Bill Hart, Conversations in the Dark, 2013, installation detail. Photo: Bill Hart

Bill Hart: Conversations in the Dark

Rosny Barn, Hobart
7 – 30 June 2013

It is no surprise that Dark MOFO, the Hobart Musuem of Old and New’s wintertime festival of art, sound, and light, would contain artworks related to deviance. What is more surprising is that the festival opened with such a modest start. Hobart-based Bill Hart’s multimedia installation Conversations in the Dark opened on 7 June in the Rosny Barn, on Hobart’s eastern shore. Its anxious pleasures were not so much Marquis de Sade – the patron saint of the boudoir – as Jean Genet, the sweet anti-hero of immoral abjection. In the opening lines of his Thief’s Journal, Genet describes the connection between flowers and convicts as one between the strength and shame of the body and ‘‘what is most naturally precious and fragile’’. Conversations naturally aligns with this apparent paradox; its ideals, laws, and codes make way for its nocturnal seduction.

Rather than focusing on a predestined outcome, generative artwork relies on a chance input entered into a set of parameters to elicit a previously unthinkable new form. In the case of Hart’s newest multimedia installation, the chance input comes from a microphone, recording passing voices near the Rosny Barn and mixing them with other pre-programmed sets of words. Inside the Barn, two facing projections display bits of color that appear out of the darkness, nearly cohere into the 3D imagery of heads, hands, and words, and then break apart. Simultaneously, bits of speech mixed by computer-generated word families and near-sentences that echo through the barn’s stone interior. In these aural and optic shifts, waves of sentences and images form and then pass, much like the sounds and silences that make up a midnight conversation.

Hart favours generative models, but his work is equally iterative. To iterate is to build a series of operations over time. While not synonymous with skill, the iterative process is cumulative, stored in the body as well as in the mind. To the extent that it is grounded in the pleasures of haptic contact, Conversations communicates beyond most digital art. The tactile visualisations of Bill Hart’s video projections can also be found in his print productions, which layer thousands of words to create complex images. Further evidenced by his experimental approach to technology, Hart’s gestural know-how supports his philosophical investigations; the artist clearly recognises that every physical body also has a virtual dimension, an unrealised potential that may bloom incomprehensibly, like a convict, a flower, or an artwork.

Published in 1967, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects was co-created by media theorist Marshall McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore to illustrate McLuhan’s idea that the content of media, the message, is not nearly as important as the medium. The Medium is the Massage joined McLuhan’s ideas with visual patterns intended to reproduce the effects of various media on the eye. Experientially, the book mimics the now familiar feel of “surfing” disconnected images – to use a term popularised by McLuhan – in the manner of a Google search. While some scholars have maligned McLuhan for his simplistic treatment of the word “medium”, this one idea remains prescient – that the introduction of a new medium compels the body to unconsciously incorporate new habits, new modes of expression, new sensations.

In the text that accompanies Conversations, Hart emphasises the technical aspects of his project: that it is generative, the result of a series of programmed algorithms; that it unfolds in real-time, aided by four computers and other widely available hardware. Highlighting the democratic impulses of new media, he gives a further nod to the anti-proprietary ethos of Open Source software, acknowledging the previous programming efforts that made his own work possible. These idealistic salvos on behalf of the digital – that it creates new, more horizontal avenues for production, distribution, and consumption – are now the familiar tropes of new media, but in the dreams of electric minds, it remains the deviant, erotic qualities of the body that turn the best of these digital elocutions into art.

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