For most artists technology and networks are tools in the creative process. But for Rory Macbeth the ultra-logical, technological partner is a perfect collaborator. In the one-night show FYI: Rory Macbeth × Institutional Collaborative Systems, the artist used automated administrative systems to produce an engulfing experience.
On entering the gallery, visitors felt confusion and anxiety caused by overwhelming noise and light effects, assaulting the senses. From below, the glass-walled room must have appeared as a rave to passers-by. To complete this effect, visitors behaved like they were at a party, dancing and nudging each other in a gentle frenzy, movements slightly out of place at an exhibition viewing. There were multiple flat screens flashing bright lights and colours every few seconds, broken up by horizontal lines of interference. A disco ball turned slowly, projecting commercial product logos around the space.
Macbeth himself sat with a mixing deck. Three assistants huddled around the table, each with a mobile phone in hand, calling unreachable recipients. These phones were connected to speakers and the mixing deck. The on-hold music was manipulated in real time, broken up by the occasional message of ‘You are… third in the queue. The average waiting time is approximately 5 minutes’. While these are frustrating at best in an everyday setting, and blaring intermittently in the confinement of Surtsey’s disco room they took on a new unpredictability and aggression.
It was too disorientating to tell whether the videos on screens directly corresponded with the audio, but they nevertheless had a hypnotising allure as they competed for the viewer’s attention. A tapestry of systems fighting for absolute control, with no victory in sight. Visitors reacted vigorously to the cacophony of stimuli, shouting over one another, and some using the confined space for a dance-off to phone line jingles. Perhaps it was a way of reclaiming back the time lost waiting on commercial and public service phone lines. It allowed us to reassert our power over a system, by making it an amusement rather than a necessity. Or maybe that’s just what happens when you put people in a room with flashing lights.
The main concern of Macbeth’s work is the hierarchy of power between man and computerised systems, made apparent through his attempt to control and subvert the nature of a mechanised arrangement originally put in place to control and influence its users. You call; I make you wait; you’re left with no choice.
In FYI, users’ reactions to systems develops organically, ultimately a resistance to power. The fourth of Surtsey’s cross-disciplinary pairings was undoubtedly a success. Immersive, multilayered and unbearable after a while, the show crystalised the complicated relationship between man and machine. Arguably, Macbeth momentarily won the battle for dominance, sticking two fingers up to every company who forces us to look at and listen to repetitive kitsch. The world would be a better place if we could hear on-hold music in gallery settings only.
FYI: Rory Macbeth × Institutional Collaborative Systems, Surtsey Projects, Liverpool was a one night event on 2 March 2017.
Maja Lorkowska is a writer based in Liverpool.
Installation photo courtesy of Ben Nuttall.