Monday, October 22, 2012

Lei Cox's Being There: Digital's Hidden Dimension

The importance of the transition from analogue to digital in the realm of video art cannot be overestimated; new understandings of the status of the digital video image were seized with a mixture of enthusiasm and anxiety by artists seeking to explore the seemingly endless transformative and malleable qualities of the digital image – its capacity to be altered, its capacity to be transmitted telematically and its capacity (or lack thereof) for representation.

These are some of the issues to which video artist Lei Cox addresses in his work. A recent (partial) retrospective of his career, Twenty-Six Years Later (a journey to fiction and back),  presented a selection of Cox's work from 1985 to the present and included a variety of Cox's single-channel and installation video work. However, the centrepiece of the exhibition was a triptych entitled Being There, itself a composite of three separately produced but related video works Catching Sight of Sputnik 2009/11, Race 2010/11 and Auto Race 2010. This triptych took up the major part at the end of the gallery, its centrality signalled by the relative size of the projections (each segment taking up an entire wall) compared to the other works which were mounted at a distance from the central installation on much smaller screens with headphones in order that they not interfere with the sound of the larger works. The implication here is that the triptych serves as a kind of summation of Cox's work to date. The question then becomes what is this summation is being offered here, and to what future does it point?

To begin, descriptions of each of the separate videos. Catch Sight of Sputnik 2009/11 is a characteristically mordant exploration of space-travel conspiracy theories (e.g. the moon-landing was staged by Stanley Kubrick etc.) In this video, Cox performs a series of dance-like manoeuvres – literally, one small step followed by one giant leap over and over again – in an apparently lunar landscape under a fantastic star-filled sky at one point traversed by a retro-futuristic rocket ship. Gradually, an important transformation occurs: the lunar landscape gradually reveals itself to be a terrestrial desert, with an all-too terrestrial blue sky above it. Throughout this revealed fakery, Cox continues his Neil Armstrong dance.

Race 2010 continues the retro-futurist demystifications of Catching Sight of Sputnik in a more deflationary manner. A single, diminutive toy robot struggles to navigate its way across a desert landscape (as with Sputnik, shot along the Salt Lake Flats in Utah). The robot, ill-suited to movement against so uneven a terrain, frequently falls and must be restored to verticality by Cox until the robot-toy finally exits the frame. Such slow, jerky movement is contrasted by the last video in the triptych – Auto Race 2010. In this video, Cox drives at speed in a pick-up truck in the same desert as the other two works. He described, during his artist talk at the Gurevich Gallery opening, his activities as a sort of large-scale tracery – with the movement of the truck scoring patterns on the earth that followed the patterns of celestial events.

In all three of these videos, Cox explores the malleability of digital and “real” space by emphasizing scale: whether the quotidian scale of a truck driving helter skelter through a desert plain, through to the pathos-ridden miniscule scale of a toy robot, to the astronomic scale of the faked moon-landing of the Sputnik video. As in all of his work, Cox places himself in each of these videos, but in different relations to the framing space: he is unseen in the truck tracing patterns that are only visible from an air-born view-point (significantly not shown in the Auto Race work); he is the giant figure picking up the toy robot (such that only Cox's arm and leg are seen); he is the miniscule figure leaping around a deserted planetary surface, gradually increasing in size as the extra-terrestrial reveals its terrestrial reality until he almost takes up the entire space of the screen.

What is the function of these changes of scale? I would suggest that two things are happening here. On the one hand, the human body – specifically Cox's body – is digitally endowed with certain extensions of its ability to manipulate its environment by means of its malleability, thereby giving an unprecedentedly inventive analogy to Marshal McLuhan's well-known theorization of the essentially prosthetic nature of technology. On the other hand, there is a significant extension of the the nature of the digital image itself. The alterations of scale do not occur only at the figural level (the artist's image) but also occur at the level of the ground against which the figure impresses himself. While it is generally held that the flatness of the digital image enables its malleability – as Flusser suggests in his book Into the Universe of the Technical Image – Cox, by telescoping both figure and ground, striates the smoothness of the digital image by compelling it to reveal, in a suitably sci-fi formulation, its hidden dimension

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