Bec Dean, 2004 - Laserwrap
Essay from Catalogue: Metis – A Festival of Science and Art - Australian Capital Territory
It’s impossible to disassociate the laser from its roots in popular culture (i.e. Hollywood). Long before its uses in science and industry were fully explored, the laser has been a multi-purpose mainstay in all manner of sci-fi and espionage film, providing everything from hi-tech security to ray guns (light-sabers even), to weapons of mass destruction, to almost depriving Sean Connery and Roger Moore of their respective manhoods, again. As a future-signifier the laser has also been misappropriated lavishly as an agent for “computerising” objects in the real world. Who can forget Jeff Bridges’ maverick programmer Flynn being discovered, scanned by laserbeam, and then artfully sucked (carbon-based life form and all) as pure data into the mainframe of a corporate computer by its sinister master control program? OK, it was TRON (1982). Bad dialogue, but the lights were real pretty.
It is through these layers of science fiction and popular culture that Kuhaupt and Drake-Brockman’s public art project LaserWrap draws on meaning and effect. The work, while simultaneously demarcating a futuristic, virtual landscape through intense beams of green light does so via a process that operates on recent nostalgia, gleaned especially from viewers of my generation who have an affection for lasers, like they have an affection for pac-man, space invaders and Giorgio Moroder’s “Together in Electric Dreams”. In this work, however, the hopes and desires invested in 1980’s computer technology, and electro-fantasy such as TRON are turned out on themselves. Rather than creating new, impossibly small, virtual spaces for humans to inhabit, this laser technology is projected back outside the system and towards the massive external surfaces and textures of the lived environment.
Kuhaupt and Drake-Brockman’s treatment of the ACT Health building is one that could be applied to many sites in this designed city of broad, tree-lined boulevards and parkland interconnecting the behemoths of bureaucracy and institutionalised learning that make up Canberra’s urban morphology. After dark, LaserWrap transforms the ACT Health Building’s mandatory, crème-coloured concrete and brutal, pyramid-like exterior into a glowing object further denuded of depth and it’s daytime ziggurat mass. Each laser projected onto the building is destabilised by a rotating axial mount that arcs the laser line, converting the once solid and undeniably present building into a chimera; a shimmering, illusory object. It appears as if the building’s virtuality is exposed by a glitch in its very own vertical hold as it flickers and strobes throughout the night, only to re-collect its solid mass at dawn.
Kuhaupt and Drake-Brockman describe the reductionist visual effect of the lasers as “essentialising”, removing the “surface, colour and texture, to purify, denature and crystallise” objects as a means of attaining pure form. Their work in both LaserWrap and the earlier Lasercube (a smaller, internal version) uses and makes reference to both Cartesian and perspectival systems familiar and indeed essential to pre-modern, Western painting since the Renaissance whereby complex landscapes were divided into manageable parts. By throwing grids of light over external objects, Kuhaupt and Drake-Brockman expose the possibility of “essentialising” any landscape or style, from the monolithic and the minimal to the baroque. In this case however, the agitated nature of the LaserWrap alludes to something shifting and fragmenting in the environment, suggesting perhaps that the architectural megaplex has had its day in the sun.
Kuhaupt and Drake-Brockman’s collaborative practice is marked by a predilection for ascribing systems; both mathematical and technological onto familiar archetypal forms. As a solo artist Richie Kuhaupt’s sculptural work has evolved through a singular focus on the dissection and extrapolation of the human morphology in work such as the Little Men series. Here Kuhaupt segmented and stratified multiple moulds taken from a single man with obvious allusions to the big medical science breakthrough of the 1990’s, The Visible Human Project which saw an executed prisoner’s body frozen and laser-cut into thousands of photographable cross-sections. Despite the processes of expansion, contraction and distention applied to the body-cast and its layers, each figure retained an undeniable humanity, or an inability to be entirely obliterated of character and individuality. Bad posture, scoliosis, or just plain tired slouching; this humanness, expressed through or in spite of an imposed process, remains a central concern to Kuhaupt’s practice. In collaboration with Drake-Brockman this obsession is carried forward towards a complex dialogue about the nature of art practice in the current technological moment.
As an artist whose solo sculptural practice tends towards imposing, non-figurative objects, Drake-Brockman introduces the viewer as complicit agent in his work by combining surface qualities that both reflect and eschew the real world. These sculptures, reference notions of the digital agent or ‘bot’ exist in the landscape as if extracted accidentally from a virtual frame. They intrude upon environments with loud, highly polished automotive paint and the kind of repetitive patterning made popular by 90’s computer ‘wallpaper’. The work begins to absorb the landscape via chrome nodes, and rippling surfaces, somewhat reminiscent of sci-fi notions of assimilation or replication. As an artist whose work traverses both manual and digital worlds, Drake-Brockman matches Kuhaupt’s applied processes with an awareness of interconnecting technological objectives (he is also a computer systems analyst).
Together their collaborative work begins to question the nature of perception and techno-fascination, specifically in reference to their Chromeskin (2001) installation first shown at the National Sculpture Award at the NGA. This work pitched a highly reflective life-sized chrome figure of a man in direct opposition to its virtual replica. Equipped with four plasma screens, four cameras and sophisticated image-mapping programming, this monolithic technological structure literally mirrored the surrounding gallery environment in exactly the same way as the static figure. What emerged from the observation of public interaction with this work was that layers of mediated and filtered reflection with a virtual object were infinitely more interesting than mere interface with the physical materiality of the original.
The tendency towards narcissism in viewers when confronted with the re-presentation of themselves by an artwork was followed-through by Kuhaupt and Drake-Brockman in their LaserCube (2001) project. The work set up a dual system of transmission and reflection within the cube’s laser grid interior by including a feedback-loop on a TV screen. This enabled the viewer/participant entering the cube to control the representation of their own movement and ultimately to perform for other viewers outside, watching their trace on plasma screens.
With LaserWrap, it is climactic conditions, trees and ephemera rather than human movement that work in tandem with the rotating laser armatures to create the appearance of a shifting, unfixed entity. The beauty of LaserWrap is in its ability to map and elucidate while simultaneously reducing complex structural forms to simple geometries in space. This is a sight that will no doubt be appreciated by students from the national university, and other passers by, gazing through its intangible matrix into the "real world" ordered landscape of Canberra that lies beyond its shimmering green edifice.
Bec Dean, 2004