Concordia University’s new institute examines effects of digital technology
In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.
Contemporary art talk is saturated with the language of research. The artist’s statement, as a genre of art writing, has become heavily oriented toward identifying whatever issues the work is supposed to investigate.
Not surprisingly, some of this artful inquiry is going on in places explicitly dedicated to research. One such is the Milieux Institute for Art, Culture and Technology, which recently opened at Montreal’s Concordia University.
Milieux gathers some 260 artists, engineers, social-science types and humanities scholars into seven thematic research clusters, all touching on the effects of digital technologies on culture and creation. The aim is to spark creative dissonance through what one cluster co-director calls “a mangling of methodologies.”
Case in point: a phalanx of hanging robotic exoskeletons that have just arrived at Milieux after a year-long tour of galleries and festivals in Europe. Visitors strapped into these gizmos were compelled by the computerized machinery to move their arms in ways outside their control. It took robotic engineering to build the devices, but perhaps only artists – electronics arts professor Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers – would think of transferring control to the robots. The project was inspired by the punitive compulsions forced on the bodies of sinners in Dante’s Inferno.
In rooms occupied by Milieux’s Textiles and Materiality cluster, a dress ornamented with a badge-like device made from silver thread links smart textile design to emblems from a 14th-century embroidered belt at the British Museum. Studio arts professor Barbara Layne’s collaborators include dress designer Lauren Osmond and electrical engineer Tahseen Mustafa, who had to figure out how to make the pictorial silver badges function as antennae.
Another wired-garment project, based on illustrations from James Clerk Maxwell’s pioneering research into electromagnetism, will be shown at the next Subtle Technologies festival in Toronto in May. One goal of the projects is to develop a textile antenna strong enough to communicate via satellite.
A project in Milieux’s “speculative life lab,” which is set up for bio-tech work, takes off from a centuries-old practice of binding books in human skin, an 1880s example of which was uncovered at a Harvard library two years ago. Media artist and communication studies professor Tagny Duff grew her human binding material in the lab, staining and seeding it with viral agents to produce images of HIV on the covers. These disturbing memento mori, for which Duff and her collaborators designed a Victorian-looking cryonic cabinet, have been exhibited at galleries in Ireland and France.
The large quarters of the Post Image Research cluster houses a group project that explores ways in which landscape photography can give visible shape to displacement and memory. Another is focused on images “that create fictions from things that still have a documentary aspect,” says cluster co-director Raymonde April, who was on the longlist for this year’s Scotiabank Photography Prize. Like almost everything at Milieux, these are collaborative efforts, not the work of artists toiling alone.