The ISM Hexadome. Photo by Skye Sobejko

The problem with multimedia gallery installations

The ISM Hexadome at the MAC is technologically novel, but falls prey to the pitfalls of immersive art.

The ISM Hexadome, at the MAC as part of MUTEK Montreal, hails from The Institute for Sound & Music Berlin, and with its “advanced 52-channel speaker configuration” and its specially designed projection system onto six screens, it is, I suppose, very Berlin insofar as the city’s hard-partying art-rave culture precedes it. It’s also, I’m sad to report, representative of the bland internationalism that’s given me at least the Heebie-jeebies every time I’ve stepped into the chic and moderately clean high-ceilinged foyer of museums the world over. Maybe the guards are armed to greater or lesser degrees, but when you squat down onto the concrete floor to enjoy some big city multimedia art, you best believe those immense gallery cushions will look and smell the same, and that the multimedia you’re going to consume is stoner psychedelia to which some curator has affixed a paragraph or two whose tone greatly inflates the work’s intellectual significance.

Let’s take Frank Bretschneider & Pierce Warnecke’s Approximate Accuracy, one of the nine works created for the Hexadome, as an example. While it’s not untrue to claim that, in the piece, “vertical bar-based elements overlap to create dense and abstract fields that encourage viewers to explore the real and perceived sense of synchronization between sound and image,” I would hazard that Approximate Accuracy is a lot more like staring into some rustling Venetian blinds on rather a lot of mushrooms. It’s vaguely stimulating, and like staring into the glow of an old TV’s test screen (which the piece also resembles), it might make your mind wander in pleasing and/or upsetting ways, but why is this the kind of spineless stuff that inevitably comprises the 360˚ audiovisual experience?

Why, for instance, despite curatorial claims to the contrary, does the audio component of this type of show nearly always sound like an oversized vehicle circling the gallery? Or like some horrible malfunctioning lawn mower (with little bleeps and bloops to assure you this is effortful art), invariably at painfully loud volumes? Even Thom Yorke’s contribution to the Hexadome, City Rats, his collaboration with Tarik Barri, is just self-indulgently spooky: Yorke’s disembodied lips hovering before you, his howl echoing around you. I’m convinced that whole swaths of gallery-goers are terrified of seeming like philistines and therefore stay mum about just how cavernously empty this sort of art feels.

Partying inside the Hexadome would be great, but putting what is really an audiovisual accompaniment to party culture inside a gallery space completely misses the point. You ought to be consensually groping the person(s) next to you while the pretty dream-like lights fall on your faces, not earnestly staring at those same lights and pondering their meaning during daylight hours. The atmosphere is absorbing, but it’s still just background. The substance of the experience ought to be your incoherent babbling/aforementioned groping/petting your own hands in hideous clammy fear. To claim that these videos contain substantive ideas in their own right, beyond some albeit impressive technical feats, is often a reach.  

Somewhere in the centre of the Hexadome, as Peter Van Hoesen & Heleen Blanken Adaptive Enquiry No. 1 sent what looked like magnified flower sex organs dreamily floating across those six expensive screens, I swear I heard some poor guy’s apneustic snores.

Now, what I am curious about, is Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! playing on two occasions within the Hexadome. Some polarizing and chaotic cinema, in-the-round with feverish surround-sound? Fun! The Hexadome is just a projection system, not the art in-and-of itself. Likewise, Retina, two live performances by the “local audiokinetic sculptor Herman Kolgen” may well present a more stimulating experience than the colourful but ultimately anaesthetizing experience of the Hexadome’s short video line-up. ■

The Hexadome is at the Musée d’art contemporain (185 Ste-Catherine W.) until Sept 2. $12 for admission to the Hexadome only; $20 for the Hexadome and Rebecca Belmore both; $20 for Retina or Mother!