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Terence Dick
VPN to IRL & Mehrnaz Rohbakhsh at Xpace
April 12, 2017

You don’t have to be that old to remember a time before smartphones, but they have become so pervasive that even a temporary glitch in their operations becomes traumatic. My iPhone recently refused to power up and I lost the ability to tell time, set an alarm, figure out what temperature to dress for, communicate with my family, do my work, listen to music, take pictures, and keep up with my reading. All that stuff used to happen in real life (aka IRL) and left barely a trace, but now it happens through myriad contracts I’ve made with faceless companies who’ve set rules of engagement that I didn’t even think about reading. In exchange for the ease with which I can do any number of things at the swipe of a finger, I’ve semi-consciously agreed to be harvested for information that is used, presumably, to improve my experience but also to direct advertising to my attention, to quantify my behaviour, to track my movements, and to make me even more reliant on the thing that I now feel naked without.


As a reminder of all that privacy I’ve relinquished, curator Tak Pham (in partnership with the Images Festival) has assembled a virtual private network (VPN) of four artists who turn surveillance back on itself in the group exhibition VPN to IRL at Xpace. The first piece by Tommy Truong requires a QR code reader to activate it (which is one app I’ve successfully resisted), but when I accessed the associated website at home, it told me everything it knew about my laptop and then casually mentioned the camera embedded in the screen right in front of me. I’ve since stuck a piece of tape over it and suffered through a series of flashbacks to that episode of Black Mirror where the teenager is blackmailed in increasingly sadistic ways because he was caught perusing something he shouldn’t by hackers who gained control of his computer.

The degree to which our portable devices control us physically – or, at least, influence our movement through space – is delightfully dramatized in Ronnie Clarke’s lo-fi VR piece READING TOGETHER. It is the best example of a contemporary artist using virtual reality technology I’ve experienced to date because it reduces the medium to its basics in order to reveal its essence rather than fetishize its futuristic cool factor. When you don the cardboard mask taped to a smartphone (I said it was lo-fi), you have to crane your neck and rotate your body to read the text piece within. As you dance around, you’re supposed to read the instructions aloud so whoever you’re with can perform alongside you. This communication and disconnect between the two (or more) of you is a relational piece that also functions as a performance for anyone else in the gallery to enjoy. Clarke is so smart because she makes the viewer the work and elicits a collaboration (though you could also call it a manipulation or even an exploitation depending on how you’re feeling about technology that day) that you discover as you do it.

Elsewhere in the gallery, Sophia Oppel’s clear acrylic panels jut into and hover over spaces you’d normally move through. Texts cut in them remind you of how the public sphere has become a matrix of information gathering that relies on our peripheral awareness and presupposed acquiescence. As one piece has it: “You give consent by entering the establishment." Opposite this is a series of photographs by Marlon Kroll of people being watched taken from films about people watching. The identity of person and place has been withheld (though some might recognize scenes from paranoid classics like The Conversation and Rear Window). The message regarding visibility, invisibility, and the blurring of the two is loud and clear.

Mehrnaz Rohbakhsh, Mapping Time: Harmonic Studies for Vera Rubin

In the back is a separate installation by Mehrnaz Rohpakhsh with the weighty title Mapping Time: Harmonic Studies for Vera Rubin. Depending on how you feel about higher math, it challenges you to appreciate loosely hung grids of graph paper covered in dense calculations and faint pencil sketches. The mathematical phenomena illustrated here are less visual than conceptual and the appropriate receptors for them dwell in the recesses of your brain. I felt the tug on unfamiliar (perhaps absent) parts of my intellect inviting me to consider the elegance lying within these figures. The numbers were beyond me, but I found comfort in the slowly shifting drone that in some way relates to the formulae and has come to represent the fundamental dynamic of the universe: nebulous, changing, but without a centre or progression. The churchy feel of the space is apt because this is a room in which to worship the laws of physics, to appreciate the firmament that lies beyond our ken (except for the studied and adept), but which we secular types have faith in because it means there is some order to our world. That, like all church-going, provides some comfort, and after the doubts experienced in the adjoining exhibition, comfort is welcome.

Xpace Cultural Centre:
VPN to IRL continues until April 29
Mehrnaz Rohbakhsh: Mapping Time: Harmonic Studies for Vera Rubin continues until April 29.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.



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