Science and séance – Tony Oursler’s Influence Machine comes to town

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The Living Rock is a city of stories.  Our skyline is punctured by monuments to Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.  Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson wandered the twisting closes of the Old Town seeking inspiration.  Here you can find the National Library, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, a Writers’ Museum, the oldest English Literature university department in the world, an internationally renowned book festival and tens if not hundreds of independent booksellers.

The Living Rock is also a city of science.  An important hub of ideas during the Enlightenment, it is home to four universities, one of which, founded in 1583, is the 6th oldest in the English speaking world.  The first British women to study for a medical degree did so here in the 19th century.  The curve for scurvy, the discovery of carbon dioxide, the invention of the decompression chamber, cloning, the existence of the Higgs Boson particle, the use of anesthetic, all have their roots here.

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This mix makes the city a place of imagination and possibilities.  In winter, when darkness descends early, and the mist rolls in from the sea and the hills, settling in the narrows, blunting the corners and refracting the orange neon of the street lights in an otherworldly glow, the boundaries between fact and fiction seem easily blurred.  This is why Edinburgh was the perfect location for a showing of American artist, Tony Oursler’s, installation, The Influence Machine, which could be experienced last week in the city’s George Square Gardens.

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Using image projection, lights, sounds, smoke and fog, Oursler explores the relationship between the scientific and the inexplicable.  He is interested in how the Fin de Siècle developments in telecommunication and photography were mirrored by a growing fascination, and belief in, a spirit world which could be contacted by and captured with the new techniques; disembodied voices at the end of a telephone line, the morse code taps of the telegram machine, crackling static on records and television screens, overexposed images, white spot, light flares, as mediums, literally and metaphorically, through which to receive messages from the other side.

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Oursler’s work does not just focus on the past.  The rise of computers, the internet, email and instant messaging, these he tells us are the new pathways to the beyond.  As the artist’s own website puts it ‘at the moment of invention, every new technology is an unwritten story’, and by attaching supernatural ability to things, the complexities of which we do not understand, we are attempting to humanise science.

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In the cold, darkness of a November evening in the Living Rock, images dancing through the trees of the park and across the surrounding building, voices emerging from nowhere, increasing with intensity before disappearing to hushed nothingness amongst the fallen leaves, the experience was intense and disorienting.  The ideas the artist is trying to convey are complex but the initial reaction from the observer is simple, it is visceral and instinctive, exactly the dynamic the piece is intended to explore.

The installation was free and unticketed.  Access to the arts, and to science, in Edinburgh is broadly egalitarian, which is a very good thing.  Long may the symbiotic relationship between the city’s two specialities continue.

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