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  • Jo Clement

Review: Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt: III

In the late Sixties, Time magazine conducted a survey of luminal art. It compared psychedelic multimedia group USCO's use of stroboscopic light to a howl of guitar feedback, calling it "the visual equivalent of the electronic scream at the end of the Beatle’s record ‘Penny Lane.’” Strobe lighting, projection and music have an enduring connection to 'the trip' as a sensual experience. We see because light travels in a straight line and bounces from an object, entering our eyes. Strobes machinate the way we receive light, contriving our perception and generating ruminative trance-like states or paroxysm. An electronic scream, then, is a useful way to consider the use of strobes in art installations and their potential to manipulate vision and force upon the eye a sublime dilatory sense of slow motion.


Back Dive, 1964,

by Harold Edgerton.


Developed by Harold Edgerton, the first strobes were used to take scientific photographs. This pinwheel shot, above, captures Burt West diving backwards in less than half a second. Around the same time these photos were taken, USCO's strobe installs began appearing in American venues alongside Andy Warhol's hip audio-visual adventure with Nico, Electric Circus. USCO co-founder Gerd Stern said of his own work: "they were meditation images, some of them of Shiva Shakti, others simply of geometric images that seemed to move with the strobes and the pulsing lights and the various audio inputs that were in there. We had a little isolation room behind 'The Tabernacle' where if you were on a bad trip or you needed some help, you could stay for a week at a time." Combined with smoke and music, strobe enhanced the effects of LSD. Edgerton wasn't interested in this but still donated the group his strongest strobes, advising Stern: "This strobe is puny. Next time you have a performance, I'll lend you a real strobe."


A real strobe. "Everything is so beautiful and lovely and alive."


The relationship between luminal art-sound installations and its corporeal influence continued. 'Zee,' a 2013 installation in Pennsylvania by Kurt Hentschlager required participants to sign a waiver before entering the disorientating space. It was  pumped full of fog, light and sound. One visitor was hospitalised suffering 'seizure-like symptoms'. Even without entheogens, strobe light can induce physical manifestations causing the brain to misfire, abnormal activity forcing the mind to trip or the body to convulse, as in the grand-mal seizure of epilepsy. Such incidents led to 'Zee' being temporarily closed down by police. But sensational headlines about a minority of experiences aside, visitors said of the work: "you don't even know where you are, you lose your sense of space, time and motion." "It did feel a bit like death. If you don't have a body, is this what your existence is like?"


With these ideas in mind, we come to the final segment of a trio of installations by Gareth Hudson, 'Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt'. In Newcastle's Globe Gallery, the black edges of scrupulously positioned panels are barely visible in the pitch black space. Jumping from panel to panel, light appears projected on screens in minute, scientific detail, blips of static cellular activity emerge and then disappear into themselves, forming tunnels, black holes. As with Edgerton's 'Back Dive', blink and you'll miss the first human figure as it flickers in strobe, upon the five panel screen. Return for a second viewing and you may just catch the flash of hands groping upward beside it.


Still from 'Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt: III'


The visual piece gathers momentum in synthesis with sound by Newcastle-based electroacoustic composer Phil Begg. His piece (dis)places us aurally within the colossally dark and far flung visual dimension we are presented with, an ambient reverberation achieved through sparks of minimalist burrowing. Mining through the sparse, unlit room, sound beats as gently as moth wings and the audience, moth-like glare back at the beams of light it arrives with, as if it were a tempting hot light bulb in the night. Sight and sound in combination assaults the senses, aggressive enough to be a distant slug of ammo but softly cushioned, like the pop of hymalayan balsam pods or the half-heard knock on the door as your head is under warm bath water. The experience is contemplative and demands attention.

Still from 'Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt: III'


This aphotic world intimates the electric scintillation of our greatest human marvel, the brain, achieved through representations of electroencephalography, scans which reveal its inner workings upon shutting down, known as brain death. Panels are lit by patterns of this departing activity in the form of agitations of light. Between spikes and shafts of lightning, these constellations frame a materializing body as it descends, hovering before us in rapid bursts. Beside flailing arms and distorted poses, these dissolving white light forms are loaded with meaning. They are search lights, beamed from torches or lighthouses, a doctor's torch probing for a pupil's refraction. They are nuclear, nebular. Dangerous and consoling, the lights are bound by proportion. As with the previous Hudson-Begg collaboration in this series, whether viewers see micro worlds of bio luminescence or the universal macro of supermassive suns, or both, scale is paramount. Sound supports this negotiation between the diminutive and the phenomenal, the glitchy and the well-oiled, beating with the pulse of the failing heart muscle, the punch of CPR, a shock of paddles or the doldrumming of a flat line.


Still from 'Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt: III'


Almost held by the threads of long exposure light trails, Hudson's falling figure brought to mind Edgerton's diver, the halo of shadow-lights formed around and trailing from the body. It was also reminiscent of the watercolour and graphite divers series of Alexander Massouras, whom I write about with many parallels here. Both show figures descending into a hollow void. While Massouras freeze frames his willingly plunging bodies, snapped lycra-clad in composed and elegant diving positions, Hudson's figures seem for the most part torpid, reluctant and unprepared. They are clothed, buffeted and agitated by the air they fight to fall through, somehow conscious. A moment takes an eternity. Their destination, unknown. 


Still from 'Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt: III'


Are these bodies falling or flying? Do they inhabit the accelerating gulf between reality and the unexplored? The fine line between euphoria and fright are as much recurring themes in accounts of LSD trips as the sensations predominate in those accounts documenting near death experiences. Whether entheogen inspired or a denouement of the brain upon impending death, individuals often expound a sensual experience, making mention of flashes of light or a preoccupation with real or imagined states of hyper awareness, including intense physicality or out of body experiences. Hudson depicts these states of consciousness as a cerebral struggle made physical, where feet fight and hands clutch at the dark. We know so little about death, save its inevitability. We might then, think of Einstein's claim "as our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it". For this installation, it is probing darkness posing questions, questions which dominate the full 25 minute run and demand to be watched again.


It is interesting to consider those accounts of near death experiences and LSD trips both make note of strange shifts in time, perceived to speed up or slow down. Hudson prefigures this distortion by the use of strobe to illuminate the movement of the body in flashes. Strobe is taken from the Greek strobos meaning 'a twisting, act of whirling' and Begg's sound sustains and adds to these delicately suspended figures, whose aerial silk contortions gesture at the frail marvel of life, hung as we are upon its fateful strings. Impelling and orchestral, his immersive sound whirls too, accompanying the falling figures with the enduring strokes of a string quartet.  In line with another Greek origin of strobe, meaning 'to wind, or turn', the sound turns too, as we see the figures suspended upon strains of an aria in the bleak obsidian dark. Both fade away into an oblivion, void of sound and sight. As with Massouras, the standout sensation here is stasis, a snapshot of experience before an inevitable end. The diver leaps into a pool. A trip carries you up to the ceiling. What comes up, must come down. The body dies. But what happens after our ultimate trip, death? Hudson resists resolution. Expressed in an oceanic spill of white noise, biological sounds turn synthetic, suggesting a nearing of consciousness poised upon the vacant. An electronic scream.


As when waking from a blackout, the viewer is left to unpick and reassemble the remnants of this experience, to wonder where the energy might go and what happens to the light. 

Visitor Number: 2621387

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