Volcano: Catalogue Essay by John Potts

The volcanic eruption is one of nature's greatest artworks. It throws off sound and light, heat and colour: an explosion of lava, noise and smoke. For centuries, artists have been drawn to the volcano's sheer violent beauty. The volcano also enters culture as symbol or metaphor, bringing with it a cache of forceful imagery. Eruption, instability and danger all attend the idea of the volcano. The volcano is unpredictable; it hurls things out, it breaks things up.

The Volcano of Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark contains all these elements, along with others of a more specific nature. Their volcano is Stromboli - or rather, a version of Stromboli as mediated by myth, technology and family history. According to Greek mythology, the god Hephaestus picked up the island Thira and threw it like a stone. It landed in the sea off Italy, giving birth to the volcanic island known as Stromboli. This act of the mythical Hephaestus - uprooting a piece of earth and hurling it elsewhere - is central to the Volcano constructed by Miranda and Neumark. It resonates with the story of Guisseppe Russo, Miranda's grandfather, who left Stromboli to settle in Australia. As he lost his sight, the memory of Stromboli, to which he never returned, became a stored inner vision for him. This uprootedness, this crossing of a gap, this space between the thing and its image, all recur as themes throughout the complex and poetic installation work that is Volcano. Miranda's images and Neumark's sound collaborate in startling ways in Volcano. The two artists use the grandfather's story as a starting-point, but not as an origin. It exists as a texture in the work, or as one stratum in a multi-layered geological form. The familiar discourse of migration, with its dominant themes of alienation and nostalgia, is not in effect here. Rather, Miranda and Neumark explore uprootedness in its many dimensions. The state of being uprooted is an unstable state; it creates unpredictability and confusion. It makes for an uncomfortable subject position, crossed with conflicting impulses. But, as the artists show in Volcano, it can also be a productive state.

The first thing the visitor to Volcano sees, when entering the installation space, is a long tangle of cables spilling out of an old suitcase. This is in fact Guisseppe Russo's former travelling suitcase, but it is not put to use here simply as a symbol of the migrant experience. The stream of cables, flowing from the suitcase and along the floor, suggests molten lava as it spews from a volcano. Inside the suitcase are four splitter boxes controlling the distribution of images in the installation. It becomes apparent that the flow of this technological lava is in fact two-way, composed of both electricity and data. The cables power the many small screens on display, while carrying back and forth the information determining the screens' content. At first the viewer assumes that these are video screens showing moving images. But this assumption is doubly wrong, as the viewer learns on closer inspection. The small boxes on the floor are old computer monitors, long superseded and now thrown away or recycled. They are themselves part of the refuse of the digital age. The images are still, but they appear to move at times because they are split across two screens. They jump across the gap between the monitors. This pair arrangement is repeated across the numerous monitors in the space - yet the multiple imagery and the randomness of their selection generate not a comforting repetition, but a thoroughly unpredictable array of images.
These images are taken by Miranda from many sources. There is a photograph of Stromboli, which was formerly in the possession of her grandfather. There are her own photographs of Stromboli, as well as images lifted from the internet. There is text: from Ionesco's telling of the Hephaestus myth; and from Jules Verne, whose Journey to the Centre of the Earth ends at Stromboli. There are sfumata works (painting with smoke on glass) by Miranda, in which smoke itself becomes the substance of the work. There are close-ups of eyes. These diverse stills have been processed into various stages of abstraction by Miranda, suggesting perhaps the blurriness of her grandfather's vision as it deteriorated. Just as relevant, however, is the suggestion of the digital gap. What goes missing between all those 0s and 1s? All images, including digital ones, are mere approximations of the world. The jumping between digital and analog in the image process is a series of translations between technological systems. Somewhere between the thing in the world and the image of it which we finally perceive, is a gap full of shifts and slippages: something goes missing. On the broader cultural plane, technological vision increasingly confronts human subjectivity. Machine vision, with its vast apparatus of cameras, screens and effects, threatens to eclipse human vision in the digital age, metaphorically blurring our collective gaze. The relation between vision and technology is further evident in the role of the computer monitors in Volcano. These otherwise obsolete little boxes are not transparent vehicles for the delivery of content. One is constantly aware of their presence, as the images jump and split between them. There is no central viewing position in this installation; such an "ideal" position is disrupted by the need to move around the space, manoeuvring between the monitors to catch the constantly changing images and their patterns. The monitors perform another, unexpected role in this work: some of them, of their own accord, alter their own content, changing the colour or splitting the images on their screens. It is as if these old (in digital terms) machines are adding their own input to Volcano's volatile mix.

Expectations are continually confounded in Volcano. There is the dislocation of viewing expectations; there is the defying of any expectations of digital perfection (malfunctioning old monitors in a new media work). This process of disruption is compounded by the sound in Volcano, designed by Neumark. The sound is multiple, made of disparate sources darting around the many speakers in the installation. There is no ideal listening position, none of the comforting illusion provided by "surround" sound. Sounds seem to be thrown between the speakers, like the island thrown by Hephaestus. The listener must move around the space to properly hear these sounds.

The individual elements of the sound design include recordings at Stromboli and other volcanic locations. There are crunching footsteps, there are pebbles being thrown. There are the ominous sounds of the volcano itself, bubbling and hissing through cracks in the earth. There are the voices of Stromboli locals, reciting the myth of Hephaestus in their dialect. There is no search for the "authentic" locality here, however, no nostalgia for the true voice of the region. Like everything else in Volcano, these voices are broken up; they become one fractured piece in a swirling mass of fractured pieces. The diverse sound bits are repeated in random combinations across the speakers, defying any singularity. The sound design of Volcano, made from limited source material, performs a vital function in the work. In it we hear the noise of the volcano, we hear its steam, we feel its dirt. We also experience these sounds as noise in the digital system: this is no "clean" digital sound. It is unsettling in both its earthiness and its random eruptions.
The relation between the sound and the images is not a comfortable one. There is no synchronisation between them, unless by accident. They are two versions of Stromboli, or two versions of uprootedness. The visitor to the installation, with no fixed viewing or listening position, must navigate between these fragmentary sounds and sights. As sounds and images are thrown around the space, at times a felicitous union between them may occur - but then again, it may not. Nothing is assured.
Many gaps are traversed in Volcano (the gap bewteen sound and image is one of them). Another is the gap between Miranda and Neumark themselves, as the two collaborators on the work. One provides the images, the other the sound; these two offerings come together in ways surprising even to the artists themselves. The visitor experiences something of this surprise in moving through the installation. Confusions and connections spring forth at random from the gaps between the monitors and the speakers.

One of the great merits of Volcano is the artists' refusal of the easy position. Many new media works provide ready-made pathways for the user, in the name of "interactivity". The process offered the user in such instances is usually a comforting one. The subject is assured of its central position, accepting the appearance of control as it navigates the pre-ordained pathways. In Volcano, to the contrary, nothing is controllable. There is a wealth of material and information, but the visitor must glean an impression from the flux of the work.


Miranda and Neumark have created that rare thing: a new media work that demands - and repays - prolonged attention. It rewards repeat visits, such is the richness of the installation. Too many new media works are more interesting in concept than execution, or are gimmicky, or are bedazzled by the technology's wonders. By contrast, Volcano revels not in digital perfection, but imperfection. It reveals the dirt and the gaps in the system. It gives us both fascination and dislocation, both beauty and loss. It is continually erupting, like a volcano.

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