Marks of Absence: Technology, Identity and the Idealised Body in The Body Electric

The Body Electric exhibition extends the physical, ‘domestic’, everyday image of ourselves, and disappears it by removing traces of the body. The residue is the flickering light.

Ulanda Blair interviews Ross Coulter and Meredith Turnbull

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The Body Electric 2009
Conical Inc, Melbourne
courtesy the artists

In their first collaborative exhibition, held at Conical Inc. in April – May 2009, Melbourne-based artists Ross Coulter and Meredith Turnbull respond to Walt Whitman’s 1867 poem I Sing the Body Electric, exploring identity, technology, the body and being within the context of a male/female relationship. Using their individual and shared experiences as a departure point for this investigation, The Body Electric transcends personal biography to address existential questions about the human condition in our technology-saturated society.

Ross Coulter is a video artist and photographer whose work is often also sculptural and installation-based. Meredith Turnbull uses craft-making techniques in combination with photography and video to explore geometric abstraction and site-specific sculptural installation.  Ulanda Blair interviewed Ross and Meredith via email in May 2009.

In I Sing the Body Electric, Whitman describes the transcendent, intangible nature of human beauty: ‘The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account, That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect’. The poem oscillates between very graphic, corporeal descriptions of the human body, to more abstract, surreal accounts.  It could be said that the power of Whitman’s poem lies in this fusion of objective description with emotional and unconscious response.

In what way does your exhibition The Body Electric seek to extend or subvert Whitman’s representations of the idealised human body?

MT: I don’t think that Whitman’s poem actually is objective in the strictest sense, but filled with a sort of Humanist or democratic presupposition. There is no objective truth in the work itself. Whitman, after Kierkegaard, really employs notions of subjective reflection. That said, I am drawn to what you describe as Whitman’s emotional and unconscious response to the body, but think these descriptions are consciously and deliberately corporeal and provocative, almost lusty. Quite simply, what I enjoy most about the poem is that the human body that Whitman idealises is the body of the every-man or every-woman, the imperfect body.  This is something that the twenty-first century consumer of pop-culture rarely does.

The Body Electric as an exhibition tries to follow this train of thought into another, albeit equally subjective outcome: the study of two imperfect bodies, the ideal everyman/everywoman body. Ross and I use our own bodies and personas as ciphers for this exploration, one body is male and one female but, like Whitman, these representations are a starting point for our observations.

RC: What initially struck me about Whitman’s poem was the physicality of the imagery, with its rippling muscular sensuality and in-the-flesh writing. The bodies of Whitman’s time are bodies that are shaped by physical work. By contrast, our current day presence or being-in-the-world is one of physical absence.

As we relate more and more through screens and portals, our image has become essential to our identity. The electric impulses are light and optical rather than neuron messages to major muscle-centres. The telegraph pole no longer carries current; fibre-optics pulse light in digital sequences instead:


I imagine the disappeared/absent corporeal body, and then imagine the self-made immortal image existing in its place. One exists immemorial on Facebook, even after one dies.

The Body Electric exhibition extends the physical, ‘domestic’, everyday image of ourselves, and disappears it by removing traces of the body. The residue is the flickering light. In Stairs, a flickering light in the stairwell is recaptured and re-transmitted on a security styled monitor, suggesting the impossibility of two people meeting and the possibility of communicating. In the stairwell, always coming, always going and never arriving.

The fountain in Fountain Place pulsates water as light energy.

Fountainplace 2009

Ross Coulter
Fountainplace 2009 (video still)
looped DVD
courtesy the artists

The excess of light from Meredith’s twin projection From and into the Light reverberates with de-interlaced lines of a degraded third-generation video. Analogue video made digital. The form flickers onto geometric shapes. Shadows do not mimic the form of the ideal, rather, light projects a modern-day reality of the ideal, discordant, fractured and ruptured.

I think that the images in the modern electronic picture frame, as we have used in Portraits, are emblematic of a disappearing presence.  In addition to representing our own non-idealistic, or realistic, images of the body, thinking about the disappearing or redundant body was a way into making the work for me. I wonder about the bodies of the future and where the sensuality of Whitman’s poem might be found.

Ross Coulter
This is Mine, This is Not Mine 2009 (front)
video installation
Fountainplace 2009 (rear)
flat screen monitor and looped DVD
installation view, Christo Crocker
courtesy the artists

I’m interested in this idea of physical absence and disappearing presence. The placement of the television monitors in an elevated, back-to-back position in This is Mine, This is Not Mine and suspended mid-air in Half Faces is suggestive of your two bodies in the gallery space. In that aforementioned work, a series of technical gadgets appear on-screen, each accompanied by the voice-over “This is me, this is mine” or “This is not me, this is not mine”, which hints at the editing process that happens when we create identities for ourselves. Technology is both the form and content in these works; it is a substitute for the subject.

Can you elaborate on how The Body Electric exhibition addresses the impact of technology on identity?

RC: I am very susceptible to the influence of technology. From the need for personalised hardware, to the presentation of technology as a status symbol, to the consumer desires it stimulates, to the way technology infects our behaviour and language: its sounds, shapes, colours, movements. I am fascinated by the endless variety of possibilities in which technology offers itself up to be consumed by us – selflessly – always ever-present. Electro Magnetic Radiation is my body electric.

