LONDON — Karaoke sessions, which might usually take place in a black box, are now underway in a white cube. Mic, amp, and monitor are all visible through the glass frontage of tech-loving gallery Carroll/Fletcher. It doesn’t take long to work out that all lyrics are culled from those emails we browse from time to time in our spam folders. They are difficult to sing, but at least two passersby have already loosened their tonsils and performed for the London space.
Most visitors are content to stand back and LOL. Removed from their context and posing no further threat to our bank details, these elaborate propositions are indeed amusing in their unlikelihood. One purports to be from the wife of Colonel Gaddafi; one purports to be from an Iraqi treasure hunter. They are mad, in the way the web is mad and out of control.
And yet Thomson & Craighead do their best to reassure us. The music would not be out of place in a soporific mall, and the visuals placate us with sunsets, waves, and snowy peaks. It all invites us to lend our voice. Just as Coke once hoped to teach the world to sing, now a perfect storm of late capitalism, digital technology and perpetual war on terror has found its interactive songbook.
So you cannot avoid the mic. In the digital age (which makes sleepless content producers of us all) it is a metonym for our relation to the web. It is also key to this show, which edits and curates that medium. Be careful, it says, or you will end up in on display as well. Just take the wall-to-wall posting of anonymous tweets, harvested within a one mile radius of the gallery. Thomson & Craighead don’t care if you sound dumb, rude, or banal. We most of us are in the public realm — on the mic — all the time.
The clacking sound of a train departure board draws you on. This readymade sculpture is primed with software that picks up live Google searches. While this visitor waited, as if for several trains, the search engine took requests for a “free humanities study guide,” a “Blu-ray optical drive” and (of course) “college chicks.” Watching the letters spin round on the mechanical board was somehow compelling, each term like an ever-shifting direction of the hive mind.
The two London-based artists have been working together since 1993, when in Britain web technology was just percolating out of academia. So their career has been concurrent with the rise of a medium which has defined our epoch. And the inventor of the world wide web, arguably Tim Berners-Lee, gets his props in a portrait comprised of light and dark webcam shots from opposite ends of the earth. It reads as if this man has collapsed polarities and changed the very dimensions of the planet.
This is echoed downstairs, where a direction sign points off to “Here 24,859.” That may be the mileage needed to circumnavigate the globe, but then anyone with access to maps or satellite views on Google can cover such distances with the nudge of a mouse. Together with the “Live Portrait of Berners Lee” (which is subtitled “an Early Warning System”), the rail departure board and this sign all speak with eloquence about our shrinking world.
But if distance is not what it was, then neither is time. The supercut is a web-based trend in which existing movie or television footage is chopped up and re-edited with little regard for intended narrative sequence. It is three years since “The Clock” by Christian Marclay rocked the art world. But in 2010 T&C also made a punchy statement about time. This was a recut of 1960 film The Time Machine. So the duo have compiled every word uttered in the movie in alphabetical order.
You can watch the characters work their way through the yeses and the yous, the abouts and the absolutelys. It is crazy, glitchy and not a little absurd. But if time is another form of data, then the web itself is among other things a time machine. We have ready access to historical archives; we witness world events in simultaneous real time. We ping back and forth between alerts on our calendar and sit through the lulls in which software upgrades. Time has changed, totally.
So this show is an ample demonstration what we already knew or suspected, an elegant response to the challenges posed by the world wide web. It steps back on our behalf. But no manifesto is offered, and all faiths are undercut with vertiginous video installation Belief.
A compass on a black plinth picks out distances to Stonehenge, Easter Island, Google HQ, etc. Meanwhile a spinning globe on the facing wall zeroes in on disparate locations where we encounter speeches from a believer in the Rapture, from a Satanist, from a 2-year old Jihadi. These faiths cannot co-exist, but have been brought cheek by jowl by new media. It is no wonder wars rage. Few can resist the mic, or the webcam, or the platform.
If you don’t fancy karaoke, there’s an easier way to get involved with this intelligent show. A console controller and wall-sized projection offers you the chance to pilot a game of Space Invaders. You have defense bunkers and a laser cannon, but the gameplay is no easier for the fact that, instead of alien ships, the advancing menace is a Foucault quote about the death of the author. It is difficult to read and to shoot, and so goes our engagement with the web. But with artists like Thomson & Craighead, you don’t have to do both. They have, fortunately, read it all for you.
Thomson & Craighead: Never Odd Or Even continues at Carroll/Fletcher (56–57 Eastcastle Street, Central London, London) through July 13.