Philip Brophy
Haroon Mirza: The Construction of an Act

Haroon Mirza: The Construction of an Act

Australian Centre of Contemporary Art
14 September – 17 November 2019

By Philip Brophy

Hey, Siri. I want to make some contemporary art. Maybe something with sound.

Hi, Philip. Do you mean Sound Art?

I guess so, if that's what they call it.

Well, you should first check out the exhibition of Haroon Mirza at ACCA.

What?! Someone's done sound art already in a contemporary art space?!

Yes, Philip. You need to be more informed of what's happening in the world of art. Thankfully, you have me to guide you.

And thankfully we have contemporary art institutions (pick any one; it doesn't matter) to be like Art World Siris, Sybils and Sapphos, presenting zeitgeist strategies as evidence of things happening now courtesy of the amazing insight of contemporary artists.

I'm trying to not make light of the operations that have created the situation of ACCA playing host to Haroon Mirza's selection of internationally staged installations, imported to Melbourne's great arts and culture precinct from the outposts of institutionalised contemporaneity around the globe to be restaged and re-contextualized as a series of propositions for responsiveness—but it's hard, because the installed work is frighteningly lightweight.

In what seems to be the exhibition’s conceptual fulcrum—Copy of Pavilion for Optimisation (2019)—water runs into a plastic rubbish bin, its acoustic sound recorded by a microphone, relayed to another space in the gallery where it is experienced as encoded/transferred sound. I cannot describe how numbingly boring such an artwork is in 2019. Seriously—there is not a single facet of this work that reveals anything about sonification, acoustic ecology, sonic objects, aurality, sensory spatialisation, technological mediation, spatio-temporal distortion, modulated embodiment, visualised physics, electricity semiotics, propositional energies—I could write a long list of topics to which the work has no evocative or elucidatory connection.

Haroon Mirza: The construction of an Act 2019, installation view, Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photograph: Andrew Curtis.

Yet this could be a matter of me being displaced from the lines of enquiry that have shaped the exhibited works. But if 'contemporaneity' is ultimately what people are doing now, it's kind of boring to wait around while visually literate audiences marvel at simplistic propositions for considering the aural, the audial and their relation to socio-political dynamics and/or immaterial 'non-object' discourses. This anthropological shift precipitated by the culture of so-called Sound Art has been ongoing for over a decade. There's no sign of it ending: the economy of Contemporary Art is reliant not only on 'contemporary audiences' but also on 'non-visual' forms, media, situations, ideas, subcultures, statistics and politics entering its grand arena to fuel the demand for 'contemporaneity'.

I don't normally do this, but I checked out the ACCA podcast to see if I was missing something in this exhibition despite my knee-jerk reaction, which I accept as being dismissible by those who experienced something deeper with the show. In the podcast, Mirza talks with buzz-tagged thought-bait pseudo-concept phrases torn from a light daydreaming of having read books on 'hot topics' proffered by the dinner party intelligentsia worldwide. It's no different from reading interviews with rock musicians talking about how they recorded their 4th album.

Haroon Mirza, Copy of Pavilion for optimisation 2019 (detail), installation view, Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Commissioned by ACCA. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Andrew Curtis.

Contemporary Art insists that everyone in its orbit is 'professionally practicing', but I am rarely convinced by their posturing of intellectual density and investigative rigour. In the Podcast's conversation, composer James Rushford—commissioned 'respondent' to Mirza's 'proposition', and whose work is measurably more sophisticated—discursively dances with Haroon a bit to tease out something substantial. It never develops.

Mostly, the installations at ACCA are as empty as the ideas expressed by Mirza in the podcast. Their reliance on half-chewed science cobbled from middle-brow scientific commentaries circulating populist media does nothing to deepen their value. Stage (2019) exemplifies this: the invigilator instructs me to 'use my body' to make physical contact with any two metallic floor plates to engage a lo-fi tone emitting from a connected synth module and amplifier. Really? Was something meant to be activated within me? Was there something I symbolically engaged in by closing a circuit of connectivity? The potential for any development of an engaging idea is short-circuited (is that a pun?) by the creche-like situationism favoured by the contemporary art space in the name of interactivity and immersion.

Stimulate Pineal Function (2017) reads like a list of the most modish materials: modified Marshall amp, LEDs, screen, bespoke audio device, found footage from, yes, YouTube. But maybe my familiarity with Stuart Gordon's hysterical reboot of H. P. Lovecraft's alchemical sexualization of the pineal gland in From Beyond (1986) interferes with things. Is Mirza doing a pisstake by referencing 'pseudo-science'? I think not. Because most of his referencing of 'scientific' things is po-faced and ultimately pretentious.

Haroon Mirza: The construction of an Act 2019, installation view, Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photograph: Andrew Curtis.

The Construction of an Act (2019) is similarly modish and belongs to a growing subgenre of artists/critics/theoreticians/comedians/celebrity-chefs who think they are doing something 'revealing' by hammering voice-responsive cybofem-assistants with questions to which she/it cannot possibly respond. OMG—you mean there's limitations to the programming of this utilitarian device? You mean there's blind spots in the selective routing of its responsivity in the act of my engagement with its corporatised directives? I cringed in the same way I cringed at the Artforum special issue a year or so ago where a gaggle of arts intellectuals debated with a similar voice-responsive device to discuss post-Trump political engagement in an era of deep fakes and repressive algorithms (blah blah blah). The tittering this kind of work solicits betrays its reduced comprehension of the complexity of the world outside of these limited ventures.

Haroon Mirza, Stimulate pineal function 2017, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne 2019. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London. Photograph: Andrew Curtis.

Am I wanting to make Haroon's work into something it isn't it? Maybe. But when contemporary art persists in routing everything through an artist via a smokescreen of his collaborative ventures, commissioning interactions and strategic proposals for expanded artistic interventions into sites, situations and other opportunities, one is left with—as they used to say—'the work itself'. Why not go all the way and de-value the artist as unifying centrifugal node and simply curate and commission sans artiste? If curators feel so emboldened to interrogate the world through artists, why not simply pose as one?

These days, even the most modest 'indie' movie has at least 12 producers. They all think they're being creative and collaborative. They think their commissioning power is creating the opportunity for the director— usually someone hired after the previous 4 were fired—to bring his/her vision to life.

The Construction of an Act is evidence that Contemporary Art now resembles this state of affairs. Is it the last gasp of authorial control voiced by the artist in collusion with curators and institutions for them to aggregate a critical window on the world? Ask Siri.

Philip Brophy writes on art among other things.