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Simon Biggs @ The McDougall Art Annex

There are a number of issues which arise from the interview between Fiona Gunn and Simon Biggs that appears in the catalogue (1) accompanying Biggs' show Magnet, at the McDougall Art Annex, Christchurch. I shall concern myself with the first, which is the crucial aspect of 'viewer' interactivity and which is of essential concern to Magnet itself.

Biggs comments that he does not like the word "audience" because it implies a passivity:

"It implies a passivity on behalf of the person watching and that is why I use the word reader, as it implies an activity."(p.9)

The reasons Biggs outlines for this adoption of the term reader and not audience is that the audience belongs to the theatre and cinema complex where, traditionally, the adopted viewing position is one of a seated arrangement. This however, as Gunn questions, does not necessarily alter or affect the manner in which one thinks consciously about the relation between ourselves and what we are watching; i.e. "passivity" does not have to be a physicality. Augusto Baol through his Poetics of the Oppressed (1974, 1979) realised that any audience is 'charged', and is a potential 'energy'. Baol realised that the audience themselves can be so charged to take act(ion) and are in fact asked to do this - to role play the dramatic event themselves: changing the scenario or situation as they see fit or as they so determine. Their's is the interactive ability to change the course and content of the work itself. Baol's is the idea of the spectator becoming spect-actor.

It is difficult to appropriate the principle of Baol's spect-actor to the Art gallery and Simon Biggs' Magnet because Baol worked in an impromptu, 'invisible theatre' manner, directly in the public arena, notably in Peru. However, Baol's ideas do illustrate that an "audience" is not passive in how they think, and do not need to be physically passive in their role. Even without adopting Baol's spect-actor, any audience in the theatre or the cinema are still active. They continually project 'possible world' scenarios onto the characters involved within the film or production which are continually re-evaluated as the dramatic advance or narrative changes throughout the 'production'. Though here, the level of viewer involvement or 'interactivity' is not as involved as in Baol's practise because the viewer cannot change the course or content of the production. The same can be said of Biggs' viewer/"reader" in Magnet. It is the level of sophistication in the viewer's interactive role, in terms of critiquing their own actions and involvement (the performance criteria), and the interactive role itself, in relation to the elements of the work, that I wish to question in Biggs' Magnet.

The term 'role' is an extremely important one with regard to Magnet. It becomes even greater, or heightened, when we accept his position, in a physical sense, that his 'reader' is an active component within his work. Therefore the viewer should have an extremely important interactive role. However, the viewer in Magnet only becomes more than a viewer if and when, or until, they 'trigger' the work itself. This is achieved by walking accidentally or deliberately through any one of six spot light sensors which relate to six projections of three naked male and three naked female figures which, depending upon the triggering of the sensors, either "fly" or "fall" within two screens facing each other at either end of the gallery. These light sensors and projections are divided into two groups. Two male and one female figure are projected onto the first screen, with their respective light sensors focused in a row of three upon the floor in front of each screen, but nearer the centre of the gallery. The other screen reflects two female and one male figure. When the 'viewer' triggers his/her involvement in the work, he/she might be labelled a spect-actor. But this is a too empowering label. The 'viewer', when triggering the work, does alter the representation of the piece - the order of projections and sounds, but they cannot alter or change the ultimate content or course of the work; for this has been pre-determined within a system of programming by Bigg's himself. Perhaps this is a picky limitation of the interactive qualities and criteria of "new technology art", where the permutations and combinations of a number of elements are ultimately limiting and there is nothing the player, the viewer, the reader can do about it. Regardless, it is not as Biggs' regards, simply a "question about the poverty of our vocabulary at this time in dealing with new media like this." (p. 10) This is egotistical rhetoric.

It is a question of exactly what the viewer is doing: what is their role, and what is the role of the work and how these conflate or relate. It is insubstantial for Biggs to comment that "The viewer is not just watching, there is nothing voyeuristic about it, they are part of the piece" and to suggest that the viewer of his work is not an audience but is something different or suggest that "it is the audience interacting with the work that is the theatre." And further suggest, that "It is they (the audience) who are most theatrical and it is they who are observed, they are the performers..." (p.10) especially when the dominant, so up-front elements in this work are huge projections of three naked female bodies and three naked male bodies that each, themselves, possess a gaze. It is not that easy to dismiss these projections. These projections are not "objects" (2) as Biggs describes them (including references to puppetry, p. 14); they are identifiable and each possesses a gaze that looks, actually stares, at the viewer him/herself which compounds and problematises the interactive gaze belonging to the viewer. Again, it is not so easy to dismiss them (the projections) as not belonging to someone else and to critique your own involvement/interactivity within the work itself.

Biggs perhaps realises this, as he comments:

"The piece will not come into existence until the viewer does something. It won't make sense to the viewer unless they begin to understand how what they do relates to what they perceive."(p.9)

But I cannot perceive myself, or others in the gallery at the same time, as being such strong performative elements in the work. The viewer who interacts is necessary to further the work but I do not believe it is the viewer, as performer, who critiques his/her own actions because we realise that our function in the gallery is one that can only alter the work, ultimately, in a number of pre-prescribed ways. And all we effectively do is alter their order. We do experience changing these and the options are, technically, ingenious which are heightened when there are other persons in the gallery who also interchange the work, but the role of inter-activity is one of pre-determinancy and requirement. It is a requirement in the sense that if one wishes to further the representation of the work from "seeing hands and feet" to witnessing the "falling" and "flying" of the naked figures, one must trigger the work. Therefore the figures in Magnet do not, as the Foreword in the catalogue suggests, "respond to and mimic the movements of gallery visitors". That is an over inflated premise and is wrong. I would suggest the viewer does respond to a course of programmed action, which is only activated by and when the viewer stands or walks through a series of light sensors. There is a system in operation that has been previously encoded by Biggs himself. It is clever, and the viewer does have fun engaging it and realising its options, but in the sense of the empowerment of the viewer in his/her interactive role, it is insufficient and limited.

Marcus Moore
01 August 1997

1. Magnet, Simon Biggs. Show catalogue; Robert McDougall Art Gallery and Annex: 1997. (Page numbers appear after each quotation cited.)

2. Magnet, Simon Biggs. Show catalogue; Robert McDougall Art Gallery and Annex: 1997.

Excerpt from Sean Cubitt's catalogue essay "The Angel of Mediation":

"Bloody programmers: never giving the rest of the universe a glimpse. This time, the word 'object' is visited on us in an entirely new meaning, without reference to the old. When you say, perhaps, that bodies have become objects, you might be making a feminist statement. Feminists first understood the cultural upshot of the separation of mind and body philosophised by Descartes and embodied in modern medicine, the whole of modern culture for that matter...

...What object-oriented programs offer is a way of speaking in, through, with, the division of mind and body without falling into the fruitless dialectics of representation and its objects. To represent is necessarily to falsify: that is the core belief of post structuralism and deconstruction. But what Biggs undertakes is not an attempt at reconciling the seer and the seen, but to attract both into the same space, a space where what is important is not the production of bodies or representations as objects for the viewer, but where both the viewer and what she views are subjects, circling each other in anticipation of a communication which, though it may never come, can be hoped for."