What is consciousness? What is the self? Where else is consciousness found? Can we engineer new versions of it?
These are questions that have long been a subject of inquiry, stitching themselves through the labours of artists, psychologists and – more latterly – neuroscientists. It’s a topic that spans both scientific discourse and pop-culture, from AI studies to the use of hallucinogenic drugs. This is where Robbie Thomson, founding member of the collective 85A and current Cryptic associate, begins with Infinite Lives, a performative installation that gathers together these forays into consciousness in a work that’s overwhelming, confusing and by its end, horrifying.
Robbie Thomson presents an intriguing array apparatus as we first enter the intimate confines of Tramway 4, a set teeming with possibilities. There’s the artist himself – sat in dim light behind scores of boards, keys and dials, ghosting his laboratory-like environment off-stage centre. The rear is dominated by a large projector screen and the front by different experiments, a mix of petri-dishes, cameras and the skeletal-like frames that support them. Most notably there’s a – what I estimate to be silicon – head, seemingly severed from its body, with wires bleeding out of it. All the wires lead back to the artist, the scientist, the creator – and there’s a pleasure to be found in tracing them before the work begins in earnest, trying to figure out how it all works, what the source of these strange creatures might be.
When the performance begins it builds slowly and then rapidly accelerates, bursting into life with noise, light and binary. Electron microscopy – a strange dance of shapes – is layered through code that’s falling down the back wall. A kinetic sculpture, looking like a severed arm with an eye, some sort of early life form or surveillance system, shines a light into the audience. A barely intelligible voice speaks, modulated to the point of being incomprehensible, more noises mixing with noise. Ears bleeding, lights blinding, it’s intensely confusing and disorientating. At its best, Infinite Lives seems to push at the boundaries of your brain, nudging you into a different way of seeing, feeling, and experiencing. It’s an intense piece of work – definitely not for all audiences, and indeed, some people do choose to leave – but it does have the capacity to shift you within yourself.
One aspect of the work, however, is that it is intensely confusing in a manner where the confusion is always produced by the same means – becoming predictably unpredictable as a result. After the initial pleasure at meeting the work head-on it’s easy to become desensitised to all the flashing lights and all the noise. It’s really cool to look at but I’m not sure I’m engaging with it on any level below its surface. Moreover, the work as a whole seems to speak to a culture of acceleration and, in a passage involving a second-life esque AI sardonically lamenting that his thoughts are governed by Microsoft, the pervasiveness of digital technologies on our contemporary experience of consciousness. This is ground that’s been tread before and, with a storm of noise, light, sound and image, we’ve seen presented in this way too. The work, in short, isn’t particularly varied, despite the constant variation that’s happening on stage – and grows a little wearying as a result.
Having said that, the work closes with the substantial change in pace I was craving – and in doing so provides Infinite Lives most affecting moment. A light rises on an unused experiment on the right-hand side of the stage. It’s a brain, bloodied, lying on an metallic operating tray. Above it are six needles on robotic arms. A camera turns on, a close up image of this dissected grey matter looms across the rear wall. The needles begin to move in rotation, taking it in turns to jab at the object in front of them, each meeting between robot and body, material and flesh, accompanied with a shrill, piercing, noise. This image is held, the movements repeated – and this horrifying image is given enough time to bury itself into my brain. I’m not sure what it means but it causes me to shift, twist, squint and wrestle, arresting myself away by any means necessary. I’m confronted by something, something unknown, something that pushes me outside of me.
Infinite Lives was on as part of Sonica 2017 at Tramway, which runs until 5 November 2017. Click here for more details.