No Harmful Side-Effects



Catalogue: No Harmful Side - Effects
Catalogue text
: Sub-Systems by Richard Holt
Catalogue text: In the Interest of Safety by Werner Hammerstingl 



Catalogue: No Harmful Side - Effects
Published by Platform Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, 2000


Catalogue text: Sub-Systems by Richard Holt
From No Harmful Side - Effects catalogue
Published by Platform Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, 2000

Two distinct investigations, brought together by this project, provide a glimpse of the substrata that founds the urban condition in the early twenty-first century. Both the timing and the placement of the investigations are central to the inquiry. Of the many points of entry into the dialogues inherent in the works of KIT and Rachel Chapman, those suggested by the location within the subway display cases are, to me, the strongest. They are dialogues of enclosure, of underworlds, of biological colonies and contemporary urban infrastructure. The following brief discussion explores these concepts as they relate to the work of these two artists.

Chapman samples the air in the vicinity of the exhibition venue – the fetid and corrupted atmosphere around a major urban transit zone. Inputs into this atmosphere include the exhaust fumes and by-products of trams, trains, cars and trucks along with the bodily human interaction (sneezing, coughing, pissing, breathing, etc) in this crowded and poorly ventilated space. The resulting cultures, actively growing in self-contained environments, present metaphors on a micro level, biological worlds grown from the midst of our own extended environmental systems.

By comparison, KIT’s work focuses on mechanical by-products of a related urban phenomenon. In this case the airbag technology, that has been a major 'safety' innovation in car design in recent decades, provides a starting point. Like Chapman's vitrines, airbags are designed to contain reactions that are potentially destructive. The high-end explosives used to inflate airbags represent a harnessing of extreme forces. The component chemicals of the airbag inflation process are toxic, volatile and not easily disposed of.

I am intrigued by the focus on containment – the airbags, the biological cultures, the display cases, the subway space. As notions of time and distance are transformed by technological advancement, there are parallels to be drawn between the artist's microbial experiments and the global ecosystem. When Chapman samples the air that is breathed by the ten thousand or so commuters who pass daily through the subway environment, she is sampling a small part of a planetary environment that is in itself complex, self-contained and volatile. The twenty-first century begins a period in which our involvement, on a human level, with global environmental systems has shifted from theoretical to actual.

By way of illustration, the system of 'carbon credits' that has grown out of the recent Kyoto protocols on greenhouse gas emissions is a case in point. It is the first large-scale example of a real, tradeable, economic value being placed on the maintenance of the major natural environmental agents (in this case the carbon depleting properties of forests). Critics point to the 'carbon credit' system as a device that allows industrialised nations to avoid responsibilities. The flip side, argued by its proponents, is that this is a potentially large source of income for developing countries and an encouragement for those countries to forego short term profiteering from the exploitation of such assets.

The viability of trade in 'clean' air marks a genuine shift to a global redefinition of environmental issues – the planet as self-contained biosphere. In this context Rachel Chapman's exploration of microbial systems, spawned from urban samples and cultures, is symbolically both potent and disarming. It suggests that systems, though constrained, are never truly controlled and that notions of balance, upon which much environmental rhetoric has been based may greatly oversimplify the problems faced by a system under stress.

I find the language of the works in this exhibition revealing. KIT's work, like that of Chapman, directly suggests the language of scientific investigation. Words like, 'specimen', 'sample' and 'culture' are scattered through the dialogue that develops around the works in the exhibition. Such language provides a reminder of the perceived golden age of Western science and technology during the 19th century. The consequences of the subsequent period of sustained rapid development have seen scepticism replace the initial optimism of that period. These artists have made works that acknowledge this tension between a reliance on, and a fear of contemporary scientific achievement.

Utilising the safety systems of modern transport, KIT's work plugs into mechanistic rather than biological histories. Both artists work with by-products of contemporary society, but in the airbag, KIT uses a specified item, that taps into narratives of speed and motion. In their popular manifestation these narratives talk of the 'pace' of contemporary society. How appropriate it is then, that the airbag is a device designed ostensibly to stop the destructive forces of motion – but which on closer inspection operates itself at explosive and potentially dangerous speeds.

By locating these by-product narratives within a physical substratum of the city, the subversive connotations are emphasised. Both on the micro level (the spores of Chapman's fungi) and the macro (KIT's human sized objects from one of the first great 'modern' industries, car manufacturing) the by-products at the centre of this project are clearly not as benign as they might first appear.

