Japanese electronic composer and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda‘s relentlessly ambitious 2012 conception superposition, presented at the Barbican in London on 27-28 March 2013, explores the human relationship to science and technology as we discover new concepts that go beyond the remit of our generic day-to-day routine. In so doing, Ikeda demonstrates a divide between widely available technologies and systems, and the capacity of any user majority to grasp the fundamental principles that are at work.
Palpable suspense and uncertainty pervaded the dark Barbican auditorium as a capacity audience wondered just what was going to happen when the lights went out completely. From an artist renowned for ground breaking audio visual experiments, we awaited superposition, a conception hellbent on the principles of Quantum Theory. In those last few minutes before showtime, I began dwelling on what little I knew about systems theory and the property in question. My knowledge was minimal, and so it remains, for despite the mathematical edge that lines the project’s experimental core, nothing was to be divulged from an objective, academic standpoint. But lack of technical, or even theoretical understanding has yet to impinge on the enjoyment of past Ikeda works, such as 2008’s exquisite Test Pattern, and so my interest remained geared around witnessing the artist’s technology-heavy interpretation of ideas, presented through a scientific lens. Over the years, this enigmatic Japanese artist has built his reputation as a practitioner keen on pushing the boundaries of restraint through exercising extremes; loud vs quiet, passive vs violent. In the context of “mathematical notions of Quantum Mechanics,” this was sure to be a powerful spectacle.
The theatre eased into darkness a few seconds before a set of screens at the front of the stage started to flash in time to an assortment of shrill and penetrating electronic bleeps. The flickering light illuminated what appeared to be a second row of displays positioned just behind the first. The flashing slowly intensified, synchronized with an electrified aural jolt that spun bass, feedback and high-frequency sine waves into the mix. It was a delirious sensation, particularly when the pace picked up and the second layer of screens began to pulsate with no regard for order or tendency other than a distinct randomness. They pulsed with increasing rapidity before the cinema sized screen placed behind the other two rows thrust shards of electrified blasts into a deep and gripping visual spasm.
In addition to the inspiration drawn from Quantum Theory, superposition is also Ikeda’s first production to employ the use of performers onstage. Stéphane Garin and Amélie Grould appeared as “operators / conductors / observers / examiners.” I was keen to see how they would interact with the composer’s plasmic shock triggers, the transmitters of experimentation in Ikeda’s sonic lab of wild tech. They emerged from either side of the setup, dressed in white shirts and seemingly disconnected from the audience. Garin and Grould proceeded to sit at a table in the centre of the stage, where they played out a course of coded frequencies as a wave pattern generated on the large screen. They moved their hands frantically to generate more sound, tapping on the instruments laid out before them. They perched amidst such unsystematic visual projections and appeared to expose some weird vacancy, an absence from their setting, as though they were scientists in a research facility, generating sonic extremity for the purposes of scientific advancement.
Further complicating their relationship with the audience, Garin and Grould then switched on two micro cameras that were resting by their fingers as they hammered out the next series of code, which translated into bright messages adjusted to the time of their rhythm. A number of statements worked their way across the screen, anonymous but direct, and bound with intent. “I N F O R M A T I O N I S N O T K N O W L E D G E” read one transmission, broadcast for the benefit of intrigued onlookers who then observed the researchers stand up, place the cameras in a different position and promptly exit. Though this was the first Ikeda performance to feature actual people performing, their presence was calculated enough to lay challenge to that claim. They were detached to the point of being mechanical. It was a spectacle near impossible to engage with on an empathetic or emotive level, but that made the destructive nature of the accompanying sound and visuals that much more enticing.
That level of human detachment led to one of the major themes throughout the evening: climax. Once the performers had left, the screens flickered, bleeped and blasted an absurd juxtaposition of electronic malfunction, leading to a serene display of atomic particles floating and morphing in some frightening void. Ikeda’s humans then returned to perform a number of onstage experiments involving small plastic ball bearings and nonsensical word puzzles. The performance revolved around random activity and chance, but even in the minimalist gauze of the latter section, there was a sense of pressure, of buildup, of the act leading to something powerful and climatic. At this point, the performers gave their most excellent scene. They sat, unperturbed, while the entire set came to life around them, a hideous jungle of flare and noise intermeshed with fantastically loud bleeps and glitches. The visuals, which had spawned from that patient, particle star-scape, then depicted a monstrous mashing of imagery, from scientific graphics, natural landscapes, numerical patterns, and particle dissection, all shredded up and split across every available outlet. It was a sensory bombardment of the most fierce kind, and the perfect way to conclude.
superposition was a reminder of the stylistic components that have been quintessential to Ikeda’s output for many years. His desire to work within various degrees of extremity in both audio and visual mediums were most apparent here, and so was the gear he had at his disposal. The human performers in his show were intentionally displaced and utterly concentrated in the results they they achieved through their machines and experiments. Without indicating a degree of emotion, they themselves were then washed away in their own forceful swarm of electronics, noise and data.
Daniel Emmerson is a documentary filmmaker and writer currently residing in London. Follow him on Twitter: @danielemmerson.