Author: Ruth Saxon
First Site Gallery Winter Residency Artists Experiment on Art with Seductive Results
Image Courtesy: Sarah Lay
Samantha Sommariva and Jobe Williams, both artists in residence at RMIT’s First Site Gallery this winter, work in new media and share a penchant for projections and experimental music. It is at this shared interest however that their practises depart. In fact, it’s difficult to draw parallels between these two very distinct artist’s. Working alongside each other in the open studio space at First Site their individual practices, although sharing technical features, quickly diverged over the course of the month-long residency held during the RMIT mid-semester break this year.
The program itself provided a public studio space within the gallery, a ‘laboratory’ or experimental environment, in which students were encouraged to further extend their practise. Along with three other artists, Williams and Sommariva were expertly arranged, tetris style, in the various compartments of First Site by Curator Simon Pericich. Working with industry mentors, multidisciplinary creative Kit Webster and performance artist Katie Sfetkidis, the students hunkered down for a month of intense art-making, culminating in a dynamic exhibition of their work. In fact the residency demonstrated what free reign and a little expert guidance can produce. Essentially an explosion of ideas, some bewitching, others visually astounding; an intriguing first look at these emerging artists’ promising careers.
Jobe Williams, a Design student at RMIT, majoring in Digital Media, lists amongst his influences the great John Whitney, a pioneering digital animator, famous for the hypnotic opening sequence of the Alfred Hitchcock film ‘Vertigo’. The abstract even psychedelic feel of William’s work’ did indeed seem to pay homage to this work, with the additional promise of a ‘transcendental’ experience. Williams’s grounding in design came through strongly in his work, which via some stylishly composed projections, the artist explained attempts to “simulate transcendental experiences” which he hopes will “give people some sort of…glimpse or incite…beyond our ordinary perceptions”. In fact the digital projections presented at the residency exhibition did have a hypnotic effect. Controlled ‘live’ via an interface manipulated by Williams, the projections undulated rhythmically on gauze screens hung from the ceiling throughout William’s intimate segment of the gallery. Echoing the synthesis between music and image, like his idol before him, Williams’s Chromatic C.A.V.E (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) featured a DJ set by Williams and a live performance by Tilly, a Melbourne Vocalist. The addition of these vocals provided a powerful and melodious counterpoint to the oscillating projections. As if pitting Bridget Riley against Jackson Pollock and your backyard tie-dye-aficionado…the projections pulsed with colourful geometric shapes, spattered paint-style effects that popped with every colour of the rainbow…and yet more, an engaging display for the entranced patrons. This performance was supplemented by the installations that remained after the opening night, monitors that showed hypnotic three-dimensional digital images, featuring pictures that verged on the psychedelic. Indeed many a patron seemed lost in the apparitions, hypnotised by a field of throbbing daisies, a miasma of swirling circles or a tree with lurid leaves.
With its colourful geometric projections and engaging even mesmerising video installation it’s a collection of works that wouldn’t be out of place at any one of Melbourne’s projection festivals or for that matter night clubs (Chromatic CAVE seemed, at times, an intense collision of White Night and a set at an underground warehouse party). Looking at the practice of Williams’s mentor Kit Webster, a noted artist who has exhibited at many a festival, the influence on Williams’s direction in the exhibition is clear. Indeed this seems to be just the beginning for Williams who recently contributed to the Sky Light project at the Melbourne Fringe Festival and Winter Blast Festival 2016, a festival that featured a night of projections across the facade of RMIT on Swanston St.
Taking a different approach to her project, Samantha Sommariva, an Arts student completing her honours at RMIT, revelled in the residency’s possibilities for experimentation, choosing to develop the ‘laboratory’ aspect of the residency in to a series of ‘happenings’, performed over the course of her instalment at the gallery. Having all of the features of the original events from which the word was coined, (attributed to a student of the noted composer and artist John Cage) one such ‘happening’ focused on participation. Audience members were invited to join dancers in the Sommariva’s segment of the gallery, where projected light and live experimental music (supplied by an assortment of guitars and makeshift instruments) played throughout the gallery. The dancers, lighting technicians, and musicians were largely fellow students from RMIT, collaborating with Sommariva to produce this curious performance, which was made even more curious by the varied responses of the audience members invited to participate. Some threw themselves enthusiastically into the performance, others tentatively edged from one side of the stage to the other, like wildebeest wavering at the crossing. In fact the performances whilst being subtly conceptual, in their reference to a ‘capitalist critique’ (an idea grounded in research Sommariva was developing in her honours exegesis) extended yet further. According to Sommariva, what became increasingly apparent through these performances, was the importance of collaboration and the diversity of ideas that this resulted in. Sommariva described this process as an exercise in “hybridity”, culminating in an her contribution to the exhibition, An “Art. Laboratory”; the exhibition was intriguing in its variety: ranging from installations brimming with pastel streamers and balloons (materials from one of the ‘happenings’), a gallery of polaroid’s featuring Sommariva’s collaborators, to an installation that featured an ‘immersive’ wooden framework adorned with colourful repurposed materials into which the audience could crawl to watch a video that featured equally colourful characters in a mock promotional video for a fictitious corporation. To draw all of these works together, each installation was supplied with wall text typed with an old fashioned typewriter that poetically elucidated the collaboration between Sommariva and her fellow artists, and hinting at a critique of the capitalist structures from which all of the experimental performances departed.
Like Williams, Sommariva was also mentored throughout the residency by industry professional Katie Sfetkidis. A Melbourne-based performance artist and lighting designer, whose work seems well matched to Sommariva’s with its similarly cotton-candy colourfulness and inventive incorporation of repurposed materials. Reflecting on her experience of the residency Sommariva explained that her mentor’s shared approach to her practise proved invaluable. She noted that “it was great to have someone to bounce ideas around with” and to make suggestions on practical matters that she “otherwise would have missed in a spur of ‘mad genius’”. This input showed in the exhibition, which was certainly an intriguing taster of more to come. Sommariva plans to deploy her ‘mad genius’ in the form of yet more performances that build on those conducted as a part of her residency.
Being a student-led program, the 2016 First Site Winter Residency overall invited and nurtured experimentation. Looking at the work of both Williams and Sommariva, this is exactly what the program produced. Williams’ stylistically engaging, seductive aesthetic paid homage to the greats in psychedelic video art. This contrasted against Sommariva’s tantalising inquiries produced some exuberant outcomes; whirling from lo-fi polaroids to cotton candy irony. With both artists planning to expand on their experience during the residency, the possibilities are endless and certainly worth looking out for.
For more details on the artists featured in this article please refer to the First Site Gallery website.