At the machine interface

by Robin Laurence
Vancouver Sun, March 25, 1995

Luke Blackstone makes kinetic sculptures that explore the shifting frontier between human beings and machines. Currently, his wonderful and ingenious constructions, with their dusty, rusty, and battered components, their paradoxically primitive and sophisticated technologies, their herky-jerky movements, unpredictable gyrations and unnerving sounds, are on view at the Or Gallery (112 West Hastings, to Apr. 15).

In a statement accompanying Viral Information Centre, a funny and unsettling piece he showed in Artropolis 90, Blackstone expressed his concern about the role human beings are playing in creating an environment that is becoming "more hostile to life and more pleasant for technology."

In a recent interview, Blackstone cited a specific example, a mill job he once had in which people laboured in extremely unhealthy conditions while extraordinary care was being taken to clean and cool the air around the new computer.

Blackstone works with old and discarded materials and technologies, collecting the components of his art from salvage yards, alleys and thrift shops.

He combines obsolete computers (dust still adhering to them), compressors from used refrigerators, ancient diesel engines, bits of solar panels and stripped down video cameras with humble domestic objects like canning jars, safety pins, kitchen twine and broken toys.

Characteristically, he exposes the workings, the "guts" of his kinetic sculptures: wires, pipes, tubes, fans, switches, sensing devices and electrical circuitry have both formal and social significance here. They, together with the domestic components, provide us with a visual and conceptual place of purchase, an access that high tech machines, with their sleek designs and blank exteriors, deny us.

A work like Not to Code speculates upon the nature of artificial intelligence and the machine's rise as an evolutionary step beyond our own self-destructive inventiveness. The title is a play on words, referring to this sculpture's internal failure to meet electical and mechanical standards but the the genetic codes are being altered by wastes produced by contemporary technologies.

Here, a miniature video camera mounted inside a jam jar swings erratically on the end of a mechanical arm. (The mechanism, like most of the kinetic elements in this show, is triggered by a motion detector). The upside down video image-of the viewer-appears on a tiny screen, partially hidden within a knee-level box.

Like a writer of future fiction, Blackstone says that he was wondering whether human beings weren't perhaps, "the middle species, in between the primordial life forms and the computer--or some sort of humanoid species."

The impression Not to Code give is of a machine "studying our life form to benefit its own development." A machine learning how to replicate itself into a future devoid of people, fish, and other living creatures.

Other works here visit themes of individuals being sucked up, battered about and spit out by large institutions; the social entrapments of certain feminine attributes (like meekness and mildness); and the voices, exterior and interior, that compel our actions.

In Nocturnal Interface System, composed of a 12-year old computer, hovering "antenae," interface circuit, speaker, TV screen with a watery green band across it, and desperately wiggling fish heads and tails, Blackstone again speculates on the evolutionary nature of artificial inteligence.

If computers have memories, he asks, might they not also dream? And if they dream, what do they dream about? In this instance, the computer, with its dragged out, sleep-time voice, imagines a place where primitive life swims "into an ocean of electrons in the cathode ray tube of a TV set."

In Apparatus for Self-Adjusting Study, a surrealistic cloth dummy with three little breasts and an exposed metal spinal column is mounted on a small metal wheel. This unicycle apparatus, partially powered by solar panels, rides on a circular track which is suspended from and around a tripod tower (a reference to a high voltage electrical tower).

Here, Blackstone combines the theme of technologically-caused genetic damage with metaphors of light, including the light that is a function of the making and perceiving of art and the light of self-knowledge.

The mutated dummy slowly and tentively advances toward a moving sheet of reflecting mylar, only to retreat (with back-up beeps) when it gets too close to its own reflection.

Then it starts its anxious advance again. Like many of the works here, Apparatus for Self-Adjusting Study is extremely poignant, evoking the pain of self-discovery against a larger orbit, a larger environment, of body-altering and being-obliterating technologies.