Welcome to Here—24,859 Miles Away

Inspired by Voltaire, Reed art show “Academy of Saturn” captures the imagination through sight, sound, and even smell.

By Fiona McCann | February 15, 2018

My wig is gone.

Is this the earthquake or is my upstairs neighbor having another drum circle?

Heal me coconut water.

So read three of the myriad “bricks” that form the Portland Wall, a work of art currently standing in Reed’s Cooley Gallery as part of a new show entitled The Academy of Saturn. It’s an arresting physical structure assembled from social-media updates captured within a five-mile radius of the college by the British artists behind the show, Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead. Each tweet or Facebook post has become a graphic poster, and together they form a whole that is both poetic and material, and occasionally absurd.

It’s a description that in many ways could apply to the entirety of the show, which takes its name from a 260-year-old science fiction novella by Voltaire called Micromégas, in which a pair of gargantuan aliens visit Earth and strike up a conversation with some philosophically versed humans they can only see through a microscope.

Stripped of context, the data these artists use as found material finds new function—becoming commentary, communication, and serving as a form of documentary practice Thomson and Craighead say is central to their artistic approach.

Take a seat behind the Portland Wall and you find yourself watching a series of slides found in the harbor archives of Aberdeen in Scotland—old images of docked boats, bucolic landscapes, snowy peaks, British royalty—while listening to an accompanying narrative created by the artists, a pairing that comprises Control Room. As the grazing cows in one image make way for an aerial harbor view in the next, an interrogator asks questions of an interviewee who can only answer repeatedly that he can’t remember, he doesn’t know, he can’t say. The audio recontexutalises the images, lending an eerie quality to the found footage that forces the audience to make new sense of what they’re seeing. It’s documentary pointedly wrestling with the constraints of memory and our need for narrative cohesion—and it’s spookily affecting.

The documentary impulse is exemplified in Horizon, which Craighead calls “an electronic sundial,” showing every timezone in the world in storyboard form. Live webcams in places as far flung as Samoa and St. Petersburg form part of this tapestry of longitudinal time, a live feed that it is somehow both literal and lyrical.

Another piece, Corruption, comprises a series of colored light boxes containing image-frames from a corrupted computer file viewed on a video player. Seen in its new context, the information morphs into something resembling abstract paintings, pixelated colors bleeding into each other and shifting as the viewer moves, an example of what the artists call “drawing with data.” For Untitled (balloon work), a screen showing footage of a group of women popping dozens of balloons to clear an area after a corporate balloon drop provides the staccato, gunfire-like audio backdrop to the physical balloons that float across the gallery floor, with the names of military actions and operations—like Valiant Guardian (2007, Iraq War) or Bayonet Lightning (2003, Iraq war)—printed on their shining, taut surfaces. Once again, found footage reinterpreted creates new context—in this case, an audio accompaniment to the warlike messages on the bouncing party props all around.

If the cacophony of popping corporate balloons has not pushed you to contemplate mankind’s doom, be it through corporate culture or outright war, Apocalypse might. It’s a fragrance created with perfumer Euan McCall based on olfactory notes the artists culled from the bible’s Book of Revelation: “blood,” “flesh,” “thunder,” etc. The sweeter notes? Turns out that’s the kind of putrid scent a rotting body gives off, according to Craighead. “We’re at a period where we really feel the weight of the apocalypse,” she says. Their response is a sensual reinterpretation of biblical data, a sensory experience that brings together the art and the absurd.

Thomson and Craighead also let their work bleed out of the gallery space. Beacon projects live search-engine phrases on the library walls, a physical intrusion and connection with the ongoing project of humanity that also serves to document real time. And finally—or initially, depending on where you begin your experience of The Academy of Saturn—right outside the building, you find Here, a regulation American street sign in a newly created iteration for this Portland show. It shows the distance in miles from the sign itself in a circumnavigation of the globe north or southwards. Thomson calls it “an imaginary drawing,” and Craighead “an absurd gesture,” both of which get to the heart of an exhibit in which a profound and lyrical aesthetic coexists with a raised eyebrow and works in tension with our philosophical flailing—like our tiny Voltairian representatives—in search of meaning in daily human practice. If found data and corrupt files and Google computer searches and random, geo-located tweets can find artistic form, then this is the place for it. Here, 24,859 miles away from the inescapable present.

The Stephen E. Ostrow Distinguished Visitors Program in the Visual Arts was established by a generous 1988 gift from Edward and Sue Cooley and John and Betty Gray in support of art history and its place in the humanities. The lecture program enables Reed College's art department to bring distinguished individuals in the arts to the college for periods of up to a week. These visitors give public lectures and seminars with students.

The intent of the program is to bring to campus creative people who are distinguished in connection with the visual arts and who will provide "a forum for conceptual exploration, challenge, and discovery." The program is named in honor of art historian Dr. Stephen E. Ostrow, as a tribute to his career and out of respect for his advisory role in the formulation of the Cooley-Gray gift and the design of the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery. Ostrow is the Emeritus Chief of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Jon Thomson (b. 1969) and Alison Craighead (b. 1971) are artists living and working in London. They make artworks and installations for galleries and specific sites including online spaces. Much of their recent work looks at live networks like the web and how they are changing the way we all understand the world around us. Having both studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, Thomson is Reader in Fine Art at The Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, while Craighead is a reader in contemporary art and visual culture at University of Westminster and lectures in Fine Art at Goldsmiths University.

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