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
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.
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.