by Joshua Noble
There are myriad utopias and, one would like to hope, merely an equal number of dystopias. But given the number of nascent, contested, and at the moment, outright disastrous environmental concerns that we are faced with, it may seem more appropriate that our dystopias, our wastelands, might outnumber our utopias. It does seem reasonable that dystopic and the utopic are twins; every scrap of apocolyptica generated in the past few thousand years was created in the service of some vision of salvation, escape, rebirth, be that from technology, metaphysical means, otherworldly intervention, or plain old acceptance. This all occurs to me because Brennan Conaway’s newest installation, “A PANORAMIC VIEW OF THE CITIES BURNING BELOW – THE SECOND COLONY,” deals explicitly but lightly with dystopia. As described on the website of Doppler Gallery where it is installed, it is, “a communal house which he imagines floating above cities that are burning.”
“A PANORAMIC VIEW OF THE CITIES BURNING BELOW – THE SECOND COLONY” with its unwieldy Victorian era ad copy verbosity and quaint “lighter than air” technology is, without mistake, whimsical, a tiny flight of fancy. Without the name it’s illegible, unreadable as intended. Taken together it points to a distinct historical moment: the beginning of air flight before aerodynamics, or speed for that matter, were understood or considered. When simply being off the ground was the important thing. The earliest vessels resembled boats; most likely because that’s simply what a vessel was in the general consciousness. That is, in fact, what the piece is, a model of an early airship floating in the gallery space, suspended from several large white balloons. Even in its construction it’s more a tiny piece of ephemeral optimism in the face of a mildly theoretical catastrophe than a fully articulated thought: balsa wood, balloons, thin pieces of string. It’s a little sloppy, with somewhat forced references to previous works of his, mis-shaped lines, and, when I saw it, a disappointing propensity to sink to the ground. Yet it proposes and fantasizes, it does what we might imagine our creative means, our aesthetic discourse, actually doing. I found myself imagining the winning prize of competition for children in which the goal is propose how we can leave behind the earth that we’ve so utterly spoiled. The sparse and simple, my-dad-helped-me-with-this, aesthetic of it actually gives it a charm, an uninhibited joyfulness that a fully realized model, a more professional presentation, or as absurd as it might seem, a full construction, could never have. Hanging in that small room we can think: you’re right, we’re fucked, how nice it would be to be so naïve as to even think there might be a solution. And yet, this is not contemporary technology, it doesn’t have quite the same desperate air of visionary salvation implied by fantastic architectures. This is, if nothing else, an antiquitated means for problems of another era that eerily echo our own: pollution, overcrowding, claustrophobic urban spaces, entrapment by the necessity of economic production. It gives us back our obsession with problem solving, the engineered solution via technological means, as a hyper-inflated children’s game taken synecdochally to represent the entirety of our relationship to the world. Find a problem. Solve it. Job done. Go home. Complexity and chaos be damned.
Why history and why the airship? I have a thought on this: almost any thing, any vantage point, can become a history because there’s never anything entirely new, there’s just endless novel configurations and recombinations that we can think of being The New when we need a clean break from the past. Be it 19th century or 21st, we’re still trying to escape the problems that we create, that our modes of living create and we’ve been doing so for as long as there has been history. It’s easy for us to look at our current technologies and imagine that the difficulties that we have integrating them into our lives, adjusting to the radical changes that they introduce into our perceptions of ourselves, our places, and our futures, is something new, something born from computation. Myopically exalting and obsessing with our contemporary technology sabotages our ability to understand what technology really is: an externalizing machine, a dis-placing, an escape. Tired of going to stores, of washing dishes, of moving cargo by horse, of digging for tubers by hand? Move those actions, their consequences, and their means further away from yourself. Put them into a force equation at one end of which is a steam engine, or into the electromagnetic or fiberoptic ether, put them up into the air, away from the muck of whatever ruin we might want to escape. An airship may seem quaint to us, but to the Victorian era mind it represented a serene escape, absent the muscular physics of airplanes, jets, rockets, it simply allowed one to leave the troubles of the ground behind and concern themselves with breezes, clouds, and air. Technological history isn’t just a series of devices and strategies, it’s a cataloguing of ways to mediate the relationship between of our ideas of the world and the world itself, which sounds heavy, but is in fact quite simple: what do I want to do and how do I do it? I want to escape the coal smog ridden airs and early industrial claustrophobia of 1880’s London or Paris; how do I do it? Hence, the airship. It’s rather difficult not to hear an echo in our own time.
As with so many artists involved with the excellent Center For Land Use Interpretation, or even artists that have urbanist and architectural leanings, Conaways working practices marry the playful and the practical with eye on what one might call “the design mentality”, the notion of problem solving as a content for an art practice. Taking a look back through his previous works one sees machines, spaces, and therein what I think would be called art-experiments in very the best possible sense. Small tin cars that echo Boy Scout soapbox racers, woven beech spaces in which viewers can sit 3 at a time, park benches, a mobile gallery space that encloses an artwork which can be viewed from the street. He doesn’t shy away from playing at the boundaries of disciplines or discourses: these spaces can be read architecturally (as indeed most architectural spaces can be read sculpturally these days) and many of his pieces almost position themselves between proposal, experiment, and artwork. In opening even a small ambiguity about actual nature of his work, the intended use of these pieces, Conaway moves the way his work means things beyond reference and into real signification. That kind of signification is what makes what gets called Social Practice, or Tactical Media, or sometimes even straight Design, so interesting: they’re serious about their relationship to the world. Conaway is serious about his relationship to living space and to the histories of those living spaces that he engages. In A PANORAMIC VIEW OF THE CITIES BURNING BELOW there is a serious working practice, concerned with serious matters, engaging in a little whimsy and losing none of its strength in that.
Joshua Noble Joshua Noble is a designer, engineer, and writer who has written for Vague Terrain and Rhizome, and has penned several books on interaction design and code art for O’Reilly. His next book is titled Research for Living and deals with the politics and aesthetics of interactive art and architecture.