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Charged Heart
The electronic art of Catherine Richards
by Kim Sawchuk

The subject here is what is always invisible in electronic art and contemporary technology — what is invisible is the technologically generated electromagnetic system.
- Catherine Richards, Curiosity Cabinet at the end of the millennium (1995), artist’s statement
In what follows we shall be questioning concerning technology. Questioning builds a way…The way is a way of thinking.
- Martin Heidegger,The Question Concerning Technology (1954)

Catherine Richards has commented that the majority of North Americans live with their fingers plugged into a socket. It is a potent image that clearly connotes a thrill of danger born out of curiosity.

One need only think of the ever-widening sphere of wireless communications to understand Richards’ point. In our media saturated world we see (and, indeed, we may use) a combination of devices like the computer, cell-phone, microwave oven, and remote control. As they are integrated into our daily routines, we scarcely note their benign plastic presence and shiny metallic surfaces in our offices and homes. They become fixtures until they are made obsolete by the next, more powerful model. Many a closet has become a graveyard of once expensive and treasured electronic goods that we cannot discard, remembering their initial cost and newness.

These technological artefacts are not merely what they seem, however. They are the trace elements in a complex network of information exchange made possible by the physical movement of electrical impulses. While the objects that convey such frequencies are everywhere visible, neither the invisible electronic fields that they generate, nor the physiological and perceptual transformations they induce - nor their historical antecedents - are so apparent.

Richards’ installations use enigmatic objects as interfaces. These works not only make visible the electronic impulses and complex systems which, she contends, are the very substance of electronic art. They are also demonstrations that render the visible into a visceral, embodied experience.

Making History Visible
Objects are not just what they appear to be. Rather, as Richards writes in her statement for Charged Hearts, “they are hosts for a system which can link and read and write them.” While motivated by our present condition, contemporary devices such as screens, mouse pads, and computers are not predominant in Richards’ artworks. Visual prominence, instead, is often given to archaic-looking devices that convey “old-ness”, and whose connection to the present may be intentionally obscure.

Richards’ installation Virtual Body (1993), for instance, features a large wooden box that resembles a nineteenth century stereoscope. In Charged Hearts(1997), a terrella (a glass tube charged with electrical particles, used in early experiments with electricity) emits an eerie glow. A giant cage fashioned out of copper and wood (looking like a cart without wheels from a by-gone circus) is the central device of Curiosity Cabinet (1995). These vaguely familiar objects convey a feeling of “past-ness” that confounds clear temporal delineations between “then” and “now”.

But it is not only the objects in these installations that carry references from the past into our electronic present: the very process of constructing these installations brings past and present knowledges into contact as well. Richards’ art practice draws upon early scientific experiments, but also the latest research in virtual reality systems, optics and experimental physics, engineering, and computer software design. For example, Curiosity Cabinet is modeled after Michael Faraday’s cage, yet it responds to a contemporary condition of ubiquitous electromagnetic radiation. Meanwhile, Charged Hearts takes inspiration from early 20th century experiments in electromagnetism and the aurora borealis conducted by the Norwegian scientist K.R. Birkeland.

Richards willingly takes inspiration from past scientific and technological inquiry, and enthusiastically collaborates with persons presently engaged in public science (eg. members of the National Research Council of Canada) and high technology industries. These collaborations allow Richards to realize technically sophisticated installations that historicize our world of information, communication and control. In so doing, she consistently draws attention to epistemological and technological links between present and past. However, the lessons gleaned from such demonstrations indicate not only the prowess of scientific inquiry and technological marvels, but the risks and dangers of our curiosity. As Richards notes in her videotape Spectral Bodies (1991), early experiments in optics often blinded scientists who would stare at the sun in order to understand the effects of the after image. Such blindness - the byproduct of enlightenment - is thus both physical and metaphorical.

Perception And Proprioception
While the video work Spectral Bodies represents these optical experiments beautifully, in a visual and narrative form, Richards’ installations typically construct spectatorial situations meant to make us not only intellectually aware, but viscerally cognizant, of the transformations wrought by simulation systems. We are not only shown what is happening - we are also asked to feel it.

Take, for example, Virtual Body (1993) - a box with an eyepiece on top and an opening in the side. By looking through the peephole and placing one’s hand inside the box, the spectator is subjected to a rather disconcerting sensation. At first, before the hand is inserted, one sees a miniature room. The presence of the hand triggers invisible sensors, which in turn trigger the illusion of the hand growing larger as simultaneously the walls of the room collapse. All that remains is the image of an enlarged hand hovering aloft, seemingly separate from the rest of the body. Suddenly the floor of the box begins to move and scroll underneath the hand. In this trompe-oeil, familiar references to shape and size are lost, disorienting the spectator.

Describing the sensation created by Virtual Body, Richards comments that “it is as if miniature space is folded into infinite space, as if stillness is folded into motion.” When one withdraws one’s hand, the transparent miniature room reappears - but not without leaving the spectator with a feeling of destabilization, caused by the motion and disproportionate aggrandizement of a singular body part seemingly disconnected from the rest of the corporeal system.

Virtual Body is a follow-up to the simple experiments of the Spectral Bodies video, in which Richards mimicked experiments in virtual reality using only a blindfold and a vibrator which, when placed on the arm of test-subjects, caused them to temporarily lose their proprioceptive sense. Proprioception is the sense through which we inhabit and manipulate the movements of our bodies in space. Our sensory system uses internal nerve receptors at joints and in our muscles to know our bodily boundaries. This allows us to navigate through complex topographies without having to consciously reason each successive movement.

