Anthony Gardner, 2002
What does it mean to live in a virtual world and a virtual age? Does it mean to exist in a plain reducible to VR, ambient digital television and the like – where everything is information, movements can be algorhythmically encoded and people are merely statistics of use? Or can virtuality be understood as separate from the digitality through which we define it in the twenty-first century? Recent philosophers, such as Deleuze and Guattari and Pierre LÈvy, suggest that virtuality is as present and as real as ‘reality’, because it is the basis and constitution of that construct we call reality. It is a problem to be solved in whatever way we can – thoughts we need to express with the right words, an idea that needs to be worked through in as many ways as possible to reach the best solution. Virtuality is not (just) immateriality, or information, or encodings outside the real, but a very present knot of forces to which we respond daily, but from which any response is possible.
It is precisely this problem of virtuality that Mathieu Gallois investigates with his art. There is something inherently unstable and unsettling that underlies his ‘objects’: the incredibly exact, full-scale simulacra of a kit-home and a fast-food outlet in Frontier and Drive Thru, that are built in disposable polystyrene; the sculptural oasis of Flesh that is daubed in Chroma Key blue paint, the same paint used by set designers and special effects wizards for the digital recomposition of film imagery; the transparent perspex that makes up, though barely makes out, the form of Caravan. Thematically, these works are simulacra of simulacra (a franchise, a set design, a ubiquitous vehicle to transport us from the banalities of working life). Physically, our perception of the materiality of these ‘objects’ can be broken down at any time due to their immanent transience. In a filmic reality (a construct through which much quotidian reality is filtered, as the World Trade Center collapse showed), Flesh could look starkly different from its set design; Frontier was eroded and ultimately destroyed by the elements and curious passers-by. These inconstant, double simulacra exist within that very fine threshold between personal desire and its manifestation, presence and absence, the real and its mirrored constructions. The inherent transience of the apparently material shakes up and problematises what we take for granted as actual and definable. Gallois’ object/non-object art requires a different understanding of perception, one that returns the act of seeing, of knowing, to a knot of problematic forces – to a state of virtuality, in a process of virtualisation.
The desire to re-define and ensure the objects’ materiality – often through touch, as with Frontier or Caravan – dissolves the object further. The will to define, possess and control undermines itself through that same act: polystyrene breaks off in your hand; perspex is scoured with fingerprints. Unlike so many digital understandings of virtualisation, where the body is but Gibsonian meat and immaterial data, Gallois’ art insists that corporeality and physicality, touch and chance lie at the core of a very real virtualisation.
This is not to deny Gallois’ interest in digital theory as underpinning the contemporary virtual. Apart from Flesh’s allusion to recomposition, there are the non-linear, multiple narratives, or hypertexts, that thread through Gallois’ photographs of 386 passengers aboard a Boeing 747 in Flight 934-B. Figures snapped in one photograph lean and lounge into others – an arm here, a face there – with viewers joining the dots to construct narratives of their own choosing, sometimes literally pointing people out by touching and smudging the photographs. Flight 934-Bís viewers wanted to make something real of this supposed document of a non-space between departure and arrival. Whether those narratives existed was irrelevant, as was the fact that the photographs were snapped on two flights rather than one flight 934-B. The crux is that, with Gallois’ work, we want to make some kind of sense from its problematic existence, even if that comes at the expense of whatever apparently constitutes the work itself.
This cycle of redefinition and virtualisation is not limited to the transient object, but to perception and the self in relation to the object. It is not enough simply to consider Gallois’ works through representation. We need to understand how they alter our perceptions, at the same time as our will to perceive can alter the work and, as a result, vary other people’s perceptions of that ever-changing object. Gallois’ aesthetic is relational, though not necessarily as an engagement with the artwork. When I look through Caravan, I see other people and the city of Canberra. When I’m trying to see details of the cramped configuration of Flight 934-Bís economy-class passengers – with the photos much smaller and less spaced-out than the depiction of first class – I’m squished between other people trying to do the same thing, delicately manoeuvring ourselves in a fractal mass to get the best view and understanding of the work. When the polystyrene is touched, its materiality assured, it begins to change appearance. The materiality of the work, and Gallois’ ‘hand’ in creating its initial form, are almost insubstantial when my experience of them affects the experiences of others. My relational engagement is with other perceivers of Gallois’ work – past, present and future – as based on chance, uncertainty and virtuality.
It is this transitory experience of negotiating with and relating to others that is crucial to perceiving Galloisí ‘objects’. In order to understand, and to respond to virtuality’s problematic knot, I must negotiate. This most quotidian of actions, based on chance and the individual desire to make sense from virtuality, underlies the tensions of Gallois’ art. Looking through Caravan and into Canberra, it is precisely this awareness of negotiation and the inherent and indeterminable potential of people and art alike that makes his work so important today. Our experiences of it expose as illusory the rhetoric of Parliamentary bodies, corporate marketeers and digital programmers, relying as they do on the statistics of the ‘ordinary’ Australian, consumer or user. Gallois’ reliance on virtualisation celebrates how actions, perceptions and art itself are instead neither determinable nor definable. They are negotiable and soluble and, like the people who experience them, are perpetually and inherently virtual. In a world seen through Gallois’ art, possibility is endless.