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Karaoke Theory is a title that conjures up critical reflection on the practice of badly copying popular music in dishevelled drinking venues. As is often the case with Andy Thomson’s discursive art practice, this title functions to obscure as much as reveal meaning. In this installation there are no reflections on top 40 shenanigans but there is a highly nuanced meditation on what might be called karaoke logic, a mode of practice that imbues meaning in the fluid spaces between lyrical content, narrative coherence and amateur musical performance. Thomson mischievously employs this mode to examine how we come to know and understand the nature of objectness and in particular how this knowledge is framed in the irresolvable tension between representation and direct haptic experience.

As one component of a larger installation of inter-related pieces that includes the architectural modification of the gallery space, a video projection of an old floor fan and, crucially, the ‘real’ fan located behind a false wall, the artist utilises a sound loop of a person singing (almost moaning) what appears to be an annoyingly pretentious lyric. The sung lyric is in fact phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s treatise on the visible and the invisible, a key philosophical text that interrogates theories of visuality and cognition. Thomson deliberately butchers the recitation of this text by having a tone-deaf singer warble their way through it. He does this, not because of a compulsion to parody its content or lampoon French structuralism, but because he wants to critically examine the space between content and its mechanism of communication (karaoke). By actively hindering an elision of form and content, the artist has sought to create what he describes as ‘a tissue of dismeblances’, a collapse of reality whereby two fields of perception collide.

This space of uncertainty in which the artist fundamentally challenges the fixity of our understanding of what we understand as ‘the real’ has been a staple of Thomson’s practice over the past twenty years. In a succession of installations, the artist has prodded at the edges of phenomenology, architectural intervention and the elusiveness of a uniform visual field of perception. Often working to confuse the clarity of binary codes including stasis/extended duration, the virtual/real, and the inert/charismatic object, the artist has consistently sought to challenge not only what we know but how we come to know and subsequently hold on to this knowledge. Whether locating a stack of bricks in a warehouse to confuse detritus and minimalism or juxtaposing a real time camera obscura with manipulated video footage, Thomson consistently aligns aesthetic contemplation with the more prosaic qualities of everyday objects. His aim has been the systematic deconstruction of false categories that supposedly reveal some sort of innate truth.

In this sense Thomson shares something of the critical scepticism of French thinker, Jacques Rancière. Known for his probing reflections on the use of weak descriptive categories across disciplines such as art history, Rancière in his text The Politics of Aesthetics has argued for what he describes as ‘a distribution of the sensible’. By this he means “the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it” i .

Like Rancière, Thomson is interested in grappling with aesthetics beyond categories such as the modern or postmodern. For him, the crucial meanings of art are largely obscured in such widely accepted descriptions. He sees artistic practice in a more philosophical light as -again quoting Rancière- “a delimitation of space and times, of the visible and invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stake of politics as a form of experience”. ii

Thomson carefully frames these rather ambitious ideas in a decidedly non-highfalutin, almost droll, way. The artist appears to seek out an array of props and aesthetic forms for his installations that suggest a radical ordinariness. His use of the floor-cooling fan in Karaoke Theory is a case in point. This most ordinary domestic appliance is depicted by Thomson in a video projection performing its one and only function of blowing air over and over again. The imagery is so straight, deadpan, and intensely pregnant that a natural response is to laugh out loud. Yet our experience of watching a virtual fan in real time, which might ordinarily be read as a commentary on the everyday or the flickering pixalated readymade, is fundamentally shifted by a series of strange dots in the middle of the projection surface.

Only by moving closer to the screen wall does it become apparent that these dots are in fact small holes in the wall, blind spots in our visual field that reveal something behind the wall. Looking through these holes the audience member is bracingly accosted by the unexpected sensation of air. Only after acclimatising to this peculiar haptic blast does it become apparent that the participant is staring directly into a real fan hidden behind a false wall and that the artist has almost literally poked us in the eye.

It is at this imprecise moment of shocking undecidability where representation and physical experience collide that Thomson reveals his hand. Luring us in with one representational system, a video of a fan, he collapses our knowledge of this object by making us simultaneously feel and think its properties and meaning. As the artist himself has described it the fan behind the wall projects one field of perception through all the senses and the film of the fan and the voice over present another projection to the very same senses. What is crucial is that they meet on the wall, the site of painting, a certain historical domain of two dimensional thought projections.

Karaoke theory is an artwork about many things but ultimately it is an idea framed as a puzzle. It is an aesthetic brainteaser that uses an economy of means to create a false pretence. The fans, fake walls and phenomenological karaoke are ruses masquerading as dumb devices that seem benign and harmless. Yet in reality they are mechanisms that allow the artist to push us into a highly self-reflexive space. Collectively they function as an alignment of ciphers that offer surprisingly profound understandings about what we know and how we come to know it.

Dr David Cross

i Rancière, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum, London, 2004, p12

ii ibid p13