Let’s go back to 1959: at the opening of Yves Klein’s exhibition “Le Vide” (“The Void”) in Paris, the famous brasserie “La Coupole” specifically prepared special blue cocktails for that occasion that were served to all visitors. It was a special mixture of gin, Cointreau and methylene blue, which made the pee of those who drank it turn into blue for about one week (the time period of Klein’s exhibition).
Since in 1959 methylene blue had been declared to be harmful to health or even toxic, depending on the amount of its consumption; its use for staining food was consequently forbidden, though not for medical treatment and research. In January 2012 the Arts Catalyst in London invited to an event that was part of a series called “Trust Me I’m an Artist: Towards an Ethics of Art/Science Collaboration”, started by the artist Anna Dumitriu. For that occasion the artist Neal White had proposed “to re-create the event as an experiment to establish which is the safest, or the least toxic dosage of methylene blue in an alcoholic cocktail required to turn urine into blue, if only for a limited time lapse. The effect of this will be monitored, and the dosage will be controlled during the trial.” After the consultation of a science ethics committee composed of top-class scientist, ethicists, philosophers and art professionals, the public was asked to decide (after having read a sheet with pieces of medical information) whether to consume the artwork which contained methylene blue, or to leave it intact and take it home as they had received it (i.e., as a pill and the sheet with pieces of information).
The visitors of “SIN”, Mario de Vega’s first solo exhibition (*1979, Mexico City) which opened on June 20th at the Laboratorio Arte Alameda in Mexico City, had to confront themselves with a similar situation and similar questions. Instead of just paying the ticket at the entrance, the visitor was requested to first read a sheet with pieces of information on the installations in that exhibition, in order to then sign a declaration of having read and understood the text, of not having recently undergone a surgery operation, as well as of not suffering health problems or upset such as high blood pressure, heart problems, general hypersensitivity, panic attacks, or epilepsy.
Sonority is the medium and the starting point of Mario de Vega’s artistic work and research – also in the site-specific installations that have been specifically developed for that exhibition curated by Carsten Seiffarth (1963, Berlin). But even though sound is the main medium, in de Vega’s work it’s only necessary to approach superordinate questions: he uses it as a tool to first confront and later materialize issues and topics which sometimes are deeply philosophical and located on a different level than that of the simple exploration of the medium. Through his research and subsequent presentation of the work, he asks the public to approach and try to ask those questions.
“SIN” (in Spanish meaning “without”, in Latin “if” or ”but”) is the result of more than two years of intense research on infrasound and connected phenomena. Those topics are part of the de Vega’s general artistic focus, which is the reflection on a documentation of sound events, perception, vulnerability, reality and its dislocation. He always connects and thematizes those issues with and through subtle and, at the same time, provocative questions, by making references to contemporary power structures, their malpractice and thereby also the position of the individual within the social fabric in an overpopulated world led by consumerism and spectacles.
Also in the latest exhibition de Vega links and combines a number of different dimensions of reflection: the historical, ethical, cultural- and socio-political ones.
The entrance of the Laboratorio Arte Alameda, a former convent church which was turned into a museum for contemporary art and which had been the main site of the Spanish inquisition between 1571 and 1820, leads the visitor into the front yard where a big church bell (without its clapper) designed by the artist himself is being presented on a low pedestal.
This object, a 550 kg bronze-casting on which the inscription “vivos voco, mortuos plango, fulgura frango” was engraved (Latin for “I call the living, I bewail the dead, I diffract the lightings”), was initially only meant to be a reference to the missing bell in the church’s belfry, and thus as a link between the exhibition and the historic background of its site. It was supposed to be a never sounding memorial and, after the exhibition closing, to be buried in a hole dug in the front yard of the museum – thereby having its grave presumably in the midst of the remains of those who were condemned and cruelly died during the Inquisition.
But instead of only representing a reference to the historical political situation and dark sides of Mexico’s history, over the period of the exhibition’s preparations this bell has also become a kind of memorial and critique of the artist on the latest deficiencies of Mexico’s cultural politics and use of federal money. Since it’s an institution under both the Instituto National de Bellas Artes (INBA – National Institute for Fine Arts) and the Instituto National de Antropología y Historia (INAH – National Institute for Anthropology and History), the exhibitions at the Laboratorio Arte Alameda have to be approved by both authorities, which in the case of the bell led to a significant power play and contradiction between the institutions: although the whole exhibition project had been given the go-ahead by the INBA, the INAH denied its consent to the originally planned casting and later burial of the bell in the museums front yard in the aftermath – officially for reasons of nature and environment protection.
