June 01, 2022
CUTTING THROUGH THE CENTER of the Australian pavilion is an enormous video screen, almost as big as the walls. Beside it sits a giant stack of amps, like a punctuation mark to a particularly emphatic billboard. Six in all, they are arranged in a grid-like ziggurat, the kind that might inspire a roadie’s ultimate (now archaic) words of praise: “sick stack.”Draped and coiled cables link them to an oversized computer hidden out of sight beneath the stage, where the number-crunching for the synchronization of images and sound takes place. On screen, the pictures appear in grayscale. The austerity of the still images is oddly accentuated by their high resolution. The blacks are very black and the refresh rate is well beyond human perception. What we have here is a doom metal aesthetic replete with all the machinery required to blow the audience away. The scale and aggression of the apparatus recalls the famous essay by the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler: “Rock Music: A Misuse of Military Equipment.”
Next to the speakers, facing away from the audience, artist Marco Fusinato plays an electric guitar. He will keep playing it for the next two hundred days. The music is more meditative than one might expect. Almost scholarly, in fact. It loops, warbles, and rumbles through the room. It’s loud, of course, but there’s also a palpable restraint given the massive oversupply of technology. Nonetheless, you can hear the base tones before you enter the building. Indeed, you can hear it throughout the Giardini. The recently built pavilion trembles a little. Fusinato’s electric guitar, with its anodized black aluminum body, feeds into a customized effects pedal referred to as the “Desastres Control Unit." The artist can control how long an image stays visible, but the selection of images itself is randomized. As he explained it to me, Fusinato himself does not fully understand his instrument. He does not know how the Control Unit will respond to his improvisations. He has to study it and learn how to cooperate with it over the two hundred days of the performance. It is reprogramming him.
The image set was culled from a long period of apocalyptic Googling, undertaken during the extended pandemic lockdown in Melbourne, the longest in the world. In his boredom and frustration, Fusinato began a process of collecting pictures that might function as omens of our collective doom. Sometimes when the artist could not be bothered to download and encode files, he would photograph his computer screen with an iPhone camera. On the giant screen, these images appear one after another. Press photographs of conflict are replaced by exuberantly violent scenes from illustrated manuscripts and folk woodcuts, only to be overlaid in turn by simple snapshots of domestic mishaps. Burnt houses, burnt toast, burnt martyrs—they all tumble over each other at the bidding of the algorithm. Sometimes an image of, say, a vomiting cat might stay on the screen seemingly interminably; at other times, it will appear for barely long enough to be clocked by an attentive viewer, before making way for a woodcut of an injured limb or a blurred photograph of some teenagers throwing rocks at tanks.
The coding tightly syncs sound and image in a way that is both unpredictable and clearly calculated. Our pupils dilate to become wide enough to take it all in, producing a sense of wonder that is as much physiological as conceptual. As with the audio output, the visuals maintain a certain restraint. The stark black-and-white gives them a sheen of reportorial objectivity, and imposes an aesthetic consistency to the otherwise inchoate images. What is displayed is also carefully cropped to remain anticlimactic, as if we are always on the verge of seeing something that could permanently scar the psyche, but never quite do.
Fusinato’s started to prepare his archive during a crisis that is already a memory, a crisis before the present one, with the images selected long before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine (though documentation of that conflict has since filtered in as well.) Now it seems almost obscenely prescient. Fusinato’s accessible iconography and concert equipment encapsulates what is simultaneously good and objectionable in some of the most memorable art coming out of Australia. The installation is completely unpretentious. The work carries an immediate and visceral force as well as a virtuosity that is itself the product of isolation, of endless hours playing electric guitar to no one at all. But there is also a troubling level of detachment built into the play of images. The aestheticization of disaster seems to confirm that the end of the world will be experienced as a kind of spectacle: a sick stack.
Adam Jasper is a researcher at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (GTA) at ETH Zurich and edits the journal GTA Papers.