Infobabelise by Ben Woodeson

Posted in CF Writing, Exhibitions, Texts by chrisfremantle on May 9, 2006

Review of Ben Woodeson‘s show at the Jerwood Space over Christmas and New Year 2005/06.

What was a technical exercise for a bunch of engineers – getting mobile phones to send text messages to each other – is just another innovation that has pushed the development of culture in a whole new direction. Short bursts of characters.   Innovative use of punctuation. It has all happened in ten years and even grandparents are using it. We live in an ‘information age’.  We are skilled navigators and interpreters of a complex visual and auditory world.  Another generation seduced by the white heat of technological development.

In Woodeson’s work everyday human concerns are made the object of an art that behaves as interference. He describes this as “primitive attempts to re-use and re-examine that which is commonplace and everyday.” It is the only way to explain this group of work. Its the everyday made into nonsense. Where in Wallace and Gromit or in Heath Robinson the madcap machines are intended to produce benefits for their inventors, Woodeson makes these contraptions for our benefit – so that we can begin to become sensitive to the extent to which what we think is communication is almost always noise.

The exhibition is made up of three works – one in the café and one each in the two gallery spaces. ‘Herbalgerbilverbalisor’ collects speech from the reception desk, filters it through voice recognition software and then ‘types it out’ in light boxes in the far gallery. The work contains all the key issues – remoteness, indecipherability, use of the everyday human, complexity and randomness.

Woodeson avoids trite judgements and does not rely on the trendy to carry the work.  The far gallery could have been cluttered with computers and screens running Linux.   Rather, the alphabet stands alone blinking at you from the light boxes. The clue to the computer function is in the one box in the bottom corner, like the blinking cursor in DOS, waiting for action.

Where Gallery Three blinks, Gallery Two taps. A series of jaunty electro-magnets tap out an apparently abstract pattern. The electro-magnets are thread-sized spindles of copper wire in pairs. Power pushes them apart, release results in a click. Controlled, this results in old-fashioned Morse code. Woodeson has programmed these automated distress beacons with short extracts from self-help texts. The title gives away the attitude: ‘Chicken soup from Mars’. Texts which deal with leadership merge with texts on wealth and with relationships. There is one pair clearly together on the right hand wall – one is titled ‘Low-down on Going’ and the other ‘Blow Him Away’. Electro-magnetic sex therapy if only I could decipher it.

(De)cipher is a key concept for Woodeson. He ensures that the work cannot be deciphered exactly. His work creates circumstances in which people cannot understand each other, characterised by misheard conversations, misunderstood texts, unintelligible telephone messages – definitely not handwritten letters or quiet face to face conversations.

Woodeson’s work involves considerable technical skill – electrician, programmer,
cabinetmaker crossed with hobbyist. The irony of unintelligible self help texts, and the complexity of first using speech recognition software to overhear conversations with the receptionist (“Where is the toilet?”) and then have them typed out too fast to be read, all speaks of enormous effort for negligible reward – in his words “technical investigation with maximum effort for minimal achievement.”

The art exists in a liminal space between the real and the virtual. There is the physical presence of the electromagnets in the gallery, the light boxes, the microphones, but the meaning is attenuated through the virtual. Meaning is stored and modified as electricity.

In the gallery there is a shared experience of the physical, but the meaning is not accessible. By inference our own constructions exclude us from understanding each other.

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