Truth or dare

The Internet is a boon to all humanity, the true democratisation of information; or the Internet is an overhyped pain in the bum, full of people’s idiosyncratic datatrash that swamps the good stuff.

No matter which side of this particular fence you fall, it’s certain that the Internet as a medium has enabled some interesting developments in the history of art.

But so-called “digital” art, largely based on video (for example, the recent Art in Technological Times show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), continues to struggle against the still hegemonic view that art objects should have a certain aura around them, of transcendence or transgression, that become life-changing for the consumer.

New York artist William Scarbrough’s new multimedia installation, The Trials of Dr Kawalski, at innovative new Johannesburg space The Premises at the Civic Theatre in Braamfontein, continues his subtle and deeply disturbing autopsy on the body of global information made bloated and terminal by the Internet and its related technologies.

He has in recent years developed a reputation in danger of going overground, after working in a dangerous vein of subcultural installation and performance at venues like indie rawkfest Lollapalooza, and an appearance on the cesspool of televised human waste that is the Jerry Springer Show.

Kawalski, like his recent work Prosthetic (1999), uses a web interface and a CD-ROM format to present a claustrophobically detailed tidal wave of intimate, biographical information about the subject of the piece. The browser activated CD-ROM features material archived and fleshed out from the website of Jason Kawalski’s biographer and

the “human interface” of the installation, historian Regina Garcia [www.geocities.com/drreginagarcia]. In the gallery space, the installation consists of an interactive large-screen multimedia projection, audio stations and a series of digital prints. Combined, they offer visitors the means to participate in an interactive environment about the events, people and places that surround the life of the mysterious Kawalski.

His life story takes us from the tragic childhood death of his twin sister in Itau, Bolivia, to his career as a leading medical researcher, to, finally, his controversial conviction in the murder of a young girl in Burlington, Vermont. A truly overwhelming amount of minutiae of the doctor’s life and work is detailed in the archive, all of it giving the impression of meticulous investigative research.

The immediate question that arises beyond the fascinating detail of the doctor’s groundbreaking and later ethically questionable research into eugenics and cancer is: Why?

Why is an artist presenting all of this information as an “installation”, a genre within contemporary art, using familiar technologies that are yet still tangential to the conventional material of art-making?

If we assume, for example, that Scarbrough is not telling the truth about Kawalski, then the meaning of the installation becomes a fairly facile comment on the role our ubiquitous contemporary information media play in manipulating our perception of reality, along the lines of the tabloid response to the World Trade Centre terror attacks. In other words, the media, because of their sensationalism, teach us to treat horror and trauma as infotainment. Far more chilling is the assumption that Jason Kawalski’s story is real.

The most striking thing about the show is the enormous amount of information it contains — almost two gigabytes. This conspicuous expenditure of information unearths the doctor’s connections to the most pressing scientific endeavour of our age — the unlocking of the human genome. But involved in his history are veiled atrocities, which point to an underlying horror that all of this information fails to uncover — the uncanny horror of eugenic experimentation that lies underneath our current reality of terror attacks, chemical warfare and cloning.

These are indeed realities, which Scarbrough’s proxies, Kawalski and Garcia, darkly hint at, while offering us all the riches of the doctor’s life and work. And it’s that possibility of the real that makes the show scary as hell. Go and take a trawl through the good doctor’s life.

The Premises is mounting the show in conjunction with Momenta Art in New York. Scarbrough will visit SA in mid-December for the show’s closing on December 22

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