While Years and Years taps into the hugely popular speculative fiction genre, imagining how things might change in the next couple of decades, Feedback Loops seems to have drawn that exciting but terrifying future into the present.
‘‘Technology has facilitated who and what you can be,’’ says curator Miriam Kelly. ‘‘If you are thinking about an alternative world, you think about who you might be in that world. And while there are a lot of controversial and problematic things about technology, it has become a fundamental space for finding community and for being strongly connected and creative.’’
Rahal does this by building a personal mythology comprising sculptural forms and digital-based ‘‘relics of the future’’ – absurd animalistic forms that appear to be autonomous. ‘‘What I have found with a lot of his work is the chaos of the streets and found objects are distilled and created in a new way in the gallery space,’’ Kelly says. ‘‘Every time he makes new sculptural work, he bases it on location, speaking to the narratives of what people are using and discarding.’’
When Rahal arrived in Melbourne for his residency and to start creating work for the exhibition, he and Kelly went on a scouting mission. Ever since art school in India, his approach has been to recycle as many materials as possible, and to use other people’s throwaways – detritus that is especially interesting among art students.
‘‘I pick up objects – there is a lot of skip-diving – and I go to places where I can easily find materials,’’ Rahal says. While on a residency in Vancouver, where there is a big television industry, he found ample offcuts of sets and sci-fi costumes, which he turned into outfits, conch shells and crowns, among other things. At Monash, he arrived just before the annual graduate show, when students clean out their studios to show work – a boon for Rahal, who did a raid on the skips.
He found troves of rejected constructions that have gone on to form the basis of the armatures for sculptures that will receive expandable foam skins. In the ACCA spaces, he will wear these sculptures, echoing the artificial intelligence programs he has designed.
When Rahal opens his laptop to display some of this cyberspace work, an extraordinary world appears – an alien landscape with a peculiar shard-like entity striding about, apparently without aim or cause. But this creature, it is soon revealed, responds to external stimuli – our voices, in particular. Not only does volume and pitch cause it to shudder and move, but the speed at which Rahal speaks determines the flow of time in the program.
He describes this being as a ‘‘quasi-sentient musical instrument’’ that is also capable of creating music by itself. He references Indian raags, the melodic frameworks used in classical Indian music, and various Hindu deities and demons that are also used in formulating this work.
Kelly describes Rahal’s work as exploring the transition of our species into machine form not as a negative outcome but as a natural progression in a Darwinian sense. ‘‘Sahej is very interested in ‘worlding’ in a science-fiction sense,’’ she says. ‘‘He is very considered about what it takes to build a world – what do the environments and characters look like, what is the narrative?’’
Likewise, Feedback Loops presents a mix of performance-based work and a galaxy of digitally inspired worlds. Kelly says these are populated by characters and conceptualisations that seem to be both real and fictive – and the aesthetics of the internet are strongly at work.
The six artists, she says, have an everyday approach to new media and computational thinking, from gaming software and CGI to the ripping and rehashing of internet content. But this melds very easily – as demonstrated by Rahal – with live performance and the ‘‘materiality’’ of sculpture, textiles, drawing and painting. At the heart of it is the idea of the ‘‘feedback loop’’, which Kelly describes as evoking time, knowledge and culture as ‘‘cyclical and generative’’.
Audiences will navigate the work in a loop through the gallery and discover everything from Canadian Zadie Xa’s explorations of Korean shamanism and the supernatural via video, costumes and mask, to the gaming worlds of China’s ‘‘enfant terrible’’ Lu Yang, who describes herself as ‘‘living on the internet’’. Other artists include Tianzhuo Chen (China) and Australians Madison Bycroft and Justin Shoulder.
Kelly says these artists were chosen from a long list, but essentially she was interested in a generation born on the cusp of ‘‘digital nativity’’ who are influenced by the ethics and aesthetics of the internet.
‘‘I found this really beautiful intersection between the artists working with ideas about alternative worlds and speculative fictions, but also being really immersed in technology and what we would once have called ‘new media’,’’ Kelly says. ‘‘But for these artists, born in the 1980s, ‘new media’ is just another tool. It all becomes layered – with painting, sculpture, installation and textiles alongside gaming, AI, CGI and so on.
‘‘These things were seen as radical in the 1990s when these speculative fiction/futures developed. They used to be dystopian and apocalyptic, but now it is far more nuanced with a more alternative way of thinking that is not so didactic.’’
Feedback Loops is at ACCA, December 7 – March 22. acca.melbourne