Humber Street Gallery is a fifteen-minute walk from Hull train station, situated by the marina. I try to navigate with my phone but give up when the data won’t load. I look around and realise that it’s clear anyway, from the direction of the sea, and I find my way to the venue by following it.
Kara Chin’s Show Real occupies exhibition Space 1, on the ground floor, where domestic macabre and end-of-the-pier absurdity meet simulated reality. Sculpture, moving image and animation dress the space as CGI film set, exposing the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence in film and advertising, and the extent to which these boundaries are increasingly blurred. What does it mean when we can no longer discern what’s real? Approximately 95% of IKEA images are digitally rendered, highlighting how our view of the world, both the one we inhabit and the one we can purchase, are heavily replicated. The effect is that our built environment and material culture are increasingly predetermined and lack variation (‘seasonal lighting’ casts products in perpetual springtime, for example).
Entering the space I’m greeted by a pair of blue gloves with beaded eyes, fingers poised signpost-like so that I don’t know whether to ask for directions or bow to kiss them. It’s the camp opener to a series of theatrical gestures and ‘tricks’ that fill the space. Next up is a cascading sandwich of the type seen in food adverts, ingredient layers suspended stop-motion above a toddler-height sink. Glossy fruit decorates the space at varying levels, leading the eye to scrutinise ledges and tabletops. An apple dangles, squirted sporadically with water to keep it ‘fresh’. A coffee cup permanently emits steam, ketchup sparkles, food is glycerined, sweetcorn strewn and piles of grit, rocky road and god-knows-what litter corners and fill sneakers.
Nothing pretends to be real here, despite the kitchen vernacular. Brass pipes drip on waxy counterfeit food before forming a grand archway through the chaotic grid. It’s a haunted space, a mechanised tableau in fidget-mode. Up high, a rotating mobile structure titled ‘Prefix for the show’ spells out ‘serious’ in fake Wotsits; these are everywhere, polystyrene packaging in spray tan playing the part of synthetic corn puffed snacks. Notions of what’s edible or palatable abound. The message seems to be, we’re not fussy eaters when it comes to digital consumption, but we ought to be.
Electric blue walls replicate the blue screen film sets that capture real actors alongside CGI imagery. The cobalt paint ends a foot or two before the ceiling, not so much the show boundary but the top of the sea we’re submerged in. I feel like I’m in a tank, the white band of paint reality, where I might come up for air. As if to reinforce the sinking feeling, a huge boom microphone bobs up and down, referencing recording equipment straying into film shots. Visitors can walk where they like but strips of white and orange floor tape indicate this is a choreographed space. Plotting, blocking, marks, spots – the performance terminology of standing where you’re told is visually reinforced by ping pong balls adorning tripods and monitor stands in kitsch mimicry of the white spots used in motion capture
In Show Real, Chin exposes the overlaps of tv, film and theatre sets, rehearsal studios, gallery spaces and shops – all spaces routinely blocked and re-blocked to orchestrate human movement and control what we’re permitted to view. She employs the suggestion of space syntax to artfully dissect this artifice and grant us a backstage view. As if on a film crew break, three rows of legs surround the space, whirring periodically as they dip to mimic an animatronic glitch. They appear as Pirandellian characters, indistinguishable from the actors who play them and tragi-farcically poised on the boundary of a rendered space, unable to leave or speak. This headless crew, modelling rows of sneakers and jeans, also invoke the pages of catalogues, where retailers routinely use and manipulate computer generated images (and people) to sell products, swapping out small details such as bread or fruit to culturally match a geographical region.
There’s no coin slot for Chin’s automatons but the cost, commercially and psychologically, of our heavily simulated world is laid bare. So many elements of our view are already constructed from vast repositories of data, populated by a low-paid casualised machine learning workforce (such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk https://www.mturk.com) that instruct computers what to present, how to ‘read’ and what to ‘see’. Inputted by humans, the data carries all the bias, partiality and prejudice you would expect so that systems used by law enforcement agencies, scientific and medical research are regularly harmful and discriminatory, and occasionally violent.
