Smart Project Space

Between two Its

20 Mar - 02 May 2010

© Garret Phelan
At what point will common sense prevail

2010-03-20 until 2010-05-02

Between two ITs is the first solo exhibition in The Netherlands by the Irish artist Garrett Phelan (1965). Phelan, often described as the anti editor, uses a variety of media to create expansive works that submerse, decompose and entomb. His works embody a necessary and endless communication of the point at which there is an interruption, a blip in the waves of reference, a dulling of the senses, static, entropy...
Raw energy is perceptible throughout Phelan’s works, and was clearly expressed in the 2009 group exhibition Coalesce: Happenstance at SMART Project Space. Initiated by curator Paul O’Neill, the exhibition was a colourful, munificent show that sojourned 42 participating artists. Phelan occupied two gallery spaces with the work Interruptions: vast, spray-painted crude black shapes that transpired respectively on a wall and corner, usurping parts of the ceiling, obscuring the architecture and window views. The shapes radiated a haunting, strange and somewhat dark energy.
Phelan's work emanates this sort of raw energy in a literal way too. Consider exemplary works from Between two ITs, such as These Are Dead, with its heaps of batteries, acutely described by Brian Dillon in the following essay as ‘undead’. And, in the series of sculptures, Radio Tombs, he employs radios transmitting faint, random signals while buried inside concrete tomb-like sculptures. In these works, Phelan utilises a 'living' energy that would otherwise be discarded and forgotten.
Phelan's newly commissioned work, Interruption. Or between two ITs – Part 3, explores “the space between believing in and not believing” (Phelan). The work consists of a transmitter sending a signal to a large interruption with a fixed wall speaker/ sculptural form connected to a radio transistor, and emanating from this form is a voice deliberating upon the dilemma of ‘being between’. The notion of being between believing and not believing, or perhaps loosing ‘faith’ and the manifestation of new faith, is key to understanding the particular constellation of works in Between two ITs.
The nuanced handling of texts in the form of ‘regurgitated’ monologues, revelations, and seemingly true stories, as well as his interdisciplinary process, “seem to be a complex commentary upon trust: an exploration of ‘faith’ in the truth of an earnestly proposed idea, testimony or autobiography.”1 The ‘interruptions’, semi-coherent texts, obscured views and flawed attempts to bring across a message eventually add up to a body of work implying that communication doesn’t reside in the rational understanding of words or images, but perhaps rather in another realm all together.
In the following essay Brian Dillon addresses how Phelan uses radio to push the medium to “the limits of its otherness”, likely keeping in mind Marshall McLuhan’s description of the power of the radio broadcast as “a subliminal echo chamber of magical power to touch remote and forgotten chords.”2 He also addresses the confessional quality of Phelan’s work (in the broadest sense of the word), and the black in Phelan’s art as the colour of potential – all while describing the works included in this exhibition.
A voice comes to one in the dark.
In the past century or so, we have become used to hearing voices from nowhere. The technologies that foreshadowed the crowded and spectral sonic space of the twentieth century arrived in quick succession a quarter of a century earlier. With the advent of the telephone in 1876 and the phonograph the following year, geographical distances shrank and time itself seemed to contract; the prosthetic ambition to act at a distance, which might be said to motivate all technological innovation, was here expressed in a human voice that seemed above all to speak in the imperative mode, to command us to listen. (It is only a few decades, after all, since the sound of the household telephone was felt as a demand or even emergency that could not be ignored, or since the radio could still cast us into collective silence around the voice of officialdom.) But the strangeness of such speech-at-a-distance – to remind ourselves of the etymology of telephony – quickly unsettled even its inventors; in the 1890s, Thomas Edison became convinced that his phonograph could be used to contact the dead, and certain occult investigators have continued to insist on the reality of the Electronic Voice Phenomenon (by which the voices of the dead can supposedly be discerned in the static of tape recordings and radio broadcasts) first posited by Friedrich Jürgensen in the 1950s. In the course of the last century, the modernity of recording and broadcast media has been ghosted constantly by the conviction that airwaves and electricity were conduits to another, archaic realm, from which the voices of the dead reached out to us, just as imploring or implacable as the broadcast or recorded voices of power, news and the culture industry.