Chapman captures the poisonous breath of the city. Enclosed beneath the surface of the streets the air is stale. Its circulation is constrained. It contains elements that we, the city's residents, would prefer to avoid. The artist forces us to confront them. By contrast KIT's airbags are saggy, deflated, limp. Having been used once, the volatile reaction that filled them within milliseconds has dissipated. They are lifeless. The symbolism is of a clear and perpetual economy that feeds the paranoia of our comfortable contemporary condition; the fear of a loss of control. Evidenced by the recurrence in science fiction and horror cinema of monsters, microbes and machines, the contemporary apprehension about loss of control finds a voice in the very environment in which these genres are often set. Here in Platform2's subterranean netherworld a group of artworks appear as if in an underground laboratory.

Of course the Platform space is also alive with commuters and rather than being secreted beneath the city, these pieces are part of a public spectacle. Such is the theatre of contemporary art, particularly where the familiar rhetoric of site specificity is harnessed within the textured and often ambiguous discourses of post-modernity. In this context, subversive dialogues find mainstream audiences. With this in mind I am left with an overwhelming sense of the museological nature of this project. Showcases render the dangerous safe and the strange familiar. They create a particular dynamic between the audience and the object that allows for reconsideration of 'difficult' issues. The conceit of the museum model is that theatrical and scientific narratives exist simultaneously within a single presentation. This, perhaps, is the underlying strength of the work of KIT and Chapman; that the theatricality of installation, the integrity of location and the conceptual richness of narratives are brought together so succinctly.

Catalogue text: In the Interest of Safety by Werner Hammerstingl
From No Harmful Side - Effects catalogue
Published by Platform Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, 2000

On June 11 this year I was anxious. I knew death could come strangely and quietly if things went wrong with an experiment (1) that was beginning on the other side of the world, in a facility called the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s ‘Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider’ (the world’s most powerful particle accelerator) in Long Island, New York. “In theory, RHIC could have triggered the runaway formation of a poorly understood breed of subatomic particle known as a ‘strangelet’, which ‘eats’ all matter it encounters, a chain reaction that would consume everything everywhere”. (2) The monumental audacity of this project reminds me of the famous activity by Louis Slotin during the Manhattan project in 1941 termed “tickling the dragon’s tail” (bringing together two hemispheres of plutonium and uranium as critically close as possible without starting a chain reaction). (3) As scientists play with dangerous toys we, the general public, are often unaware (as no doubt are they) how close to peril this activity might take us.

Governments that finance and sanction research in particle physics, and a myriad of equally dangerous research projects do so under the banner of ‘national security’. The meme ‘I need security’ has infected everyone who has the means to do something about it. Financially and socially advantaged communities articulate their pursuit of a secure life within a conundrum of contradictory strategies and technologies. On the one hand they are gravitating towards sheltered architectures (pun intended) in the form of the automobile, the secure home, the ‘gated community’ (an entire lexicon of new terms around automotive and domestic security and safety features has evolved in recent decades), the multi-function polis and ultimately, perhaps, the off-world outer space community introduced in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. On the other hand the same communities actively, or at least passively support a system which seeks to discover more and more diverse technological means by which mass extermination becomes possible. Beyond nuclear we have the cheaper, less noisy and far more terrifying
biological and chemical military tools of destruction.

We are caught in the monkey trap (4). We want security, personal, financial, national, even global, but the very agents, protocols and technologies we invent for this purpose and to which we cling like life itself can often leave us in a more vulnerable state. The task of providing security for the individual and the collective is not unlike the one given to Sisyphus by the gods: endless, in essence unproductive and ultimately completely pointless.

This problem brings us to the specifics of my discourse. The title of the exhibition No Harmful Side-Effects can be interpreted in a number of ways. Consistent with my introductory comments I choose to interpret the title as an alert. If we place a question mark at the end, we are closer to a useful entry point to discuss these artistic projects by Rachel Chapman and KIT. ‘No harmful side-effects?’ can fill us with silent dread because we have all witnessed a myriad of assurances where apparently safe and harmless products or conditions ended up compromising the very condition they were intended to provide.

Most commuters will probably never even notice these provocative works displayed in a subterranean passage that feeds into a busy railway station as they hurry past. I’ve observed them: shrouded in a sagging confidence in their highly centralized, sterilized, mechanized, urbanized post-industrial lifestyle. Voluntarily subjects, submitting to the dumbing down of every important issue by the media, politicians and big business, they have steeled their hearts and minds against the provocations of difficult thoughts and difficult art by cultivating the art of rejection and not looking. But lets imagine they stop and contemplate (you did). What is this project all about?