The contrast to INBA’s permission and acceptance of all other installations through their division for civil safety and security without any restrictions is remarkable:
Already prior to entering the museum’s grounds, the first precursors of de Vega’s sound installation sited in the church’s main nave can be perceived. Almost unnoticeable on the street, a deep hum can be first rather felt than heard, but gets lauder and more pervasive on the way through the front yard until it finally completely envelops the visitors when they enter the museum – where there is literally nothing to see. Even the separating glass walls which divided the entrance area and the main nave of the building have then been removed on the artist’s disposition, in order to eliminate any visual lead, clue, or interfering factor. Now, when you enter the building, you will have a free view on the empty hall in its original state.
As the eyes don’t find anything to hold on to, the perception of the sound installation with all other senses – not only through the hearing, but with the whole body – is much stronger. A huge analog system, specifically developed by de Vega for that installation, emanates sounds. It is positioned on the main nave’s gallery and thus invisible for the visitors’ eyes, but not for their senses and bodies which have to confront themselves with the room’s natural frequency of 38 Hz, amplified through 16 speakers. The acoustic wave generated on the gallery moves in a loop (and thus as a kind of perpetuum mobile) through the church’s main nave, thereby causing the structure of the whole building to oscillate and audibly vibrate.
Depending on where one stands or walks, the personal perception changes and seems to literally take one’s breath away. With 38 Hz the frequency is located at the margin of what human beings are able to perceive – at least with the hearing (the frequency range that is audible for humans lies between 20 Hz and 20 kHz). The rest of human organism not only perceives the oscillations, but even reacts, more or less strongly, to it, depending on the particular sensitivity. Almost every visitors who exposed themselves to the acoustic irradiation and to the physical force of that sound installation for a longer period seemed to at least remark a slight malaise – right up to nausea and dizziness.
In a room located laterally to the main nave another large-scale sound installation is being presented: here the visitors find themselves in front of a specifically developed analog sound system with 22 speakers that have been integrated into a concrete wall and that amplify the harmonic scale of 17 Hz. Apart from the already mentioned effects and consequences such as malaise, nausea, and dizziness, infrasound waves in the frequency range below 20 Hz can even result in temporary mind-altering visual hallucinations.
With both those installations de Vega powerfully presents the result of his research on the limits of human perception and confronts the visitors with his reflections on human being, our anthropocentric worldview, our position within this overpopulated world, and its perceptible and imperceptible phenomena.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, human perception is “(…) the process whereby sensory stimulation is translated into organized experience. That experience, or percept, is the joint product of the stimulation and of the process itself.”[i]
In the everyday examination and analysis of our world, our five senses collect an enormous amount of details. Those pieces of information constitute the basis for the model of reality that our brain constructs. In that process human brain is constraint by certain limits regarding the processing of such huge amounts of information that are being communicated by the senses, though, and the sense organs of every human being have different strengths and weaknesses. The processing of information occurs mainly subconsciously so that our consciousness can concentrate on those bits and pieces of information that are most relevant in that very moment. Our perception of the world surrounding us is thus filtered by what our brain considers as relevant, as well as by the individual disposition of one’s sense organs. Those filters evolved as part of human evolution as a means to protect us from sensory overload and a consequent complete inability to act: their purpose therefore is to divide the pieces of information we get through our senses in a way that irrelevant details are blocked out, which allows us to concentrate on the relevant parts. Infra- and ultrasound but also UV- and infrared light are part of human perception’s cull.
Day by day we are surrounded by infrasound. Waves of low frequency can be caused by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, but also through extreme weather conditions or even heavy swell. At the present day we are able to adopt and take advantage of certain physical phenomena though our technologies, i.e., through their manipulation and amplification, which over the years led to a massive use of specific frequency ranges and literally “polluted” them. Being exposed to those frequencies over a long period of time or to a very high degree can cause harm to human organism, as it can be the case for example when living in houses located close to wind farms, where the big wind turbines can be sources of infrasound waves. Here, instead of working as a protective mechanism, the filters that prevent us from perceiving the excessive exposure to infrasound, now also prevent us from having the natural reaction of escaping a harmful influence.
Success and euphoria when playing with manipulation of nature – be this physical, chemical, or biological systems – as well as our sacrosanct anthropocentric world view and related conceptions have always seduced us to overstate the case, without really being able to estimate and foresee the consequences. So what does this tell us about the almost endlessly increasing use and amplification of acoustic and electromagnetic waves?
Sometimes we need extremes to be able to see and understand certain correlations. The excessive amplification of sound frequencies in de Vega’s installations has led to impressive effects on visitors’ physique and organism since the very first day: microscopic ruptures in the eye’s outmost corneal layer, sudden irritations and redness of parts of the skin, uncontrollable trembling of the whole body – to list only some of the symptoms. According to the artist the emails he received from visitors telling about their experiences were never accusatory but rather written with a sensation of astonishment and even awe – and often ended with a thank-you.