I feel something when I turn on my computer and it starts by making a BoinG sound. I wonder if this feeling is similar to that experienced by people playing the pokies at their local. BoinG. The BEeeEP sound at the Coles checkout provokes another feeling again, as I register the image on the screen and the reality of the checked product. I know the sound of my partner walking down the hall, the jingle of her keys, the sound of her mobile phone ring.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger claimed that we are called forth to enframe nature by positioning nature as standing reserve. Nature is brought forth when we use it. At the same time technology has a tendency to enframe the human being. Technology uses us, albeit of our creating. It exists outside of us, beyond our control and is an entity unto itself. It brings forth its being by placing us as standing reserve. Potential is brought forth through its use.

In our show, representation as a form of identity is reduced to image; is the mark of absence. The image as projected light, or illuminated on screen through light, is never permanent. It is endlessly transient and ever-present in digital duplication. We rely on technology to bring forth into existence images of our identity. At the same time there is omission, concealment and screening of being. Is the only way one can arrive at an essential truth through a fiction, a concealment, an absence, or a lie? The more that is shown the less is known.

Meredith Turnbull
From and into the Light 2009
double projection video installation
dimensions variable
installation view, Christo Crocker
courtesy the artists

In From and into the Light an abstract, coarsely textured video is projected onto a series of geometric sculptures installed on the gallery floor. Visually, the video evokes dramatic news footage of city-streets, shot on infrared camera. There is a sense of unease and anxiety pervading this work, with its strands of ambiguous and open-ended narratives. As you revealed earlier, this footage is actually degraded analogue video that has been converted to digital video. Can you explain your inspiration for From and into the Light?

MT: From and into the Light is about liminal spaces, and particularly about how ideas of transitional states of being or existence are visually represented in films. These segments are recorded direct from the TV screen with the film function on a basic digital camera. Subsequently, some frames are dropped and a kind of visual static occurs in the form of black horizontal banding and constant flickering. These segments are taken from quite mainstream pop-culture references. I watch films from the late 1970s through to the 1980s to source bits of footage. There is often a shared aesthetic in horror, sci-fi and anything dealing with the supernatural; it usually includes a lot of blue and green fluorescent light. I look for certain moments in these films, like when the protagonist is moving from one plane of existence to another or into another dimension.

One section, taken from the film Ghost, depicts the dead (and mostly invisible) lead character slowly being revealed to his grieving widow by an otherworldly light. Later he walks slowly away into this light while corporeal forms wait in a semi-circle for him in the distance. The other footage is from Poltergeist where the mother, anchored by a rope around her waist, traverses a hell dimension to save her lost child. Her husband holds the end of the rope tying her to earth and to the present. Before she enters, she embraces him and says, ‘Don’t let go’, to which he replies ‘Never’.

From and into the Light records these moments when the characters move from one state of being into another, interpreting being as something electric, metaphysical. I’m also interested in what drives the characters: passions, love, hope, despair. I pare down that sentiment in the original film, breaking it up through abstraction, to reveal the essence and beauty in the moment, and in the gesture.

Ross Coulter
Half Faces 2009 (video still)
flat screen monitor and looped DVD
courtesy the artists

When moving through the exhibition, the viewer traverses various public social spaces that have been captured on and re-assembled through video and photography. We experience the literal spaces of architecture and urbanity – a fountain, a spire, city streets at night – as well as the virtual spaces of language and cinema. In Portraits the viewer is invited into very private, domestic spaces where we catch glimpses of shared personal moments. Throughout the exhibition the world is portrayed as an intimately lived space.

How do you view the relationship between public and private space in The Body Electric?

RC: There is very much a convergence and blurring of lines in relation to private and public space. We have drawn images both from personal and private moments, and others have been made with the knowledge that they were to be used in the exhibition.

We had two weeks to install and this was quite fantastic. It allowed us to really test out and register the work in the space. We were there daily, Meredith built her screens in the space, and both personal and private moments played out during the installation. We had generous input about the installation from artists Katie Lee and Sanja Pahoki, as well as Conical’s Director Adrien Allen. Open conversations with them allowed us to gauge where the show was sitting in relation to the public/private divide. We were both aware that we did not want the show to be sappy, sentimental or nostalgic and at the same time it had to be personal.

Finally, I’m interested in the nature of your collaboration. Reflecting on collaborative artistic practice, Melbourne-based curator Stuart Koop has described collaboration and individual practice as countervailing tendencies in human behaviour, existing somewhere between the love for ourselves and the love for others.¹  How does your collaborative mode of working tap into the exhibition’s themes of identity and the male/female dichotomy?

MT: Throughout the collaboration it was important for both of us to retain an individual identity and an individual voice. We felt that this directly reflected the structure and content of the poem and the theme or suggested narrative we devised for ourselves. The idea of collaboration as somewhere between the love for ourselves and the love for others is quite apt because our collaborative process really became about empathy, a quality that I think is also inherent in Whitman’s poem. The work is about duality, togetherness, it is man/woman because this is what the poem explores.

Collaboration, as Stuart Koop discusses, can be a direct political statement, one in opposition to the idea of the individual as the hero/artist/originator. Collaboration shifts emphasis from the individual to the collective through the democratisation of ideas, processes and development. For us, rather than being about collectivity, the process became about retaining identity within the whole, within the duo. This wasn’t necessarily our identity as people but an identity we have constructed, two ciphers through which to explore representation and, more specifically representations of the body and of being.

¹ Stuart Koop, ‘Eros and Agape’, Group Group Show, Melbourne: VCA Margaret Lawrence Gallery, 2008, p7.

Ross Coulter and Meredith Turnbull
The Body Electric
18 April - 9 May 2009
Conical Inc., Melbourne.

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