Territory / Boundary / Containment

Microscopically small spores, usually adrift in random, uncontained journeys, are given a semi-permanent ‘home’ and in this exchange they reveal a great deal. Rachel Chapman’s fungal spores (5) negotiate boundaries and territory in several ways. Initially riding the air currents of the atmosphere, once localized, spores develop growth structures that remind one of the territorial maps of nations and states. Seemingly arbitrary lines signifying claim over space are drawn, reinforced and actively policed. Yet a growing variety of viruses, many deadly to humans, respect neither boundary nor quarantine. They come (in Australia’s case) from the North, have names like the Nipah virus, Japanese Encephalitis, Hendra virus, Lyssavirus and Menangle virus and piggyback their way across vast distances on carriers. (6) The spores and viruses surround us invisibly (an ironic reversal of Foucault’s description of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon) and we can only hope that they are benign as they enter our bodies and symbiose with our system. The recent outbreaks of legionnaires’ disease in Melbourne are a powerful reminder that infections from airborne microbial molecules can be contracted virtually anywhere and we are unable to predict with any certainty when we are at risk and when not.

Those who believe the growing claims by writers such as Damien Broderick, who assert that we are well on the way to immortality as we are medically augmenting and repairing our disease and age prone bodies (7) (if we happen to belong to the technology and information rich contingent at least) have these beliefs challenged by microbial pathogens. To dismiss spores as somehow less dangerous than viruses is possibly optimistic. Evidence suggests that spores are capable of causing harm to us and other species. (8)

Despite their worrying potential, the fungal spores cultured by Rachel Chapman in unusually large petri dishes are not only fascinating but also beautiful in their strangeness. This beauty has even captured the mind of scientists. Scientific American featured a paper two years ago entitled ‘The Artistry of Micro-organisms’ (9) which commented on the aesthetic symbiosis between bacteria and environment. Chapman’s large vitrines which allow environmental phenomena to negotiate its aesthetic mark-making remind me of Marcel Duchamp’s decision to collect ‘New York dust’ (1920) as a component for his Large glass. In both cases the microscopic collects (contextualized and controlled by the artist’s choice of location, duration and scale) and makes itself visible as a visual and aestheticized phenomena. (10) While it is tempting to continue this analogical thread by forming conceptual relationships between the
mechanical homages by Duchamp’s good mate Francis Picabia and the exposed mechanical components situated around the issue of ‘crash’ by KIT, I’ll resist that temptation.

(Another) law of thermodynamics: any system expands indefinitely until it meets resistance

The KIT exhibit which consists of automotive airbags, launderette lint and seatbelt straps, as suspending devices for the objects, are displayed in the vitrines in a caricature-like state. The airbag, usually neatly concealed and folded into a minute artefact, is strangely dissociated from its name which describes a state it achieves for only a fraction of a second and only once in its life. During most of its existence an airbag is really an air-less bag. Georges Bataille reminds us of the inherent problem with taxonomia (11): “A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form.“ (12)

The taxidermal approach used by Kit gives the airbags a static, sculptural form. The exposed and de-activated container has lost its mechanical purpose. Its display is now reminiscent of de-commissioned military hardware which is often found outside RSL clubs or in the middle of country towns. They share a sense of ‘being out of place’ with these objects/instruments, but at the same time they serve to remind us about an earlier function, when the apparatus could take or save lives.

Airbags too can kill and injure. Claims as to actual numbers of people saved by airbag systems are difficult to verify (13) whereas the numbers of injured or dead airbag victims are easier to come by. (14) If the question arises ‘are airbags safe?’ the answer must clearly be ‘no, not absolutely’. But then again what is? I suspect KIT are not so much interested in the Ralph Nader terrain of automotive safety. Instead, I propose the airbag is aesthetic and conceptual bait to draw us into a discursive analysis of issues around the crash and its broader socio-cultural implications. When Kit declare a necroscopic (15) interest in the crash it seems clear to me that this interest is not informed by the morbid curiosity that typifies the bystander at a crash site; rather the social and cultural dimensions of the crash have narratives that significantly extend beyond where our culture has drawn its line of interest in the matter.

