Chris Salter + LabXmodal: Atmosphere, FOFA Gallery

Art Papers (May-June, 2011)

Chris Salter + LabXmodal, Atmosphere, Installation View, FOFA Gallery, 2011. Photo: Guy L'Heureux. Courtesy: LabXmodal and FOFA Gallery.

Atmosphere: it sticks to objects, buildings and celestial bodies like an auratic energy, or lingers like an obfuscating fog of innumerable factors. According to Bruno Latour, the conditions that create our collective “atmosphere” are always plural – natural and cultural, scientific and political.  Moreover, whereas formerly “[o]utside the laboratory was the realm of experience – not experiment” – today “the laboratory has extended its walls to the whole planet.”[1] That is, today there is no longer a clear distinction between human experiences and technoscientific or technocratic experiments: “experiments are now taking place on a life-size scale and in real time.”[2]

It is this “delicate sphere of climate control”[3] that Chris Salter and his research team of LabXmodal (Marije Baalman, Elio Bidinost, Shannon Collis, Fernando Leppe, Harry Smoak, Robert Tomes, Matthieu Tremblay, and Tobias Ziegler) explore in their multi-media environment Atmosphere [FOFA Gallery, January 10 – February 11, 2011]. At the beginning of the 20 minute cycle, it is difficult to know what to expect: the gallery is darkened and seemingly empty, except for the ghost in the room – the technology. Then, slowly, coloured light, sound, infrared heat and haze fill the space with waves of stimuli that ebb and flow, stutter and glide, sometimes rising to an overwhelming crescendo, sometimes retreating to near imperceptibility. Three planes of light hang in the middle of the space like rhetorical screens. Blue streams out, then green, then sudden flashes of red, or a Morse-code-like rhythm of pink, or nothing. They cleverly anchor our visual concentration, all the while announcing the continuity of the atmosphere that passes through them. A strobe light adds sudden bursts of clear white light. The sound composition is strangely ethereal and strangely familiar, conjuring up images of rushing water or traffic, thunder, electrical crickets and cicadas, the ding of an elevator, and the meditative music that often accompanies savasana, “corpse pose” in yoga. Overall, the effect of Atmosphere is one of allowing our senses to be washed over and carried away in all directions, only to find ourselves self-contained and consolidated at the end of the cycle.

Atmosphere, as well as Salter’s previous environments, habitually participate in the new-media festivals, such as Ars Electronica and Transmediale, rather than being exhibited in art galleries. As if announcing this shift in discursive context, he transformed the gallery into literally half white-cube and half black-box. The “white” half points to American minimalism of the late 1960s, particularly the “light” works by Dan Flavin, Carl Andre’s alleged materialism, and Fred Sandback’s large-scale geometric planes made of coloured string; the “black” half points to the cultural thirst for immersion, the composition’s flirtation with narrative, and the dissolution of selfhood that is the work’s stated objective.[4] But how can Atmosphere be both? More specifically, how can it engage with the Minimalist dictum of phenomenological perception – which, it is important to note, required an intellectually prepared viewer to play the role of “I perceive” – and simultaneously address the dispersal of this “I” into the many technologies it uses to extend and displace itself? Salter negotiates this tension well: rather than confronting the viewer with a definable object that stands as his rhetorical equal, Atmosphere proposes an ephemeral, even volatile object that emphasizes the temporality and changeability of the encounter. As such, it suggests complicity between viewer and object, in this case a room filled with technologically induced effects.

Without the technological savvy to know what was required of the research team to produce this work, Atmosphere’s exploration of how ever-evolving new technologies impact the evolution of the human sensorium seems more metaphoric than scientific. Yet, if we accept Latour’s argument that the sphere of “experience” is not separate from the sphere of “experiment,” then this distinction is irrelevant. In either case, our physiological and intellectual response to this particular experiment is informed as much from our “up-dated” sensorium as it is from the stimuli itself. The interface between inner and outer is as permeable as Salter’s “screens.”  

[1] Bruno Latour. “Atmosphère, Atmosphère.” Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project, The Unilever Series. Susan May, Bruno Latour, Israel Rosenfield, et al. London: Tate Publishing, 2003. 31.

[2] Ibid. 32.

[3] Ibid. 40.

[4] The press release states: Atmosphere explores four conceptual/technological areas of research: cross modal sensory phenomena, perceptual thresholds, questions about the dissolution of self-hood inside sensory reduction environments and ecological concepts of perception.

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