Show Real concludes with ‘I Find Myself Looking at Them’, a trio of screens depicting animated humans voicing conversations about simulated reality lifted from Reddit alongside reviews from fake Amazon listings. I stood examining facial features and hair, false smiles and empty eyes perform. Created using Unreal Engine and the plugin Meta Humans, they were at their most human when they dropped the façade and slumped out of view, a violent, sudden action that left me thinking about AI rights alongside human rights. Across from the exit, a headless man in fish sliders sits in a chair, one blue glove poking from his chest. I cannot figure this guy. Show Real is part riddle, part warning, part entertainment; it charges you with looking, challenges you to step close and conjures the medium to disclose itself.
If downstairs is a tank, two floors up is an open sea in Ashley Holmes’ Trust Melody, an installation of textiles, sculptures, moving images and audio works that present the artist’s ongoing research into the lineage of music and sound. Red, mesmeric, the space is tinted vermilion and incensed so that you feel you’re somewhere far from Hull, or shortly will be. Holmes’ multichannel sound installation dominates and weaves through the space, joining together the sculptural textile works and framed pieces hung on the periphery.
The long, low dimensions of the gallery create the sensation of always looking to the horizon point. It’s a transporting place and for a while I sit at floor level, stationary but in a state of flux. In the centre of the concrete floor is a raft structure made from wooden pallets; orange ratchet strapped together as if floating cargo lost at sea. It bears a recumbent form, messily woven from man-made sea detritus, chandler’s offcuts, compact discs and manila hemp rope. It looks funereal and I wonder where it’s headed and who’s waiting for it.
The raft is surrounded by braid-like structures hung vertically at intervals throughout the space like drying seaweed. These are great garlands of plastic sea debris, strewn and festooned from blue netting, orange fence mesh and more cds. I see parts of speakers and equipment woven through as if the work of necessity, an attempt to enshrine and blend historically or geographically displaced lives. The room’s soft lavender incense confuses your senses with what similar nets and ocean flotsam emit some hundred yards away at Hull’s dock. But this is a composed, deliberately orchestrated seascape, the precise placement of each element in dialogue with the soundscape that’s emitted throughout.
We meet precision again in the projected pool of water, perfectly rectangular, towards the top left corner of the space. The projection is soundless but the water’s auditory qualities become discernible, carried through the space from field recordings in the soundscape overhead. At times, the water pushes tidally, at others it’s a still rock pool, beautifully nestled in the room’s red haze. There’s also blue light but it never manages to assert itself against the red. I don’t think this matters, rather it illuminates the collective sense of the installation, of many parts contributing to a wider story and a longer view. You feel Holmes’ praxis radiate through the room, through the bathing light, projections and soundscape emitted across five speakers.
A second film projection, wall mounted, scrolls through pairs of images of 45 vinyl records against a backdrop of a shoreline. I stand trying to spot familiar labels, tracks and artists and I’m transported again. The records are newly inherited by Holmes from his grandparents and underpin the artist’s drive to highlight music as an act of storytelling and cultural memory, as a way of exploring history, race, family, technology and landscape.
Each record appears in a slightly different position so that the moving image pleasingly ticks and jolts. There’s no sound but nearby the room’s central column holds a pair of speakers and I stand under them watching the records flicker past, rotating the column to hear sampled sounds from vocals, musical recordings, field recordings and performances reflecting the influence of mid-1960s Jamaican music. Holmes’ practice uses found lyrics as well as objects, honouring and connecting with past artists and musicians to amplify the importance of kinship, inherited and collective memory, and music as a shared history.
Trust Melody is a work of harmony, of energy generated from sound moving through a space embalmed in light, of family and place. I stayed longer than I intended, my temperature dropping as it does from staying too long in water. Taking in the wall shrine made from speakers, navigational aids, lavender, tea lights and a black book listing all the gifted records, I realise this is a work of love. However sentimental that may sound, the work isn’t. Like the records he inherits, the artist shares his resources and stories. You can read more about them here.
Kara Chin: Show Real runs from 19 January to 17 April and Ashley Holmes: Trust Melody from 26 January to 3 April 2022 at Humber Street Gallery. The author attended the online event ‘Haunted Machines’ with Natalie Kane and Tobias Revell on 9 March, programmed as a response to Show Real, which informed her review.
Pamela Crowe is an artist and writer based in Leeds.
This review is supported by Humber Street Gallery.