When I bought my ticket for the Kinetica Art Fair, which took place from 9 – 12 February 2012 in Ambika P3, in the bowels of a former University of Westminster’s School of Engineering building near Baker Street, it was with quite a lofty intent: I wanted to continue exploring the intersection of art and science, and the many debates surrounding this intersection. At the same time I had a hunch that this would be a terrific family outing and therefore decided to take my 2 and 8 year olds with me. How right I was.
Kinetica is a fantastic place for children. It is also fantastic – if you will overlook the mawkishness of the phrase – for the child in every one of us. The place was filled with kids, from babies to teenagers, and as I walked in I immediately felt a child-like sense of wonder kindled as I took in the sight of kaleidoscopic LED and laser projections; flying contraptions reminiscent of Leonardo’s drawings, Heath Robinsonesque mechanical constructions assembled from industrial detritus and cast-off domestic utensils, robotic skeletons in motion and the inevitable but enduringly absorbing marble runs. There were endless opportunities to interact with the installations; buttons to press, cranks to turn, sensors to stimulate. For some the near omnipresence of the interactive experience in museums and galleries is becoming something of an irritant. But many of the exhibits at Kinetica depend upon interaction, both in terms of the works’ operation and their exploration of the relationship between humans and technology. The first sculpture encountered at the entrance, by Studio Roosegarde, was Liquid Space, a large construction made of cables interweaved with LEDs, somewhat like an arachnid pinned to the ground. As a visitor passed through the ‘legs’ and underneath the ‘body’ its sensors were activated, prompting the sculpture to light up, expand and contract, and emit sounds not unlike like crickets. Here space and (a form of) architecture was conceived of almost as a living, breathing organism, virtually as an extension of our bodies, reconceiving our relationship with architecture and space as a playful meeting of equals rather than a Foucauldian site of dominance and subjugation.
Another playful and thought-provoking installation was exhibited by the University of Lincoln’s graduates of the BA in Interactive Design. @Tweetlamps by Jordan Bennett consisted of a series of bulbs mounted on a shelf, connected to a computer. Each bulb represented a particular word featuring in tweets – at the time I visited, one concerned the death of Whitney Houston, one related to the Suarez non hand-shaking incident, another one featured Justin Bieber. The bulbs lit up intermittently, signifying each time a tweet was made on those subjects. It was an eminently neat and ingenious way of tying two moments of revolutionary technology – electricity (not to mention the light bulb) and social networks – which have both fundamentally altered the way we communicate, a historic and contemporary motor of society working in tandem.
There were many pieces, like @Tweetlamps, where the sophistication of the technology or mechanism behind the scenes cohabited appealingly with the home-made, cheap and cheerful nature of the materials used to build them, often producing a delightfully old-fashioned object. One such example was the wonderful work exhibited by Pascal Bettex. It comes as no surprise to read that Bettex has been a long-time admirer of the work of Jean Tinguely, whose work he discovered as a ten year old. His mechanical sculptures are dense contraptions consisting of old bits and pieces that might be discovered in an overstuffed garden shed – discarded tools, utensils, and scraps of metal, crafted into the most marvellous machines. One brings to life an animal barking (or biting) with a pair of fearsome jaws made out of two saw blades. In fact, I was struck by the number of animal-themed works exhibited. Creatures abounded throughout the hall, Piotr Jedrzejewski’s, Tim Lewis’s and WuXiaoFei Dyson’s work all featured birds, the former two as magnificent mechanical sculptures, the latter as delicate moving origami. These three artists’ work were particularly striking as they all harked back to older technologies or art forms. Indeed, Jedrzejewski’s Down with Feathers looked for all the world like a Leonardo sketch brought to life as it moved across cables the breadth of the main exhibition space.
Tim Lewis’s beautiful and ingenious Male Mechanic worked on the same principle as a zoetrope but in three dimensions. 18 tiny figures in different stances were mounted on to a treadmill, and as light flickered across them it looked as if they were running on it. The artist remarked that the inspiration came from living opposite a fitness centre, observing the relentless determination of the people working out in the gym. This was a somewhat more positive spin (forgive the unintended pun) than I had expected, as for me the work had recalled the workhouse treadmill (recorded by Dickens in A Christmas Carol), which acted both as a punishment for inmates and pumped water for the workhouse. Whatever the associations, it was one of the most compelling works in the exhibition.
These and other works came as a delightful surprise, as I erroneously expected every work to be unabashedly 21st century, with new media and cutting edge technology at every turn. WuXiaoFei’s works were quite the opposite, with his origami birds moving at the turn of a small crank (origami is an art form at least 300 years old), and his marble runs constructed from nothing more sophisticated than recycled cardboard, paper, drinking straws and other inexpensive reused domestic materials. The combination of the old and new in these (and other) works was apposite, given that one of the stated themes of the this year’s exhibition was Time and its passing.
At the other end of the spectrum were pieces more in line with my expectations – the futuristic, the heavily digital, the more thoroughly new media. Hans Kotter’s strikingly beautiful Tube, a plexiglass cuboid mounted on a plinth containing coloured LED’s and mirrors that reproduced the tube of coloured lights, thus creating an infinite virtual space and disturbing our perceptions in the most glorious way. David Ogle’s Linear UV Drawing is the most delicate of sculptures consisting of fluorescent fishing line illuminated by UV light; as its name suggests, it is as light as a drawing writ in three dimensions – yet the powerful lines and geometry of the piece as the light zooms through the space has an undeniable concreteness. This evanescence combined with solid presence made the work doubly compelling.
Whether at the cutting edge or saturated with nostalgia for older technologies – many of which were reminders that kinetic art emerged sixty years ago – the works at Kinetica shared an infectious desire to engage with and explore the scientific and technological realms and most crucially, our relationship with them.