The several works of Garrett Phelan’s that utilise radio or recording technologies are not notably in thrall to spectres, if by that we mean the all-too-common recourse of contemporary artists to the history of occult imaginings and their attendant rituals and paraphernalia. But in common with the radio works of artists of the last century such as Antonin Artaud and Samuel Beckett, who knew that the medium could be pushed to the limits of its otherness and made to embody the violence of our coming together in language, there is something spectrally exigent or demanding about Phelan’s radio projects. Their voices arrive from elsewhere, claiming an authority or convening a community that remains enigmatic even as it apes the rituals and machinery of familiar political, even totalitarian, speech. In The Revelation of Ministration and The Revelation of Solidarity, it is Phelan’s own voice that issues these stern calls to duty, fidelity and collective responsibility: "Our survival depends on unconditional love, and unconditional service." The community of birds that is the ostensible source and audience of these utterances is at once sinister, unknowable and somehow like ourselves. The broadcast voice is here an invitation, a command and a mystery – we are unsure whether it is we who are being addressed, whether we are part of a body politic made up of voices and machines or merely its inadvertent overhearers.
It would be too crude to say that Phelan’s interest in disembodied voices and the dark volumes from which they seem to speak has its origins in straightforward biography or cultural background. And yet, faced with his complex arrangements of cables and loudspeakers, his entombed radios and stentorian commands from an invisible elsewhere, it is impossible (for this writer, at least) not to be reminded of the acoustic and visual technology of the Catholic confessional. The confessional is both a surveillance device, a medium for recording the voice of conscience, and a machine that speaks – to be more precise, an object that commands. But we need not posit such a specific cultural and historical resonance in Phelan’s radio pieces in order to broach the salient point, which is that the voice in his work is both subject and object, confessor and penitent. (We might note in passing, however, the ambiguity of the word ‘confessor’, which in common parlance denotes the one who confesses, but in the context of the sacrament describes the one who absolves; the confessional is in fact a kind of feedback system, in which both individuals must speak and listen in their turn.) The broader topic in these works has to do with a voice that importunes us from a more generalized locus of temporal and spiritual authority. In fact, it may well be a voice thatcomes from inside and outside at the same time, an imprecation or calling, a literal ‘vocation’ that wells up within at the same time that it is imposed from without.
This would be one way to hear the twenty-six voices in Phelan’s At What Point Will Common Sense Prevail – a sound/radio work that stages, in its multiplicity of languages, personae and topics, precisely the extent to which opinions belong to us and are at the same time the provenance and property of collective consciousness, media cliché and the very air (filled with competing voices) that we breathe as social and political beings. It is this generalized voice that has usurped the role of a vocal God with his ritual commands and entreaties – Phelan’s art asks what kind of faith a voice could command today, what type of community might gather around its projected or broadcast sound, what manner of response it demands from its hearers. The voice in his work is a speech that passes through us, that comes from another time and place and whose destination is unclear even while its tone is often insistent, perhaps violent.
In his late prose work Company (1979), Samuel Beckett recasts the conventional Christian scene in which a sinner is suddenly called to the good life by God, a corrective voice sounding from out of a fog of ignorance, error and unmeaning. (The classic instance is from St. Augustine’s Confessions: after a lifetime of sin, the author is surprised to be addressed by a voice that orders him to ‘take up and read’ the Bible.) Beckett writes: "A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine. To one on his back in the dark." This voice is everywhere in Beckett’s writings, starting up out of the gloom to frighten, anger or bore his protagonists; it is no longer the divine voice but the sound of consciousness speaking endlessly to itself, and to no end. The problem of the voice in Beckett is not one of interpretation, but rather endurance; the voice simply will not be quiet. Nor is the dark from which it speaks merely the negative void of traditional theology or philosophy: the emptiness that must be filled with the voice and the light of the divine. Darkness in Beckett is always actually a kind of half-light, in which bodies and things persist despite themselves; the comfort of a pure void is always denied.
