorn. Thus the slippage of signifier is already characteristic. Additionally by its function, the flash drive’s purpose is the same as the pinecone it parodies: it exists to perpetuate the information it contains.
In a review of Moore’s earlier work, Gary Michael Dault writes that perhaps it would make more sense to memorialize “dead-tech things – like cassettes, and less sense to memorialize things that are still all too present, such as cell phones and batteries.”2 I am of the mind that such intentions would defeat the purpose. A technological generation lasts about three years. By its economic nature contemporary technology is in a constant state of transition from introduction to obsolescence. In a few years when the USB storage device has gone the way of the VHS tape, its marble monument will remain as fresh/ancient as the day it was first cut. And, hypothetically, without it no one would remember what these funny little tabs mean that protrude from likeness of acorns and pinecones. Nor would they care whatever digital information it was that such devices once contained.
It is at this point of entry that Moore offers a wink and a nudge. As if to emphasize what is lost and how this is just our nature, the exhibition is accompanied by its own compendium: a series of table top drawings that bear traces of the artist’s creative process. Like the backup drive that now perpetuates our jpegs and divxes in preparation of imminent failure, these tablets document a human act. Except as analogue indexes these records are meant to last – they are etched in stone.
1 Foster, Hal. The Return of the Real. Cambridge, MA and London, England: MIT Press, 1996, p. 43.
2 Dault, Gary Michael. “Laura Moore at Peak Gallery.” The Globe and Mail. 29 April 2006, p. R11.