We measure life and death issues routinely using statistics. Statistically we have a similar risk of dying whether we had visited the recently opened Melbourne Aquarium or had driven an airbag-equipped vehicle. So, when a cooling system ends up signifying the same potential to kill us as some lunatic mass-murderer with a semi-automatic, we understandably perceive this environment less and less as the architecture of some technology augmented Shangri-La. This inflames our ability to worry! We harbor angst about our security because of radiation, pollution, new viruses, cancer and now airbags and fungal spores. But clever marketing strategies have suggested a way out for the individual: overcompensate domestic and personal hygiene to the point of absurdity. So in the end we take control (the little we have) and become fetishistic anti-bacterial Rambos in our domestic space. We reach into the arsenal of bug-killing aerosols at the slightest hint of bacterial or insect presence and eliminate the bastards by the millions. Feels good doesn’t it?


1. Ivan Carvalho, “Dr.Strangelet or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the big bang” in Wired , 8.05. 2000, pp 254-255.
2. Frank Wilczek of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey - have said that, in theory, RHIC could trigger the runaway formation of a poorly understood breed of subatomic particle known as a strangelet, which “eats” all matter it encounters, a chain reaction that would consume everything everywhere. Fortunately, most experts aren’t worried. MIT physicist Bob Jaffe says the chances of RHIC-induced Armageddon are “exceedingly rare” bordering on nil, but as he admits, “you never know.”
3. In 1941, the quiet existence of 31-year-old Louis Slotin was shattered when the United States entered WWII. Winnipeg-born Slotin, a brilliant nuclear scientist, was working at the University of Chicago when he was asked to join a group of scientists experimenting with nuclear fission. The team and its work became known as the ‘Manhattan Project,’ and would soon build the world’s first atomic bomb. Louis Slotin’s speciality was “tickling the dragon’s tail,” bringing together two hemispheres of plutonium and uranium as critically close as possible without starting a chain reaction. Slotin’s life came to a tragic end at the age of 35 following exposure to a lethal dose of radiation.
4. A monkey trap consists of a jar tied to a tree. The jar contains a shiny trinket or a peanut. The jar’s opening is large enough to allow the monkey to reach in and grab the content but does not permit the monkey to retrieve its closed fist. The monkey can save itself from capture simply by letting go of its new possession.
5. A reproductive cell produced by plants (fungi, moss, ferns) and some protozoa and bacteria. Bacteria also produce spores as a defensive mechanism. Spores have thick walls and are able to withstand varying temperatures, humidity and other unfavorable conditions. High temperatures are required to kill bacterial spores.
6. Penny Fannin (Science reporter), The new viral timebomb, The Age, Melbourne, 3/06/99, pp 22.
7. Damien Broderick, The Last Mortal Generation, New Holland, Sydney, 1999.
8. An early example is the following account: “The grub, the larvae of a large moth commonly called the ‘night butterfly’, is subject to attacks from a vegetable parasite, or fungi, called Sphaeria Robertsii. The spores of the fungi, germinating in the body of the grub, absorb or assimilate the whole of the animal substance, the fungus growth being an exact replica of the living caterpillar. The fungi, having killed the grub, sends up a shoot or seed stem; its lower portion retains its vitality and sends up another shoot the following year. “
C. Fitton , New Zealand Scientific American, February 1899.
9. Eshel Ben-Jacob and Herbert Levine, ‘The Artistry of Micro-organisms’, Scientific American, October 1998,
10. “ dust might be allowed to settle for a period of three months (Man Ray’s famous photo shows the ‘dust breeding’ process) to be finally fixed with varnish. This ‘breeding of colours’ takes us closest to his ideal - the glass seen as a ‘greenhouse’ in which transparent colours, as ephemeral as perfumes, will emerge, flourish, ripen and decay like flowers and fruits.” (And spores of fungi, W.H.)
Richard Hamilton, ‘The Large Glass’ in Marcel Duchamp, Anne d’ Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine (Eds), Thames and Hudson, London, 1973.
11. The activity of classifying and naming things.
12. FORMLESS, Georges Bataille. In Documents # 2, May, 1929. Paris. (Reprinted in Denis Holier, Against Architecture : Writings of Georges Bataille. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London. 1992 (pp. 46 – 55).
13. According to American statistics an estimated 1 198 lives were saved between 1987 and 1995 in the US because of airbags. By 1996 an estimated 30 million vehicles had been sold with airbags fitted. Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, US Department of Transportation, Washington DC
Third report to congress ‘Effectiveness of Occupant Protection Systems and Their Use’ , December 1996.
KIT remind us that some 150 people were killed by airbags in the last 10 years. Statistically that’s in the range of 1 in every 200 000 occupants of airbag equipped vehicles.
14. There are numerous websites.
15. Examination of bodies after death.