How to read the dark in Garrett Phelan’s work? At times it seems aggressively melancholic, the spray-painted expanses in an installation such as Interruption. Or between two ITs – Part 3. looking like malign emanations of the monolithic ‘tombs’ over which they hover. Elsewhere, the technology and sculptural forms are likewise monochrome, the bird drawings relentlessly uniform in their palette. But black in Phelan’s art is really the colour of potential, if not actually of hope or faith. This is nowhere more evident than in his Photodrawings, in which black-and-white photographs are menaced, maimed or almost entirely obscured by expanses of black pigment. Avast rectangular void descends over a flock of alighting birds; a few laurel leaves are just visible through a hole in the surrounding gloom; a pair of feet descends from the blackness above what might be a beach. In fact, this last image is a clue to the way darkness is put to use in these pictures: it is unclear if we are looking at a leap into or out of the void. (There is a passing resemblance to the motif of Christ’s ascension; indeed, an anonymous fifteenth-century emblem depicts Jesus’ legs somewhat comically dangling from a blank cloud in the same fashion.) Black here denotes not an absence that is plainly opposed to the presence of the image, but instead an ambiguous space into which we might project faith or hope.
That is not to say that there is not a certain malevolence in the dead spaces that, defunct artefacts and stark slogans that Phelan deploys. The photographs and sculptures that go by the title These Are Dead are instructive here; dead batteries are laid bare like animal or bird corpses, leaking their poisons (in the photographs) into the artist’s hands or marking out (in the sculptures) a ritual space whose force seems to have absconded. The batteries, however, are only apparently relics of a departed life, for the weird efflorescence of their rotting attests to the fact that energy has not passed away but been converted into a new chemical strangeness. The batteries are not dead but undead: they have attained a state of being-between that is analogous to the potentialized black of the Photodrawings. Like the radio tombs, they are ‘black boxes’ in two senses of that phrase: repositories or archives of energy and knowledge (as in the case of a downed flight recorder) and enigmatic spaces of communication whose inner workings remain occulted. This is the sense of a ‘black box’ in science and engineering: we know what goes into it and what comes out, but the interior process is invisible – the device demands an unscientific faith in what we cannot see.
Among the most obviously energized of Phelan’s works is the 2002 film Racer, in which a Martello tower – part of the defensive network built by the British military on the Irish coast (and elsewhere) during and after the Napoleonic Wars – is made to spin on a kaleidoscopically shifting axis by means of a specially designed camera housing. The tower is another sort of black box: a fortification that was also just one element in a vast communicational or signalling structure, a solid and monolithic object whose real function was to some degree abstract and invisible, thus also a precursor of the radio technology that would eventually usurp it. Racer sets that technology literally in motion again, reactivating the energy of the monument, but this time to absurd and mysterious purposes: the tower spins gratuitously, becoming an emblem of urgent expenditure and eventual entropy.In short, Phelan’s is an art of sometimes exorbitant force, expressed or channelled to enigmatic ends. His work seems to demand (like the bird messengers, bruiting their decrees or ‘revelations’ through antique microphones like preachers or dictators) commitment, solidarity or belief, at the same time as it repels the spectator with the starkness or emptiness of its graphic address. In fact, what exercises Phelan is consistently the condition of being between faith and scepticism, between community and isolation, energy and entropy. A voice addresses us from out of the darkness of his art, but we are as yet unsure whether it issues an order or an invitation.

Tags: Antonin Artaud, Brian Dillon, Garrett Phelan