SCRIPTED - Exhibition 2004
Comments on SCRIPTED
By Christine D'Onofrio, April 2004
Adjunct Curator, Scripted Exhibition

Conversation, dating, love, sex, gambling and violence. Man’s many vices can now be fulfilled through on-line services. Carnal desires, which stand for the nature of humanness itself, have instantly become digitized. SCRIPTED takes us to the machines imaginary spaces, which are essentially nowhere. The artists graduating from University of British Columbia’s New Media Art program (Jenny Gofman, Irafan Aaron Kaljanac, Eva Lau, Carol Lee, Shirley Li, Stephanie Lim, Erica-May Chan, Joanne Pope, Swetha Ranasuriya, KC Solano, Anni Terret, Jonathan Tsang, Alex Ushijima, Ann Wong and Rachel Wong) and from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design (Paulina Balcazar, Jennifer Pighin, Kirsten Pudas, Amelia Whitcomb) introduce their viewers to an alternate universe, one found in software and binary coding. The works enter our world through hard copy prints or sculptural forms, however it seems all too familiar.

This mix of human sentiment and artificial supplements becomes increasingly intertwined as technologies develop into something more common. Geoffrey Batchen warns us of an undifferentiated “artificial nature” that we are tumbling towards. He explains this in relation to digitization of the photograph. If we do in fact reach that situation, “the vexed question of distinguishing truth from falsehood will then become nothing more than a quaint anachronism.” [1] It seems impossible to forget the differences between the artificial and the natural. But if we are unable to decipher the cohesion of the human and the machine, we may actually be powerless in recognizing those differences.

Power is regained in the work presented to us through this exhibition. The artists attempt to recognize differences through the very delicate subject matter of language, which contains a infinite system of codes in itself. The work presented to us in this exhibition deliver the artists’ concerns with representations, presentations and symbols in many effective forms. Issues of identity, ethnicity, consciousness, personality, subjectivity, consumer culture, desires and instinct are all discovered through the uncovering of codes and language, sign and object. Stepping into this show of digital works is like playing a game of show and tell, keeping acutely aware of what is showing and deciphering that from what it is telling.

In examining the exhibition, I will focus on some works that I believe typify trends and concepts underlined in SCRIPTED. In my examination, I have elected to address works that bridge gaps of textual understanding, place, and time. The work of Paulina Balcazar, Alex Ushijima and Jennifer Pighin show concern with their own, and other, ethnic stereotypes. Alex Ushijima develops this through nicknames such as “Banana.” Known to many as a fruit, to Canadians of Asian descent it is also known as a racially prejudiced association of being yellow on the outside, and white on the inside. His labels are juxtaposed with the actual object and cultural landmarks to which the name visually belongs to, such as the fruit itself, however cultural typecasts create a new meaning for the word. Jennifer Pighin displays her first nations status card and places photos of wild animals into her photo frame. The identity card becomes a stereotype in itself, commenting on popular beliefs and misconceptions of her culture and their overshadowing relations to animals. Subsequently, Balcazar’s work consists of phonetically spelt words incorporating her Mexican accent. Therefore when one tries to read her text, “dis taim guil maik it” It takes time to figure out that it is actually saying, “This time we'll make it” with the incorporation of Paulina’s own accent. These cultural stereotypes and myths are a great source in identity formation and language’s influences. Together Balcazar, Pighin and Ushijima renegotiate typecast cultural connotations through language and associated symbols. They successfully bring awareness of the fragility of these conceptions.

While these subjectivities are informed by cultural classifications, many are also informed by the overwhelming images in consumer culture. In Jenny Gofman’s work, the alphabet is updated to fit societies new consumerist and capitalistic expectations. When A stands for ‘Authority’ instead of Apple, there is an understanding that our language has changed to fit the aim of the consumer market. Jonathan Tsang’s work uses these new values as minimum requirements for his games of reaching Beauty, Success and Family. His video stills specify that achieving these goals require a rigid recipe. For example, a customary family must consist of the traditional nuclear formula, a partner of the opposite sex, 2.2 children and a white picket fence. This automatically disqualifies any other concept of a family being acceptable. The conventional values we attribute to common notions of Family, Success and Beauty are complicated through peculiar phrases that don’t seem to fit. This makes one question exactly whose requirements we are referring to. Finally, Rachel Wong’s identity cards of credit, birth, SIN and healthcare, blatantly inform identity through their archive of bought goods and products, former jobs, geographical origins and consumerist expectations.

As we interpret these symbols and signs, text and phrases, the time it takes to find their associated meanings in our archive of language is momentary. Stephanie Lim’s mismatched words and colours disturb this process. Her work presents us with text of words describing colour, filled in with different colours. However, the colour of the text, and the word itself are different. For example, the word “Red” will be coloured in blue. As we are instructed to declare the colour of the text as opposed to the word being displayed, we are challenged to stop reading and registering language, (which is the common form of communication) as opposed to the visual. I am reminded of Lacan’s “mirror-stage” wherein infants recognize themselves visually. This stage is short-lived, and replaced by language in order to function within the systems put in place. This work presents a problem to the viewer in going back to the visual as opposed to the written. The artist elaborates this complicated separation as the essential feature of the experiment, and in the process brings awareness in our dependence of language.

Trying to separate the symbols and text, and their associated meanings is a difficult act. All the artists have a purpose towards trying to decipher the difference. The artists insist on this re-examination in order to comprehend the authenticity, or sincerity of these symbols and words. Erica-May Chan's e-mail work, “The Excuse” exemplifies the complicated issue by presenting the viewer with a template letter of a type of rejection. The piece consists of Chan’s own outline of an excuse, leaving blank spaces where the user inserts the receiver’s name, and other missing information that you fill in with a friendly excuse. Such an emotionally charged state is degraded through a mechanically prepared model. May presents a sensitive, emotional issue without ever committing to sincerity. The letter’s display of tenderness and rationality is humiliated with the cookie-cutter procedure in which it was really made. To some degree it lies to you. The words are questioned not for their meaning, but for the translation of their authenticity. It is reminiscent of SPAM e-mail one receives from friends, containing kitschy poems and emotionally charged phrases of friendship and love, juxtaposed to photographs of kittens and cartoon cupids. Although these pictures and phrases may assume to evoke feelings, the form of communication is altered through a mass-produced, mechanical artificiality. Conceivably this conflict is also relevant to the medium in which all of these work are made, through a computer.

Like the skepticism that photography has endured, new media’s connection with the mechanical questions its authenticity as art. However, the core concerns of the works in this show interrogate the limits of the relationships between the mechanical and the natural. In this show there are times when the human body acts as a machine, other times the machine portrays itself as the human. Ironically, the subject matter itself aims to create an aware code dweller. The artists understand that we cannot live with or without these codes. The artists’ also refuse to ignorantly function in these systems by illustrating a renegotiation. They seek to demythologize these links, to question them, exposing the fictitious condition between symbols and their associated meanings. They question new media’s rendering of the image through technology, and the validity of its inherent, somewhat stifling, meaning.

1.   Geoffrey Batchen “Ectoplasm: Photography in the Digital Age”, Carol Squires, ed., Overexposed:  Essays on Contemporary Photography (New York: New Press, 1999) p.10

Having recently completed her MFA at the University of British Columbia, following her BFA at York University in Toronto, D'Onofrio is now actively involved in exhibiting her work. In addition, she teaches foundation studio at the University of British Columbia. D'Onofrio's own photographic practice focuses on identity and the body, concerned mainly with constructions and representations of femininity.

:: Download Christine D'Onofrio's essay in PDF