“Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-clung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up space expands, with slow motion, movement is extended… Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye - if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored.” [1]

The production of reality is a violent process. Scattered around the film camera in Benjamin's vision are the ruins of previous visions it destroyed. But perhaps not even Walter Benjamin could have foreseen how deeply embedded technology was to become in the production of reality. As film and photography firmly attached itself to the 'naked' eye the immediate personal production of reality was replaced by a global biotechnological system of seeing. Within this system the eye was able to capture, digest and manipulate time and space and disseminate this new observed reality almost effortlessly, and fast. The assisted eye became the grand desire machine of the 20th century. However, such empowerment had a price. Our intimate knowledge of seeing as a system in which the world is directly and personally encountered and signified was sacrificed. And it permanently displaced us. The inevitable destruction of our 'prison-world' also meant a sacrifice of a clear humane purpose towards the embrace of goals defined by technology itself. “To behold, use, or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it. To listen to radio or to read the printed page is to accept these extensions of ourselves into our personal system and to undergo the closure or displacement of perception that follows automatically.” [2]

Unlike previous bio-technical revolutions, where violent new reality turned into a period of stable new truth, subsequent advances in technology have not allowed things to settle down. On the contrary, man's addiction to the empowered eye has pushed us towards an always increasing instability of the real, or rather a period of permanent violent change. Never have we been more aware of this than in the past decade. We have been overwhelmed by the digital age where the difference between what seems real and what is real becomes indistinguishable. “The violence that all electric media inflict upon their users is that they are instantly invaded and deprived of their physical bodies and are merged in a network of extensions of their own nervous systems. As if this were not sufficient violence or invasion of individual rights, the elimination of the physical bodies of the electric media users also deprives them of the means of relating the program experience of their private, individual selves, even as instant involvement surprises private identity. The loss of individual and personal meaning ensures a corresponding and reciprocal violence from those so deprived of their identities; for violence, whether spirit; or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful. The less identity, the more violence.” [3]

In the transient border areas where the collision, or rather the implosion, of realities and search for identity becomes most palpable we encounter the unstable imploded environments of Baiju Parthan. For a moment imagine yourself walking (floating) into his work Eleventh Hour Chorus (2010). Everything you see on the left is mirrored on your right (FLIP HORIZONTAL) like a landscape-sized monumental rorschach test. A psychological landscape where the darkening sky is infested with sharks, and swarms of jumbo jets recreate an invasive 1920's broadway show (COPY-PASTE). There are other people in this space but just like the sharks and jets they exist in a time/space just before reality kicks in (PAUSE). Any moment now everything will fall back into place, sound will return, people will start moving again and the ominous spectacle will commence. But not until you say so (PLAY). Parthan puts reality in a state of suspended disbelief and merges it with a virtual space where flying sharks or swarming airplanes are just as much part of the 'natural' environment as any other representation in binary reality. Eleventh Hour Chorus initiates a process of immersion reminiscent of seeing a Holly- or Bollywood movie. But contrary to going to the movies to 'calmly and adventurously go traveling' as Benjamin put it, this immersion forces the spectator to become a participant, like a video game where nothing starts moving until you push the controller. The work displays a clear understanding of the global contemporary crisis of reality and a need to come to terms. Like a magician (or game developer) he connects and combines elements from different times, different geographies, different value systems and languages to create a deeply layered multi-medial attempt at a contemporary reconstruction of reality in which the markers of identity have virtualised. His vibrant profane and holy imagery, and the combination of binary representation and mythological abstraction, re-opens a contemplative and ritualised space that asks how to lead meaningful lives and deal with the violent character of our contemporary existence.

Although extremely rich in iconography, Parthan's work does not present us with ready answers. We have to go look for them. Here time and narrative, much as all divergent spaces of the world are assembled, need constant reassembling. Like all true art it makes us responsible for its outcome. The mediating role of the artwork and the artist, now perhaps more than ever before, is of crucial importance. “The artist is the only person - his antennae pick up these messages before anybody. So he is always thought of as being ahead of his time because he lives in the present. There are very many reasons why most people prefer to live in the age just behind them. It's safer. To live right on the shooting line, right on the frontier of change, is terrifying.” [4] Presently, as the past practically coincides with the present, people are forced to inhabit the same space as the artist and to live under the same 'terrifying' conditions. There is a sense of coming full circle. Once you look far enough beyond the horizon at some point you'll be staring at the back of your head. Humanity may have reached the stage where we're actually looking at ourselves, much like in the famed painting of a man looking into the mirror and seeing only his back [5] by René Magritte. The digital age, more than any other age before, puts the responsibility for meaningful existence firmly back in the hands of the networked individual. It forces the individual to become the artist, in the sense of having to continuously redefine what reality is and the willingness to exist there. The chaos remains only as long as you are unwilling to take up this responsibility. And although Baiju Parthan refuses to carry the spectator over the threshold he does show the way.


[1] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, p.236.

[2] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964.

[3] Marshall McLuhan, Violence and the Media, Canadian Forum, 1976.

[4] Marshall McLuhan, The New Majority with Ed Fitzgerald, CBC Television, 1970.

[5] La Reproduction Interdite, 1937.
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