Seán O Sullivan is a writer and curator whose work focuses on the politics and preservation of localities. He has curated projects and written critical texts dealing with community, ecology and the bonds between people and places. He holds an MA and a BA in Visual Arts Practices from IADT, Dún Laoghaire. He is a former chair of Black Church Print Studio, Dublin. He is Visual Arts Adviser to the Arts Council of Ireland / An Comhairle Ealaíon.
This page: At the Level of Entity included artworks by Alan-James Burns, Caroline Doolin, and Fiona Marron. It was curated by Emer Lynch, and included a text by Seán O Sullivan.
At the Level of Entity
Alan-James Burns, Caroline Doolin, Fiona Marron
12th –29th Mar 2013
Image by Caroline Doolin
‘At the level of entity’ was part of Public Gesture 2013. The exhibition included works by Alan-James Burns, Caroline Doolin, Fiona Marron, and was curated by Emer Lynch.
Since 1988, governments and companies in six of the world’s continents have been collaboratively burying a new type of submarine communications cable in the deepest oceanic regions. These cables are constructed in eight layers; seven are closely knit shielding materials like Mylar, petroleum jelly, copper and polyethylene. The central layer is composed of delicate optical fibres that carry pulses of light throughout the Earth. This eighth layer represents the central nervous system of our Internet. Today, it takes sixty milliseconds for a pulse of this ‘informational light’ to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That journey has been getting shorter in this century; it is nearing the theoretically fastest-possible Atlantic crossing. The idea that this man-constructed phenomenon has so quickly begun touching at the edge of physical possibility might cause us some conflicted feelings: a frothy mix of expectancy and disappointment.
The pertinent aspect of the submarine cables is that they are designed to use light as a media to tunnel from one place to the next. They take light away from its ordinary immersive role, and give it a directed, almost-electrical function. In the context of an artwork, we rarely imagine light as having the qualities of a directly malleable material, instead we see it imitating the characteristics of solid forms and surfaces. Or, it manipulates the conditions of local space to warp one’s ordinary perception. In other words, light usually creates an atmosphere. But that need not always be the case.
The submarine cable is made to directly service the transfer of many forms of language; it can mediate the simultaneous breakdown of thousands of conflicting signs and messages into one machine-readable pulsation of light, and fire that creation through a planet-sized body of water. The cable’s function is inextricable from our ordinary exchanges of language – we use it as a tool in the same way as we might use a facial expression, or a pen and paper – which is somewhat ironic considering that it is a facilitator of language, while not being an object that is linguistically active in its character.
This idea of a linguistically active object is based on the way we grant materials the power to communicate back to us; how we assign different values to objects because of historical and cultural preferences that harden in our minds as life takes course. Consider as an example the sort of object that is stereotypically linked to classic literary genres. For instance, a plough or a straight razor can be easily contextualised against certain allusive words: authentic, natural, rustic – words that have no qualitative meaning, but instead are coaxed into life by our own feelings.
And so it bears asking how we might describe a material that has a tight association with both language and atmosphere, or a material that might communicate a definite value, rather than a general feeling. More often than not, materials appeal to our outlook and aesthetic sensibilities rather than our directly expressible thoughts. We are more likely to make better sense of a material by judging it based on the temporary and intangible qualities of our own experience, and skipping the need to commit a new, solid word to memory.
It takes a peculiar situation to impel our minds into recording sensory information rather than the vocalisations of consciousness. Imagine for example, the mind’s reaction to a sudden enfolding of mist around the body. The word mist has evolved from a thousand-year-old phrase that described a temporary dimness of eyesight. It is significant that Western culture’s early realisation of mist was established by its subjective relationship to man – the word was based on the particular way that mist manifested upon our world. To whatever now-nameless inventor was responsible for the description, mist wasn’t thought of as independent matter. Instead it was recognised as a transient condition that overcame the body, a condition that would discreetly brutalise the body’s function.
It is difficult to simultaneously recognise mist as both a finite material form and a wandering vaporous condition, and that is because our understanding of material is built from our ability to see a thing with the eye and touch that thing with the hand. But, this problem of recognition is exclusively based on how we interpret the amalgamation of forms whose physical qualities are defined by language. In that sense, language gives us a kind of unearned confidence. It allows us to play with feelings and idioms that were established by more capable minds; feelings that we do not deeply understand. The mind treats language like detritus – trapping signals in the muddied furrows and rivulets of its own soft understanding.
In those places where atmosphere is physically manifested, it is coloured by the way that material identity defines the limitations of space; by the way that it focuses our attention on spatial distinctiveness. This is universally recognisable in sound, which endlessly seems to test the qualities of space. However, since its only medium is the vibration of air, sound evades classifications of formal style – its physical makeup never changes. As such, there is a type of universal agreement among species that it is the preferred media of language; even where it wants to signal nothing, it is still wrapped in the echo of every deliberate signal that is now past.
That observation is only partially relevant in a world where machine-produced sounds are equally as prevalent as organic sounds. These mechanical utterances carry their own privileged types of meaning: they can alert, imitate, or entertain. Mechanical sound is conspicuously informational. With all of this ‘signal weight’, its spatial and sonic artifice can quickly become clouded with prompts, which collectively say one thing and the other in the same breath: momentary paradoxes, collusions of sound that are logically unacceptable.
But whatever its origin, sound shares crucial properties with light and mist: it is constituted in a way that thrives on instant disintegration, it can overtake the logical mind with an immersion of superior weight and volume. And, it is hardly a physical construct: to the eye and hand, it is immaterial.