Jessie Scott

Portal – Rachel Feery at BUS

By Jessie Scott

The following is a catalogue essay from Rachel Feery’s show Portal, currently showing at BUS Projects, until the 26th November.

Rachel Feery’s work lives in the borderlands between the sublime and the ridiculous. She may reference b-grade aesthetics and deploy lashings of kitsch, but there is no sour, ironic edge. She is nothing if not sincere. And if kitsch is an act of imitation, through her imitation of it, she restores its flattery, its dignity, reveals something new about it, and returns its value as art. Portal draws heavily on concepts busted out of b-grade and dated sci-fi, but instead of simply appropriating or re-contextualising found footage, Feery has generated her own. In doing so, she has breathed potent, mesmerising new life into some age-old symbolism.

Projected onto a large, circular screen, magically suspended in the centre of the gallery, Feery invites you to blob out and plug in to her digital lure. Past-futuristic space beanbags beckon you to lean back, disembodied and Neo-like[1], to mind-merge with the stream of images and let the immersive soundscape wash over you. The installation shimmers, mirage-like, against the gritty interior of BUS, a temporary apparition, a hologram, a tear in the space-time continuum which will soon be closed over by string theory[2], leaving little trace behind.

    

Manuel Aguirre, in his study of numinous space in Gothic Literature, tells us that a portal can be “(the) middle element which, being no proper space itself, brings two spaces into contact, even as it separates them”[3]. This is the portal which Feery is evoking and invoking – a non-place, which at the same time is a site of intense energy and focus. Can you think of a more apt description for how networked computer technology works on us? How “a small machine with a face often less than 8 inches square is the portal to a world visited, if not inhabited, by increasing millions and millions of people, each seated, and each alone.”[4]

In short, a parallel universe visited but never reached.

These screens, which hover constantly in our line of sight, draw an aching line between us, and the thing they bring us closer to. They are the vision we wake up to, blinking in the morning at our smart phones, and often the last things we see before bed as we run through our suite of online accounts just one more time, always waiting for… something… to happen. And of all the small computers whose faces we compulsively turn to each day, the most gleaming, glittering and portal-y of all is the iPad: a pretty, pulsing, flickering ‘third element’ which, primarily designed for consumption of content, takes you everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Gone are the appendages which reminded us of our bodies, our hands connecting with and operating the tool – the iPad is pure, unencumbered screen. There is no resistance – all paths are cleared. Our fingers glide effortlessly across its lacquered face, the algorithms seeming to know what we want seconds before even we do. The beatific experience Feery has conjured reflects the seductiveness of this “truly magical… product”[5], a device which revolves around the aesthetics of reception, rather than action.

In as much as we immerse ourselves in this digitalia to reach out and connect, we also look deeply into it to see what it might reveal about ourselves. Rachel Feery’s Portal, like the tablets, smart phones and other screens of our age, is akin to the magic mirror of Snow White. Every day we hold it up to our face and ask it to call up a picture of ourselves which we might once again ponder – going out of ourselves to go into ourselves.

But what we get out is usually no more than what we put in: gazing into Feery’s soupy, ropy, visceral vortex, is like looking at ourselves through a glass, darkly. There is nothing in technology that we did not put there – nothing that is not profoundly us. It may feel like ‘Siri’, the new anthropomorphic voice-activated function of iPhone 4, is but a few steps away from full Skynet[6], but we do well to be reminded that “the emotion, however endearing, is ours, not the machine’s, and it’s not an exchange. The machines provoke, through planned mechanical mimicry, an emotional response from us, but we are… applying to the machine whatever response we finally offer.”[7]

So, in fact, Pixar’s alternate prediction of screen-based human devolution in Wall-E, of flabby, flimsy beings cosseted in climate controlled pouches, wider vistas completely obscured by screens transmitting constant, pacifying content, might prove more prescient, and ominous. Portal creates a canny impression of both beauty and decay, glamour and chintz, suggesting that perhaps we are not so much under threat of being sucked into some sentient technological vortex, as of drowning in our own technological vomit.


[1] Neo is the main character in the 1999 film The Matrix: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo_(The_Matrix)

[2] Greene, Brian, The Elegant Universe, Chapter 11, p 279, Random House 2011

[3] Aguirre, Manuel, Geometries of Terror: Numinous Spaces in Gothic, Horror and Science Fiction, Gothic Studies, Vol. 10 Issue 2, p1-17, Nov 2008

[4] Walsh, Meeka, The Galvanic Twitch: Frankenstein Machines, Border Crossings, Vol. 26 Issue 1, p12-14, Mar 2007

[5] Jobs, Steve, Apple iPad Launch, San Francisco, Jan 2010

[6] Skynet is the artificially intelligent system which turns on human kind in the  Terminator film franchise: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skynet_(Terminator)

[7] Walsh, Meeka, Ibid

One thought on “Portal – Rachel Feery at BUS

  1. Pingback: portal | rachel feery

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