Machine Language

machine video still

The theme of technology, or machine language, explores the ways in which technology impacts on personal, political, and cultural experiences. Included in this discussion is Vera Frenkel, who poetically explores the romance of consumerism, as well as artists as different from each other as the collective General Idea, with their witty send-ups of broadcast television, and Tom Sherman, who directly addresses his robot "other."

Technology can be thought of as a theoretical knowledge of industry and the industrial arts or as the application of science and technical advances in industry, manufacturing, commerce, and the arts. The term may refer to technical language or the means by which material things are produced. For our purposes, however, "technology" and "machine language" are seen as linked to mechanical, logic-based, consumer issues and the mass media, and are distinct from the more lyrical, emotional, or sensual worldview associated narrative storytelling or exploration of personal identity.

Since the Industrial Revolution, which began in mid-eighteenth-century Europe, machines have played an accelerating role in shaping our lives, organizing our time, and producing the objects that populate our homes and workplaces. More recently, manufacturing has given way to robotics and a computer-driven "information environment," affecting the form of our cities and the lives of their citizens.

As artist Tom Sherman wrote of the ongoing torrent of telecommunications:
"The I-Bomb's elaborate infrastructure has been in development since the mid-twentieth century. Piece after piece has been assembled and implemented, always rationalized by sweeping statements of public benefit. Television, satellites, cable, stereophonic sound, video, VCRs, personal computers, CDs, fax, the Internet, fibre optic cable, wireless phones, the Web, and digital everything-we are told these things are all good for us. These are real technological advances. This incredibly complex and all-pervasive media infrastructure has grown like a fantastic thriving garden during an endlessly hot summer with more than sufficient rain. All of a sudden we have more tomatoes than we can give away." (Sherman 6)

We can hardly remember a world without Xerox, TV, personal computers, and the world online. As the stunning rate of change continues to overtake us, it is small wonder that some artists have turned to technology and the mass media as subjects for commentary or as forms for action. More developments will surely follow.

Much work in this area has an underlying irony, with the use of mimicry a strong suit. For example, when TVOntario, a provincial educational network, approached General Idea in 1977 to produce something for their Nightmusic series, the artists created Pilot, a half-hour television program framed as the first of an ongoing series for prime-time viewing. In a time when most Canadian video featured short tapes in black and white on intimate subjects of personal concern, General Idea took over the TVO studios briefly to achieve the glorious colour of a "broadcast" look, in a segmented program that introduced the artists and their work in elegant television mode, complete with inter-titles, voice-over commentary, and "canned" music. Later that year they produced the five-minute Press Conference, wearing business suits and speaking directly to the camera, playing once again with formal expectations of the mass media in the unlikely context of an "artists' video."

Toronto-based Vera Frenkel has taken on other sorts of mass-media references, including the whodunit mystery, in her early Signs of a Plot: A Text, True Story & Work of Art (1978) and Introduction to Some of the Players of the previous year. But in This Is Your Messiah Speaking (1991) she presents more diabolical ideas linking messianism with consumerism, as she intones smoothly, her voice slowing and blurring like that of the computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), "Shop. Shop around. Shop, or we'll shop for you."

As artist David Rokeby recalls Frenkel saying, "We, as conscious human beings, need to find a way to come to terms with the mechanical within ourselves" (Rokeby 32). Or as critic Dot Tuer puts it in the same catalogue, "In her hands, technology becomes a tool to witness the alienation of the self from history and to question what is forgotten and what is unspoken in the impending ascendancy of virtuality" (Tuer 27).

Tom Sherman goes even further. He talks at length of "machine love" in the complex and surprisingly intimate Exclusive Memory (1987), three separate one hour monologues played on three separate monitors (or channels, in video art terminology). Sherman is speaking in direct language, ostensibly to a computer-based, video-sensing robot as part of an "identity transfer" between man and machine, but he is also talking to "us," the viewers, the only real witness to his words. There is no visual or aural evidence of the robot, but through Sherman's words we come to imagine the deep mutual understanding that is becoming possible trans-species. We are seduced but not abandoned, producing an eerie mix of feelings.

Other artists move from technology to its effects on our lives and its repercussions in political fields. White Dawn (1988) by Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak, was produced while a free-trade agreement between Canada and the U.S. was being hotly debated. As Steele and Tomczak note, "We wanted to talk about cultural imperialism and its effect on individuals. What happens to that most personal aspect of personality-the dream-when you lose your sense of yourself, when you are not reflected in the culture that surrounds you, when you're absent?" (Vtape online catalogue) By reversing the customary roles of Canada and the States in relation to one another so that it's the U.S. that's insecure-full of self-doubt but not sure why-the work is both amusing and pointedly critical of social and political realities.

Sara Diamond is another artist addressing politics and cultural history and the impact of technology, especially on the lives of women. Several of her works have dramatized conditions during the Great Depression in Canada, such as Fit To Be Tied (1995), which explores rural and urban life from the perspectives of housewives and domestic workers of the 1930s and the quiet heroism they evidenced. Another series of Diamond's tapes deals with labour struggles in the aftermath of World War II, including women who toiled on assembly lines, worked in coastal canneries, or "kept the home fires burning" while sons and husbands were off at war. Deeply feminist, these video works are incisive and revelatory, fascinating additions to our understanding of Canada's past and present.

There is a lot of variety to be found in the works of these artists. Technology has many faces. And machines are worthy both of love and healthy caution, for they shape the lives of every one of us.

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