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September 23, 2013 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Three Machines

Past

Towards the end of his life, Guglielmo Marconi, one of the pioneers of longwave radio, began to believe that sound lived forever. He believed that sound waves, after their initial transmission, lingered on, and it would be possible to hear them if humans could build a radio receiver that was powerful enough. The idea was spawned in between a series of heart attacks—as such, it may have been the product of forced meditation on mortality or Marconi’s fear of death, but it was not as ridiculous as it might seem.

Marconi, after facing obvious widespread scepticism, was responsible for the first transatlantic radio transmission. His equipment was on board the Titanic when it sank, and distress calls were picked up by nearby ships, who managed to rescue over 700 survivors. One particular Russian sailor picked up the sound more than an hour and a half after it was sent.

It was most likely an atmospheric anomaly.

Present

The first work Karen Green exhibited after her husband’s suicide was a forgiveness machine. A seven-foot-long contraption of plastic and metal, viewers were encouraged to write down what they wished to forgive, or be forgiven for, and place it in the machine. Their words would be sucked in and appear at the other end, shredded. For all of its investment in release—first in providing transgression with a physicality, authenticating it by putting it into words, and then by allowing the viewer to witness their destruction—Green told The Guardian in 2011 that the machine made people anxious. “It was like: what if it works and I really have to forgive my terrible parent or whoever?”

Karen Green never used the machine.

In 2013, Siglio Press published Bough Down, a book of collages and prose poems by Green. The poems are at times angry, at times confused, at times guilty, but in their sober treatment of the aftermath of her husband’s death, they refuse to acknowledge that the event wasn’t foreshadowed. She details with bluntness and reluctant tenderness the minutiae of living with sickness. In the five years since his death, she has become aware of her public role as a widow, a costume that seems fixed for now, for she is always introduced in articles about her work as his wife first, artist second. And since he is more famous than her and since we can’t help fetishising mental illness, she is aware, though she resents, his apotheosis to the realm of the troubled artist. He shall forever sit alongside Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf and Kurt Cobain, and he probably would have hated that.

Bough Down is less a belated entry to the Forgiveness Machine, than a document of resistance to the cult of her husband.

Future

In 2012, painter Simon Ingram fulfilled Guglielmo Marconi’s prophecy, in a roundabout way. Or not at all (this is a very laboured connection, but I have a word count to meet). For an exhibition at Adam Art Gallery, he constructed a machine that would interpret radio waves and instruct the machine to apply paint to particular part of a canvas. Not a permanent record of what was heard, but a record that something was heard (or not heard) at some point. By the end of the exhibition, the artwork was a monochromatic square; every inch was covered in paint. The conclusion of Ingram’s piece touches on one of the impracticalities of Marconi’s theory, for to hear everything at once would render everything indecipherable.

It would be arrogant to attempt to draw an arbitrary connection between Green’s machine and Ingram’s, so I’ll do just that. Ian Cheng, in the June 2013 issue of frieze magazine, calls narrative a “technology for normalizing change, for cohering the experience of reality”. Neither machine attempts to draw a narrative as an attempt to negotiate experience; rather, they all seem to do the opposite, but in doing so they highlight the human necessity to invent ways of coming to terms with the world around us. Where Marconi’s hopes for a repetition of experience offer the chance to meditate on it, Green destroys as a means of reconciling. Ingram takes the creation of an object to the extreme, pushing the limitations of representation and interpretation, attempting to record so much that his work is lost in a profusion of experience. This is the future.

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