What is being communicated in both of Richards’ artworks is not only the sensation of the body’s boundaries gone awry, but the connection between perception (seeing) and proprioception (our innate feeling of corporeal integration). It is precisely the kinds of proprioceptive distortion that are intrinsic to simulation environments and virtual systems which Richards’ installations set out to reveal. When placing one’s hand inside Richards’ virtual room, the clear distinction between the object on display, the illusion within, and the spectator who stands outside is changed. In fact, the relationship is reversed: The spectator becomes part of the simulation.

Electronic Particles

We are plugged in, at all times, to voltages, at the limit of living cells: electromagnetic weather.
- Catherine Richards, Charged Hearts (1997), artist’s statement

Charged Hearts (1997) and I Was Scared to Death; I Could Have Died for Joy (2000) use the iconic status of the heart and the brain (respectively) to materialize the very substance of the electronic age - the waves and particles that produce electromagnetic currents. Glass-blown anatomical parts underscore the physiological connection that we have to electronic technology.

In Charged Hearts, Richards traces the interconnection of electromagnetic impulses as they occur within three systems: the weather, the body, and the new virtual worlds. By picking up one of two glass hearts (encapsulated in glass jars), a spectator becomes part of a loop of charge connecting body to heart to terrella. If there is another person touching the second heart, the circuit is entered together. While, technically, it is the terrella that produces the electrical charge that connects the two hearts, there are no actual wires involved - only a copper coil on the bottom of the glass jars. The interactivity is wonderfully oblique.

Both installations challenge the sort of push-button notions of interactivity that place the user in a privileged and fictive site of agency. (“I push something: I make things happen.”) In each, touching produces a change, but never permits complete control. Instead, the installation reveals how our bodies, like our subjectivities, are caught in a matrix of coterminous interacting elements. Importance here rests on the tactility of the interface that makes the invisible charge visible.

As with her experiments in Spectral Bodies, Richards again reminds us of what we risk because of our curiosity: Dropping the hearts may cause them to explode into pieces, because they are essentially vacuum tubes. Yet, regarding her contention that our atmosphere is saturated with invisible electronic frequencies, the risk does not reside with any individual item, but with the environmental aggregate of electronic goods. Richards’ concern about the dangers of electromagnetism has therefore led her to experiment with copper mesh, which can act as an insulator from ubiquitous radio frequencies. But even this kind of escape does not come without certain compromises. For example, a person who enters Richards’ Curiosity Cabinet, or is enveloped in the copper-cloth shroud of Chrysalis (2000), is insulated from all cumulative electromagnetism. Yet at the same time, the spectator is put on display, much like a museum piece. This underscores Richards’ subtle point: that the same technologies which seem to augment individual sensory perception and power may in fact reveal the idea of an autonomous self to be a fiction, because an individual separated from such circuitry can only live in an untenable situation of isolation.

The Paradox Of Visibility
Richards’ installations are born of a paradox within electronic art: Making visible the multifarious side effects of the electronic era means risking a direct engagement with the very electronics that one wishes both to play with and to better understand.

Richards’ work is “revealing” in the sense indicated by Martin Heidegger in his famous essay The Question Concerning Technology (1954), as a demonstration that “brings forth”. The result is a unique critical voice that does not turn away from science, but instead opens up the ambiguity at its core - an ambiguity eloquently captured by Heidegger’s suggestion that technology is at once a “means to an end” and a “human activity”. In the former sense, technology is instrumental - the result of our willing, and of our belief that we retain the power to control machines. In this purview, we transform nature as a resource for future exploitation: it is unlocked, transformed, stored, distributed, and exchanged. The irony invoked by also calling technology a “human activity” is that “we” are in fact also being transformed by our interactions with machines, obviating our distancing from them, and our position of putative mastery. However, Heidegger also points out that this drive to instrumentality - the propensity to treat all of nature, including other humans, as if they are “standing in reserve” as a resource - is only one aspect of technology, or indeed of scientific enquiry. Drawing inspiration from history, Heidegger reminds his readers that technology is also poesis, a bringing forth, a way of knowing the world. Criticisms of his position as merely dystopian often forget this dimension of the Heideggerian view on science and technology.

Catherine Richards’ installations promote an experiential awareness of the thrills and potential dangers of being plugged everywhere, at all times, into invisible circuits of electricity and systems of information. As such, they reveal both instrumental and poetic characteristics coexisting simultaneously. Richards’ experimental methods, her choice of materials, her design decisions in shaping her art objects, and her assemblage of those objects, all resurrect the connection of science and technology with poesis, with art, and with craft or techné. As such, spectators are not only shown how they are being reshaped: Richards’ installations also demonstrate these transformations, both visibly and haptically. Such endeavours may cause us to experience “wonder” in both senses of the word, and initiate a questioning - a questioning embodied in installations that do not lead to a final conclusive endpoint, but rather open up a way of thinking through the paradoxes of our engagements with scientific inquiry and technological artefacts and systems.

Kim Sawchuk is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University. Her current research investigates “biotourism”: the fantasy of inner body travel in art, medicine and popular culture.

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