Rachel Hanlon on her artistic PhD research

Hello Machine – Venice

‘Intersections of Art, Science and Technology’  - Stephan Wilson, 2003
“Art is no longer seen as a linear affair, dealing in harmony, completion, resolution, closures composed and ordered finality. Instead it is open-ended, even fugitive, fleeting, tentative, virtual. Forming rather than formed, it celebrates process, embodies system, embraces chaos. The technology of these transformative systems fulfills a profound human desire: to transcend the limitations of body, time, and space; to escape language, to defeat metaphors of self and identity that alienate and isolate, that imprison mind in solipsistic systems.” (Wilson, 2003, p. 483)

My art practice and PhD research, simply put, examines how found materials, cultural 'objects' in particular, that were once significant to a generation simply as technological devices, may surpass their intended purpose, and evolve (transform) into another 'thing' altogether.

The definition of a 'thing' that I refer to is informed by Heidegger's notion of 'thingness' as being when an object comes into 'presence', a particular way of 'being' in the world, and academic Bill Brown's expansion of this idea through his writings on 'thing theory’. I use media archaeological art methods, in my practice; which are a broad array of different processes which are used to discuss/analyse/critique old and new technologies, create new media art, and archive their histories.

My research entails appropriating, and re-articulating found materials to produce affects that tap into and allow new configurations of sensation, spatial orientation, memory and ideas of nostalgia, culture and personal experiences. This will construct a dialogue between the ideas and everyday practices of the past to contrast them with the present.

There is a shifting landscape in the realm of how we communicate with one another through modern day telecommunication platforms, and as this technology evolves or becomes obsolete, what is also made obsolete is a set of relationships, values and meanings they bind together. If we have the understanding that a technological device, an object, can be developed and shaped by the lives of those who live with it as an extension of their selves, then when a device, such as this, becomes obsolete, the object becomes a thing that embodies those parts of ‘themselves’ they shared with the object. It is within my creative practice as an artist, that I examine these complex intersections that emerge among the past and the present, self-expression and collective forms of communication.

The point of interrogating these intersections is to reveal how an object can be used as a literal transformation point in the construction of a metaphor for cultural evolution, through the complex layering of embedded meanings that inevitably arrive at obsolescence. ‘Things’ can give testimony to who we are as ‘people’, notions of nostalgia, collective memory and artistic speculation can be understood when viewing the previous functionality of objects, inflected by artistic curation and modification.

My practice led research process has consisted of inventing a way to recreate some sort of metaphorical and literal interaction with objects and 'things', hoping to re-awaken in viewers a renewed observation of their own connections, and Hello Machines, with their constructed cinematic appeal, become unique vessels through which to assess an interdisciplinary enquiry, as participants reveal aspects of their relationship to the technology directly, by using the media under examination.

The benefit of researching obsolete technologies within the sphere of the arts, through ‘re-animation’ of the object, you are gaining a different archive of our media histories, one that is living and breathing for the public.

For what I have found, by repositioning the payphone, which was such a familiar and integral part of our lives, into a gallery setting, I can reveal and articulate its layered meanings for the viewer, by triggering affects that tapped into its historical and social content in relation to our notions of self, identity and place.

The viewer, as well as myself, are the cultural producers and consumers who have determined how this technology has evolved and transformed. For that reason, it is paramount to the integrity of the work that I include their voices, their memories and their bodily engagement within the construction of the resulting works. Therefore, witnessing the Hello Machine in use is as equally important as listening to the calls, for what you don’t get to ‘hear’ on the recordings are the faces of those watching, those lining up to take their turn, which has the wonderful visual of being similar to images from the past of the same occurrence, with a traditional payphone.

It is through humans that machines become things, and through our interactions with them as ‘things’, that humans have the possibility of becoming ‘people’ to one another. Connecting to their humanity, and to one another. On August 15th, 1877, Alexander Graham Bell’s voice became electrified and he called out “Ahoy!” “Are you there?” “Do you hear me?”, those vocal vibrations are still pulsating around the earth and out into the Universe, and we all seem to still be searching for someone, man or machine, to say to us… “Yes, we are here, we hear you!”.

Rachel Hanlon