Independently from a person’s purely physical disposition regarding the ability to filter and process the pieces of information coming from the senses, our perception is also conditioned and trained through the culture in which we grow up and live. Learned values form our cognition as cultural systems teach our consciousness to distinguish between those parts of information that are significant and those that are not. In this way our perception interlinks with our memories over time. Language is part if these cultural systems. The discipline of “Linguistic relativity” researches on the extent to which language not only influences and determines our conceptions of reality perception, but also might change it directly. The constant flux of impressions and pieces of information needs to be organized by our brains that take our linguistic system and the way it formed our way of thinking and interpreting things as a reference and orientation. So, can there be a 100% true access to reality, an undiluted and unfiltered perception? What is reality anyway?
In SIN language plays at least an indirect role. It is not so much about what is being said or communicated, but much rather about how this happens and about what is NOT being said. The way we give or withhold pieces of information strongly influences our perception: depending on the way and extent of conveyance, information can lead us or prompt certain semantic interpretations; at the same time restraint of information is a primary and potent means to impose force.
A handout, or rather the requirement to sign a declaration to take over the responsibility for eventual consequences of the visit, no obvious warning labels, barriers, or other precautionary measures – are the installations really that dangerous then? And does my body really react on the waves of low frequency, or only as a result of being alarmed by the handout and signing of the declaration? Did I get too much information or too little..? In any case enough to be able to decide to rather not be exposed to all this. The artist himself says he does not want to stay in the exhibition – he even advises against the visit of it.
De Vega’s approach is almost maieutic: the way he thematizes in his installations the questions and issues that have been guiding and driving his artistic research over the past years could be called “productive destabilization”. By means of his works he is asking questions, through which the visitors can come to realize fundamental things that till then they only knew subconsciously – if they are willing to get themselves into those reflections.
But de Vega’s work is also all about confrontation. Those who decide to start a dialogue with these installations need to accept to get involved with extremes – both conceptually and physically. Through the direct encounter between one’s own body and the almost perverse translation of acoustic and electromagnetic waves into pure physical force (combined with the psychological game of creating ambiguity between imposition of power and freedom of autonomous, reflective decision-making and action) he gives us the opportunity to redefine what we thought was “perception” and to put it into a new perspective. Through productively destabilizing certainties, de Vega invites the visitor to ponder critically and to face up to what he experiences in this encounter and what this could mean.
The former church’s chapel, the Capilla de Animas, is site of another site-specific installation again. Standing at the entrance the visitor can see a mural on the wall at the opposite end of the chapel that had been uncovered only recently. Right after the two steps leading to the chapel a fence made of horizontally strained, voltage-carrying wires makes it impossible to have a closer look at the mural, though. Only a line of colored adhesive tape on the floor gives a warning to better keep distance in order to avoid an electric shock – which for a normal person would not be deadly but rather a bit painful, similar to when touching a pasture fence. At stake is again the subtle game between power and submission. De Vega challenges the visitor to believe that this fence is really carrying electric charge and that therefore he should better not touch it – only a rhythmic clicking seems to provide evidence for it, as the electromagnetic waves emanating from the fence are located within the frequency range of for the human ear not audible ultrasound.
Undoubtedly and noticeably dangerous however is the electrical potential of the big light installation in the room dividing the two sound installations. Comprised of 30 modified industrial bulbs of which the outer glass bulb had been removed, the installation of 12000 watts in total and the exposed filaments emanate not only heat and an almost mystical green and blindingly bright light, but also an awkward chemical smell that fills the room. The only precautionary measure to prevent people from intentionally or accidentally touching the exposed wires, which would kill them instantly, is again a line of adhesive tape on the floor, asking the visitors quietly to keep enough distance.
Similar to Neal White, also de Vega confronts the visitors with their limits of taking autonomous decisions as well as of their perception by inviting them to interact with the single works both intellectually and with their whole bodies, to expose themselves to the effects and to face up to the questions that come up during this process and experience. At the same time he also openly challenges the integrity and the decision-making process of public institutions, so-called commissions of experts, and the perception of their authority and expertise.
How is it possible that within the frame of the same exhibition the project that would add cultural and material value not only to the museum in particular, but rather to INBA and INAH as the superior institutions and therefore to the cultural assets of Mexico in general, is rejected for reasons of environmental protection? And the installations that could be harmful and even deadly for the visitors were approved without objections and without imposing rigorous safety measures on the museum’s direction?
Why are extremely big amounts of electricity consumption evaluated as less harmful for the environment and nature than the casting and burial of a bell in the museum’s courtyard? And what does this say about the reasonable use of federal money for cultural projects? Taking “SIN” as a reference – can we really assume expertise, responsibility and comprehension for the entities that are competent to decide on submitted projects and their cultural, political, and ethical value..?
Prendendo SIN come riferimento – possiamo davvero assumere competenza, responsabilità e comprensione per le entità che sono competenti di decidere su progetti presentati e il loro valore culturale, politico ed etico ..?
[ii] – http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/451015/perception (traduzione dell’autore)