Liverpool art review: Winter Sparks at FACT

“Are you going in?” asks a friendly Gallery Attendant, perched on a stool outside the gallery. I affirm that I am. “This one builds up slowly,” he says mysteriously. OK…

I walk down a corridor, with no idea what is round the corner. There is a noise like the crackle of static. At the end of the corridor I turn into a room that is so opaquely black, another person could have been in there and I wouldn’t have known. The crackle has intensified into a sensation that’s akin to standing in your garden watching other people’s fireworks over the fence when you’re too cheap to buy your own.

Winter Sparks is a stripped-down, quintessential FACT show. Immersive, sensory, playful and delivering what it claims on the tin: creative technology. But – apologies for the cheesy question – is it art? I’m always wary of pseudo-science art exhibitions, worrying that I come away learning less than I would from watching a Royal Society Christmas lecture. However, Winter Sparks doesn’t wear its scientific theory on its sleeve; it is confrontational and textured – and evokes memories and emotions in a way that only good art can.

Evolving Spark Network by Edwin can der Heide is an artwork that’s not for the migraine prone. After some minutes the lights start to move in waves, accompanied by a noise like pulling a resistant plaster off skin. The lights and the sound become more frantic and urgent (“like an army of nails” is how one visitor described it). By the end I am struck by how thoughtfully it seems to have been produced, almost like an orchestral arrangement. At times it reminded me of marching drummers, other times a hailstorm, a crowd, gun-fire or applause.

I am glad I stayed until the end, and I was tempted to stay for another cycle. I wasn’t surprised to hear that some visitors stay for up to an hour but also unsurprised that Gallery Attendants wear noise-blocking head phones. Upstairs, the exhibition has further potential health and safety implications; before you enter I am warned: “Don’t touch anything, don’t trip over the plinths, don’t stand too close and,” a pause, “please turn your phone off.”

Behind the heavy black curtain Impacts, by Alexandre Burton, comprises two distinct but similar sculptures. Coils of copper suspended from the ceiling make sounds like mini lightning bolts as they emit purple veins of electricity onto panels of glass. The inflamed nerves reveal the rawness and aggression that we often forget are properties of electricity: ubiquitous and everyday but potentially lethal. One sculpture seems to be having a conversation with itself, but the other turns its angry voice directly on to the viewer.

As I descend the stairs, I get a good look at the last, and most humorous of the three exhibits, Wilberforces, by Peter Bosch & Simone Simons. Undulating above FACT’s central atrium are two microphones and what appears to be a smartphone dangling on the end of a slinky. The film that the phone is shooting (it wouldn’t be a FACT exhibition without an element of filming and live-feedback) is streamed into a small booth. With its Lynch-ian horror film production values, mysterious howling, fuzz and VHS vibe, the film may not be for everyone, but I could have sat there for hours.

The first exhibition in FACT’s 2013 programme is a good reminder of what this digital arts organisation does well. The show is takes as its theoretical starting point the inventor Nikola Tesla – the engineer who pioneered modern electrical supply systems and was known for his high-voltage electrical experiments – but it is possible to engage with the sculptures simply as good examples of minimalist art. Winter Sparks may not have the wow factor of 2011’s bar-raising ZEE, but it demonstrates that there is plenty of humour and emotion to be found in the field of creative technology.

Article first published on creativetourist.com January 2013

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