Revisiting: Tony Oursler – The Influence Machine

In Madison Square Park in New York, and subsequently in Soho Square, the heart of London’s media world, video artist Tony Oursler created a spectral audio-visual experience for an image-saturated society. Conceived as a kind of psycho-landscape, The Influence Machine delves deep into the history of media, rousing long-forgotten spirits and setting them to roam about both squares at night. The ghosts of the Fox Sisters, who made telegraphic contact with the spirit world in the mid-nineteenth century, haunted alongside the ghost of television pioneer John Logie Baird.

Jointly commissioned by the Public Art Fund, and Artangel, and realised in 2000, the work is now part of the Artangel collection, and has been restaged in a range of location both in the UK and elsewhere.

What the work itself comprises is difficult to delineate, as it not only relies on Oursler’s quintessential ‘talking heads’, and thus also sound (including a sound track by Tony Conrad), in this case moving image’s ephemerality is pushed even further because of the outdoor projections onto whatever they fall upon – buildings, trees, people and, most strikingly, smoke, which forms an integral part of the realisation of the work. As a result it is not only literally always fleeting but also different in every context, visibly influenced by the surroundings in which it is revived.

In the book Oursler’s then most elaborate deep media project is condensed in an illustrated time line, ‘Timestream, I Hate the Dark, I Love the Light’, while accompanying texts elaborate on the phantasmagorias of the late eighteenth century, its contemporary equivalents, and the influence of spiritualism within the general development of media. With an introduction by Susan K. Freedman, Tom Eccles and James Linwood, a conversation between Tony Oursler and Louise Neri, and essays by Carlo McCormick and Marina Warner, as well as extensive image sequences.

The design is by Mark Diaper, who came up with the idea to break up the ‘Timestream’ and divide it in different strands that, as time passes, cross each other, or new strands ‘fade in’ and old strands ‘fade out’. The hardback cover also has a dust-jacket on which the title on the front cover and spine lights up in the dark…

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Roni Horn – Vatnasafn/Library of Water

For the past 30 years, the work of artist Roni Horn has been intimately involved with the distinctive geography, geology, climate, and culture of Iceland. Since her first encounter with the island as a young arts graduate, she has returned to Iceland for extended periods of time every year. Iceland has been both a muse and a medium, as well as a second home, to this most thoughtful and searching of artists.

For some time, Roni Horn cherished an ambition to realise a long-term project in Iceland, which could incorporate many of her abiding artistic concerns – with water and weather, identity and enlightenment. After a lengthy period of research, a long-term installation, VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER, was realised in the small town of Stykkishólmur on the southwest coast of Iceland. The Icelandic word ‘Vatnasafn’ can be translated as ‘Library/Collection/Museum of Water’.

Horn developed the project for the community’s distinctive 1950s library building. Responding to the unique sense of place offered by the building, overlooking the ocean on one side and the harbour and town on the other, Horn envisaged the library as a kind of lighthouse that illuminates, magnifies, and reflects.

Consisting of a number of interconnecting elements, VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER is the artist’s most ambitious project to date. As the inaugural commission in Artangel’s new International Program, it sets a precedent for a small number of unique long-term projects in different parts of the world.

The book VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER explores the various projects that comprise Roni Horn’s longstanding fascination with Iceland through images and written contributions, including texts by Briony Fer, James Lingwood, Adrian Searle and Roni Horn.

It was published jointly by Artangel and Steidl in 2007, and is available through the Steidl website. It was designed by Mark Diaper and Roni Horn.


The Missing Voice – Janet Cardiff

Commissioned by Artangel, throughout 1999 Canadian artist Janet Cardiff realised what was her most ambitious work to date then, The Missing Voice (Case Study B), in London’s East End.

Part urban guide, part detective story, part film noir, Cardiff’s work draws you in as an accomplice in a narrative that shifts through time and space. Seductive – narrated in her own softly-spoken voice – intimate, even conspiratorial, Cardiff’s audio-walks are absorbing – for an audience of one at a time.

Starting at the then Whitechapel Library, visitors were given a Discman. After having initially been directed upstairs to find a specific book, you would leave the building and find yourself transported in time. What was that sound? Who is speaking to you? Where does reality end, and what’s imagined begin…? The confusion between reality and fiction was enhanced by the use of binaural recordings, while visually references were sometimes met in reality by sheer fluke and happenstance (“oh, there’s that banana peel!”)

The Missing Voice (Case Study B), which can now also be downloaded, lasts some 50 minutes, tracing a route through Spitalfields and towards the City of London, with the threads of the narrative being brought to some kind of resolution in a space off Commercial Street.

The Whitechapel Library has closed and the building was absorbed into the neighbouring Whitechapel Gallery. One of many changes the area has undergone since the work was launched in 1999. Whole buildings have gone, shops have disappeared and been replaced by others, or bars and restaurants have sprung up instead. The area around Brick Lane, Commercial Street and old Spitalfields market is one in which regeneration and redevelopment have taken hold firmly. The network of streets The Missing Voice (Case Study B) lets you navigate is still the same, but the way they look continues to change. Doing the walk now, makes you utterly aware of the sheer speed and scale.

This was one of the first Artangel projects in which the question as to what to mediate and translate, and how became primary concerns. How could the core essence of projects be transposed to another medium – primarily books, but many also encompassed sound carriers – so that it would not be simply a set of images accompanied by a couple of texts, and be mere documentation and representation.

In this case Mark Diaper, the designer, came up with a set of propositions that played in different ways with those considerations: the inside of the loose cover contained the entire transcript of the sound piece, so the text could be listened to and read. The meandering route and the notion of being able to follow the narrative visually is embedded through two image sequences, which are printed on both sides of semi transparent paper – where the book has Japanese binding, so the uncut edge is the one that we encounter while leafing through the book. There is a mimicking of the red wig, which plays a key role in the story, as well as the pavement stones we walk on on the outside of the cover, while the foam ‘endpapers’ evoke the foam on the headphones listeners would wear. In the end the CD with the whole story is also embedded. There is a text that places this work in the context of Cardiff’s wider practice (by Canadian curator Kitty Scott), and a brief statement by Janet herself. Overall this project started to go towards what I think has become now a widely practised approach to artists’ books, that combines more ‘traditional’ catalogue elements with that of the book as consider as a work in its own right.