London

Darrell Viner

Cafegallery

Pebble-dash outside, bare roughcast and whitewash within, the 1886 mission church that houses Darrell Viner’s site-specific installation Eight Times Three, 2000, combines the spare elegance of an early Christian basilica with the utilitarian grottiness of a public lavatory. Viner’s catalogue statement wryly labels it a “bunker”: group headquarters for crack teams of Victorian evangelists hell-bent on saving the heathen souls of Bermondsey. A pioneering example of reinforced concrete construction, the mission sits on a giant raft of concrete, an abandoned ark implausibly floating on a sea of soft London mud.

Eight Times Three both intensifies and subverts the unforgiving character of this peculiar building, a temporary home for the Cafe Gallery while its usual premises undergo Lottery-funded improvements. Thirty-six eleven-and-a-half-foot steel bars lean against the nave’s walls. Their lower ends are anchored to the floor; pistons are attached about two-thirds of the way up (a point determined by the golden section?) and blue air tubes trail down. Six floor-level sensors detect visitors’ movements and trigger the pistons, forcing the bars to crash loudly against the flint-aggregate walls. But Eight Times Three moves in mysterious ways: A computer program intervenes between sensors and pistons, generating complex and unpredictable configurations of movement from the data gathered. Every encounter with the piece is unique. Sometimes the bars sound off consecutively, producing a seemingly dutiful but tone-deaf parody of traditional English bell-ringing (with its arcane “methods” and “rules”). At other times, demons take over. Individual bars clang, apparently at random. Trying to pinpoint the source of each crash, the visitor whirls round and about, but vainly—the bars are too quick. At still other times, a small mechanical miracle takes place. The hydraulic valves operate on their own, uttering a disconcertingly human-sounding “tut-tut” that circles the church several times at increasing speed, metamorphosing into a tiny bird- or batlike flutter: a Holy Spirit flight simulator? When the flagellant bars fall still in this semi-derelict place, their din likewise decays dramatically. The spectacle is entertaining and exciting, but also disquieting. It’s somehow akin to reading the Mass backward: It tempts fate, piquing repressed superstitions.

A computer-art pioneer, Viner has focused (since 1990) on the production of kinetic installations, whose quasi-minimalist forms are typically infused with an anarchic, often subtly perverse, sensibility. Consistently preoccupied with an investigation of instrumental rationality and systems of control, Viner’s work is also genuinely site-specific, and his ability to allow his agendas to emerge convincingly from the physical forms of, and histories and ideologies encoded in, particular sites is impressive. Usually interactive, his pieces make the condition of theatricality (in Michael Fried’s sense) intrinsic to their critical purpose; without overstressing the connection, it’s worth noting the implications this work has for ongoing debates about the rhetoric and criticality of Minimalism. Eight Times Three is deceptively simple: A multiplicity of possible readings arises from the interaction of the material objects installed, the abstract systems generated, the phenomenal environment created, and the behavior that the piece elicits from viewers. Its apparatuses do double service, both mimicking manipulative and coercive practices and taking up the position of the subjects under control. It consequently resists tidy summary—just as, one might point out, the business of inhabiting a simultaneously policed and self-policing subjectivity resists direct or definitive articulation.

Rachel Withers