The career of Toronto media artist David Rokeby has been quietly gathering steam now for more than two decades. Until this summer, however, it has not been possible to take in the full range of his works all at once.
This is a little surprising, since Rokeby has accomplished a lot. He has represented Canada in Venice (as part of the architecture biennale), and this fall his work will be presented at the Sao Paulo biennial. As well, he has been the recipient of numerous awards in Europe and North America, including (here at home) a Governor-General's Award in Visual and Media Arts. But his current exhibition at Oakville Galleries allows us, for the first time, to take the measure of the whole, bringing together eight of Rokeby's most accomplished works to date.
These pieces date back to the mid-eighties, and they combine video with computer programming and a variety of surveillance and sampling technologies. Where much computer-generated art seems bent on the demonstration of its own technological complexity (often leaving viewers drumming their fingers while they wait out the glitches), the best of Rokeby's works feel transparent, leading the viewer to wonder over their content and the questions they raise, rather than the technological programs that drive them. The medium melts away and we are left with our experience, which is often exquisite.
Rokeby has made one work in the show just for Oakville. Titled Machine for Taking Time, it is presented on a single screen suspended in the gracious bowed window overlooking the formal gardens at the gallery's historic Gairloch site, beside Lake Ontario. Three and a half years ago, Rokeby installed a camera above the gallery's west-facing window, training it in a Mobius-strip path that surveys the gardens in a continuous, slowly looping motion. Since then, he has collected roughly 1,000 digital images a day, archiving them by date through wind and rain, snow and summer sunshine.
The resulting work, which is projected on a screen inside the gallery, remains true to the camera's trajectory, but scrambles the files so that we can experience the view under a kaleidoscopic range of seasons and conditions. Snow melts away in a moment, replaced by green grass and lush foliage. A picnic party on the lawn appears, then vanishes.
A verdant tree morphs into its skeletal winter remains. The effect is dreamlike, as delicate as haiku in describing the poignant passing of the seasons.
Another work at the Gairloch site, titled The Giver of Names, is a kaleidoscope of a different sort. Entering the room, you discover a pile of children's cheap plastic toys on the floor and a black plinth with a camera trained on it. As a visitor, you are invited to arrange objects atop the plinth. The camera observes your still-life creations and then (thanks to the computer program designed by the artist) reacts with a verbal response that is both spoken, in electronic voice simulation, and displayed as text across the bottom of a screen.
The presentation of this early work is a bit ungainly -- it looks more like a science presentation than an art work -- but the pleasure comes from the language play that the computer produces in response to the visual compositions. To create the software, Rokeby input a wealth of visual and verbal data, including syntactic information, a number of dictionaries, indexes of commercial paint-colour names, thesauruses and 64 works of classic literature, equipping the computer to respond to visual cues with grammatically correct but delightfully improbable sentences of its own devising, a cacophonous spill of language and free association.
Thus, when I place an orange bowling pin, a pale-green-and-white crochet-covered cube and a trumpet-shaped, blue plastic toy on the plinth, the computer exults: "My bright blue Prussian is equalling the previous nymph." One wonders, could Wallace Stevens have put it any better? It's exhilarating to see what happens to language when the schoolmistress reason leaves the classroom, yet Rokeby's piece ultimately leads you to consider the threshold beyond which artificial intelligence cannot take us, inspiring you to contemplate the absence of that intangible ingredient called imagination.
At the gallery's Centennial Square site, more interactivity awaits, but my favourite piece is Rokeby's Very Nervous System, which he created for the first time in 1986 and has revisited for the current show.
Approaching the small, empty gallery where the piece is set up, you at first confront silence, and four speakers suspended on the wall. Once you enter the space, however, all hell breaks loose, with the speakers emitting a host of sounds in response to your body's movements, which are monitored by motion sensors.
A brisk stroll through the gallery elicits deafening calamity, like a kitchen cabinet tipping over and spilling its contents. Make your movements subtle, however, and you can elicit more distinct effects.
Standing very still and fluttering the fingers of one hand, I provoked a low, purring growl, like the sound of a lion at rest. Stepping back, I heard a screeching sound, like the ripping up of packing tape. Other movements produced other noises -- a beer bottle being smashed, or kicked down the street; the jingling of metal rollers at the beer-store checkout; the crunching sound of potato chips being eaten, spilling coins, distant laughter. Who knows how Rokeby made these sounds, or if he found them, and who cares? The thrill is that we are free to go anywhere we want in the play of interpretation.
The principal delight of Rokeby's work is that he takes technology -- that ostensible servant of mankind that has come to feel like our master -- and frees it from utility, enticing it to serve our whim and our pleasure. Human creativity is placed at the helm, and that feels like a great liberation. That he also stimulates us to consider the way we humans experience and sort information, the way we prioritize and make sense of the world -- this is the bonus, the intellectual ballast that lends stability to his flight.
David Rokeby continues at Oakville Galleries until October 17, (905-844-4402).