Culture & Conversation

Big Brother is digital

Ryoji Ikeda's C4I adds an icy sheen to themes of government control.

Ryoji Ikeda’s C4I adds an icy sheen to themes of government control.

As part of this year’s Biennale internationale d’art numérique (BIAN), Montréal is fortunate to receive the audio-visual work of award-winning Japanese minimalist artist, Ryoji Ikeda. His exhibition C4I, currently at the Musée d’art contemporain, features the exactness and purity of the digital aesthetic that we’ve come to expect from the artist, yet also integrates very real-world elements, both in auditory and visual contexts. C4I illuminates the diminishing barrier between the real and the virtual, approaching themes of government control and surveillance in an apocalyptic manner.

The title is a United States military term used to encompass a specific set of activities: command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence. It is defined early in the work, printed on screen in stark, white lettering upon a strong, black background. The text is stylized in the syntax of computer code, immediately associating government control with all that is digital. The film soon progresses to narrate a digital invasion of the natural world.

The presentation of organic, real footage is surprising for those familiar with Ikeda’s sonic work. There is a numeric precision consistent in Ikeda’s minimalist works, such as Matrix, which won the 2001 Golden Nica Award at the Ars Electronica international competition for cyberarts. In C4I, different territory is explored. We are fed associations of definitive humanity, contrasting with Ikeda’s hyper-digitalism. In the introduction, a hand is presented that draws exquisitely straight lines, accompanied with vivid folly. Such material is so real, so tangible, and yet conjointly displayed with digital visualizations and the sounds of digital artifacts.

During the course of the piece, these two environments melt, combine and interact, eventually breaking down the barrier dividing the two. Clips of natural and man-made environments morph into digital wireframes. Digital text is overlaid on real images, distracting and blurring the perception of the natural elements. A red crosshair seeks its target through faded, lifeless forests, personifying the piece’s title. These interactions make for the body of the piece, progressively moving towards a unified climate while juxtaposing secondary themes, such as science versus religion.

Eventually, the natural components do not seem so humane, but instead rather bleak and desolate. Ikeda’s signature sound design further enhances the feeling. Constant, piercing high tones translate the emptiness, a world devoid of blossoming life. At one point, a sole person walks through desert-like sands. They are soon chased by another who struggles to keep up. The first is surpassed and the roles are then exchanged. Finally, a third body later enters, but never catches the others. The scene feels silent, accompanied only by the world’s final survivors.

C4I offers a more human side to Ikeda, and more diversity in sound design. Echoing the blending of visual elements, the blips and beeps are intermingled with an orchestrated, somewhat instrumental soundtrack. The total outcome of the piece is rather surface level, but it does resonate. It is a departure from Ikeda’s minimalism, not so strictly sensual or as focused on a phenomenological outcome.

Now a decade old, the work continues to feel somewhat current, riding the aftermath of the major surveillance projects that have been exposed since the piece’s inception. C4I may not be some of Ikeda’s most ground-breaking work, but for fans of both minimalist and activist art projects, there is certainly something to enjoy.


Michael Dean is a Montréal-based composer and electronic musician. He holds an MA in Music Technology from the University of Limerick, Ireland. Visit him on Soundcloud.

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