Lauri Astala

New York

Lauri Astala: On Disappearance (detail, 2012): Image courtesy the artist and Eyebeam, New York.Lauri Astala: On Disappearance (detail, 2012): Image courtesy the artist and Eyebeam, New York.By Caoimhe Morgan-Feir

Lauri Astala
May 14 – June 8, 2013

At first, watching Lauri Astala’s video work On Disappearance (2012) seems largely conventional and comfortingly familiar: the camera scans along a bridge engulfed in rolling fog and cuts to a small, sun-bleached room. His back to the camera, a man begins to explain that he has not been here for over a year. He says there are ghosts in this room; they are the ghosts and shadows of previous visitors. But, in the midst of his discussion, the camera angle shifts and a familiar ghost appears in the room: you. Caught on cameras hidden within the gallery space, viewers are transported and projected into the work. With their images displayed in a small mirror hanging within the interior space, viewers become the scene’s second character.

Midway through this discussion the central character — whose uncanny appearance seems to hover between film and animation — looks out into the gallery and asks, “Did you come to disappear? Did you come here to lose yourself together with me?” You: It is the pushiest of pronouns; the most curt and direct “little locomotive of rhetoric” (to borrow from Peter Schjeldahl). It sweeps viewers up and into the work in a manner that can only be matched by inserting their visage.

While On Disappearance literalizes the viewer’s central role within the work, numerous other attempts to forge responsive and immersive works could be traced throughout New York this spring. If there was a recurring medium in the city, it was sensors that captured and monitored gallery visitors. The MoMA’s installation of rAndom International’s Rain Room imbued its audience with the power to seemingly control weather; Cristobal Mendonza and Annica Cuppetelli’s Nervous Structure (field) (2012), installed as a part of video_dumbo, similarly bended and shifted depending on the movements of visitors.

In many ways, these works revisit art historian John Berger’s argument in Ways of Seeing (1972) that, after the camera’s invention, it “was no longer possible to imagine everything converging on the human eye as on the vanishing point of infinity”. In these works everything converges, if admittedly not on the human eye, then at least on the human body. Out of the same technology that fractured the centrality of the viewer come new techniques and developments that reinstate the viewer at the centre of a universe entirely reliant upon them. Humankind is offered a homecoming, of sorts.

And yet, despite the unmistakable centrality of the viewer within On Disappearance, experiencing the work is notably passive. Eyebeam and Astala position the work as an “interactive installation” that “aims to destroy the norm of the traditional, cinematic black cube, wherein the role of the spectator is limited to that of passive observer, experiencing mediated reality.” Undoubtedly, viewers see themselves transported into the work and the animation’s protagonist addresses them, but do these levels of engagement fully qualify as active behaviour? No more so than looking in a mirror or partaking in a one-sided conversation. It seems humorous, and poignant, that a work built entirely around notions of interaction needs so little from its audience — as if you didn’t really need to be there at all.