Bristol-based artist Gus Cummins’ latest audiovisual work 'Invaders', has been commissioned as part of the Exeter Phoenix Digital Media Bursary 2008. Kate Cotton reports.
ic-tal: adjective ~ relating to or caused by an epileptic seizure
Gus Cummins' latest work - a wall-sized audiovisual installation titled 'Invaders' - is brilliantly mesmerizing and thoroughly recommended viewing. As a child of the eighties I instantly got the points of reference to the old Atari Space Invaders game, and settled in for the 34 minute ride. Commissioned as part of the Exeter Phoenix Digital Media Bursary 2008, IInvaders' is the latest installment in Gus' Ictal Project - a series of exhibitions designed to address the stigma attached to epilepsy. Alongside 'Invaders', Gus' two-dimensional Ictal works are also on display.
'Invaders' is a series of layered graphic shapes and abstractions, created from data collected by an electroencephalogram (EEG) of Gus' brain activity during an epileptic seizure. The sequences are punctuated with brief interludes during which he inputs his thoughts onto a scoreboard interface. Statements such as 'seizures are an alien presence in my brain' remind the viewer of what it is you are witnessing.
The immense size of this work adds weight to its confrontational subject matter – here is a man's brain activity during an epileptic seizure. Deal with it. The colour palette is particularly effective, from bold in-your-face reds during strong, traumatizing seizures to more gentle hues in peaceful, hypnotic moments. While I was there some viewed it in its entirety whilst others dipped in and out, digesting it in smaller parts. A couple commented that they felt an urge to dance.
A particularly poignant part for me was during one of the interludes when a female voice was heard gently informing Gus that he is in hospital and had just had a seizure. Gus' response is quite incoherent and confused. However, none of this is done to elicit sympathy. Gus isn't telling us of his suffering at the hands of epilepsy. He is providing us with the information so we can bear witness and work it out for ourselves.
'Invaders' is a more challenging but natural progression of Gus' work to date. When I caught up with him after the exhibition opening he was justifiably pleased with the feedback and told me it had worked out better than planned. When he first submitted a proposal for the digital bursary he wasn't aware of Pure Data - the graphic programming language which he learnt to use to construct 'Invaders'.
‘My original plan was only to show 'Invaders', but then this was extended to include images from all my Ictal exhibitions. At times I worried that I had set myself an unachievable target, but it turned out that my main restriction was the processing power of the computer I had available to make medical data into digital art. Once I knew my limits things went really well. Elements fell into place, people supported and encouraged me and I'm very pleased with the result.’
I asked him about developments since his exhibition in Liverpool earlier this year.
‘The Tate Liverpool exhibition manager viewed my work and discussed it with me, then encouraged me to pursue the video piece I was showing. This has played a part in my Phoenix exhibition, from encouraging me to apply for the exhibition bursary in the first place to working in new media.In terms of media, I've gone from paint on canvas, to digital images printed photographically, to video, to 'Invaders', which I struggle to classify; it has elements of generative art and neurofeedback in it. At the same time the artistic language has moved from medical illustration and text, to time-based sound and vision, showing what happens inside my brain when I have a seizure. I'm really engaging with the challenge of sharing an unconscious experience, and viewers are apparently engaging with the result.’
Although Gus' medical condition is presently deteriorating, his Ictal work is having an interesting and positive impact on his response to it.
‘I expect to spend more time in hospital soon, and strangely I now look forward to obtaining new data to work with. It's one of the few positive spins I can put on invasive brain monitoring, so I cling to it. There's also the possibility that it will lead to brain surgery. Again, I see that in terms of a rich source of artistic material. Surgery may lead to the withdrawal of my anti-epileptic drugs in the future, or may fail. Undoubtedly it's going to be an emotional experience either way, and I'll carry on producing artwork about it.’
Gus said most of the responses to his Ictal work have been very good:
‘Comments books at exhibitions are very positive. I get feedback from people saying that they knew nothing about epilepsy, and they have learnt a lot. Well, that's great. I've achieved my goal.’
Interestingly, the only negative responses he has had have come from a couple of people with epilepsy themselves.
‘One said the work was disgusting and shouldn't be shown in public. The other said this isn't art.’
Others have criticized him for being too clinical and soul-less, but I disagree. I feel that Gus' work is not only of a very high standard, but also has a great raw honesty about it. Gus is now planning to develop the 'Invaders' project further. He said: "I would like to make it bigger and better. I also realize that it needs 2D images to contextualize it. Some people have joked about it needing dancers, and some people have talked seriously about it."
‘I'm interested to see what changes it would need to work with improvised dance. I plan to send Invaders to some possible sources of funding for its next version. I really could do with a rest at the moment. Maybe I'll have a chat with the Tate Liverpool about what to do next. And I'm braced for a letter to land on my doormat calling me into hospital.’
The Ictal exhibition will run at Exeter Phoenix until December 21. Gus will be there in person to talk about Invaders and his other work on Saturday December 6, at 2pm. Places are limited and need to be booked in advance from the Phoenix box office.