Article categories: Issue 67
June 5th, 2009

Spelt out in illuminated red diodes, the words “I imagine the conditions in Iraq are totally unimaginable” flashed across the LED sign.

Zina-Kaye-Hyperplex-2007-Image-1_SMALLER.bIt was just one grab of text in a stream of fragmented conversations presented by artist Zina Kaye in a Sydney shopping centre last year. The work was Hyperplex -  three LED signs suspended over the shopping centre’s atrium were relinquished from their usual job as displays of advertising and transformed into a site for Kaye’s provocative installation.

Kaye, a Sydney based new media artist, has been working with large scale engineering concepts and data systems, as well as LED signs, since she moved to Australia from the United Kingdom in 1993. Her recent work, Hyperplex, was developed for Terminus Projects, a small site-specific arts organization kick-started by Sydney curators Clare Lewis and Sarah Rawlings in 2005. Each year the two curators commission contemporary artists to install works in Sydney’s public spaces, with the intention of engaging audiences who may rarely set foot into a gallery or interact with works of contemporary art.

“Both of us felt that art has the potential to have a lot more currency in the public domain,” explained co-curator Clare Lewis in an interview following the launch of the project. “And there are a lot more challenges for both the artists and the curators. The whole idea of site-specificity is for the artist and the curator to really research that location, to look at the kinds of thoroughfare that pass through it, to discover the history contained there and to make a work that in some way reinvigorates that location.”

In 2007, Lewis and Rawlings worked closely with five artists to develop site-specific public art works responding to the theme Translations. According to the brief, the artists’ response should “not only attempt to convey the urgency within many acts of communication but ultimately aim to preserve unique modes of expression within the digital age of rapid cultural and technological assimilation.”

Both Lewis and the artist, Zina Kaye had noticed the LED signs at the Westfield shopping centre in Sydney’s eastern suburbs not long after it’s opening and had often toyed with the idea of hijacking them. “It always seemed such a terrible waste for them to be only used for transmissions of commerce and advertising,” said Lewis, who then commissioned Kaye to develop a site-specific work that would take into account the location, the shoppers and the people passing through it.

Zina-Kaye-Hyperplex-2007-Image-2.bIn the resulting work Hyperplex, Kaye reprogrammed the LED signs with grabs of text from three imagined conversations. Approaching the task like a film script, she developed three sets of characters and wrote dialogues for each of them. To assist the viewer in distinguishing between the different characters without visual clues, Kaye aimed to make each couple as different as possible. From this evolved a pair of teenagers chatting on a local beach, an exchange between two middle-aged men as well as a conversation between an elderly, foreign couple. The talk ranges from gossip and bland drivel to discussion of events in the local area and further still to profound meditations on Iraq and the “war on terror”.

On one level, Kaye’s Hyperplex functions as a homage to the installations of American artist Jenny Holzer who has been working with a wide range of media, including LED signs, since the late 1970s. In an Untitled 1990 installation in the Guggenheim, for example, Holzer wrapped tricolour LED electronic signage around the spiraling interior planes of the gallery spelling out phrases like “when something terrible happens people wake up” and “you are a victim of the rules people live by.” Through her questioning of the logic of consumerism and her stark presentation of arresting statements, Holzer violates viewer expectations, even in spaces where the artwork blends in with the surrounding advertisements.

While Kaye’s Hyperplex certainly references Holzer in this respect, the overheard nature of the conversations presented also reflects the artist’s ongoing interest in surveillance systems. Most notably, in 2004 Kaye created an installation work for the Australian Centre for the Moving Image [ACMI] called The Line Ahead. Here she scanned data from Melbourne Airport through a Winradio-built antenna on the roof of the airport direct to the gallery where the transmissions were then displayed on LED screens.

There are parallels, of course, between the airport and the shopping centre.  As places of transient flux, both are precisely the types of spaces that the Terminus Project in 2007 was aiming to reinvigorate. While Hyperplex certainly disrupted the conventional use of the LED signs in the centre and brought shoppers into contact with contemporary art, it must also be acknowledged that the interest from most passer-bys could only have been fleeting. According to Terminus curator Clare Lewis, this was very much the point “I think that public art seems to feel the need to be momentous or monumental and life isn’t really like that,” said Lewis. “A lot of public art around Sydney seems to have the corporate ego attached to it, so they’re often phalluses outside corporate buildings. It’s very hard to make good public art, which is why we [Terminus] only make art that is ephemeral because we feel that mirrors the way life unfolds.”

To present public art in such a quiet way, as a poetic disruption of the conventional use of a space, also reconfigures the relationship between the artwork and the viewer. In the case of Hyperplex, the work relies on the shoppers to create the consumerist environment that Kaye’s text challenges. In this way, even the most indifferent audience is implicated in the work simply by being there.

At the same time, for the work to be appreciated as art, the viewer must also identify it as not advertising, and therefore as an act of transgression. Through the act of stopping and contemplating the work, the viewer disrupts the flux and flow of the shopping centre. The work continues to defy expectations, not only in its presentation of conversations that reject the language of advertising and commerce, but also by taking supposedly private thoughts or personal statements and making them public, playfully inverting the logic of inside and outside.

Ella Mudie
Ella Mudie is a freelance arts journalist based in Sydney. She writes about the visual arts for the street press, various popular culture magazines and is the Art Editor at Dazed and Confused Aus/NZ. She is also interested in the impact of technology on social relationships and has written recently about the use of video games in army recruitment and video conferencing technology in NSW prisons. She is a graduate of the University of Sydney and the journalism school at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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