By Alex Leggatt
Tony James Morton’s exhibition Systems is a sparse exploration of the order and resultant chaos associated with systems and rules manifested chiefly through visual and auditory experimentations. Systems consists of three installations: “8 bit news”, “If the walls could sing’ and “#max140beats”, each framing political polarisation and the dissemination of media by incorporating hardware and software with user interaction – yet Morton’s own artistic voice is sometimes lost amid the randomness of his ‘musical systems’.
Viewers are met with a nostalgic reminder of 8-bit soundtracks in the first installation piece. Live news reports from across the political spectrum are converted into binary code in real time, triggering a droning chime of three separate tones for left-wing, right-wing and centrist reports. This soundscape strips back the deafening noise of contemporary media, simplifying potentially subversive and destabilising news reports to a simple triad of tones. There is a sense of dynamism and unpredictability to this piece, which is entirely predicated on an ever-changing political landscape, yet by deconstructing the elements to a fundamental and simplified state, Morton achieves some semblance of order and even beauty in an otherwise ugly and divisive realm of public life.
Interaction from the viewer and external mediums are fundamental to this exhibition, which at times leads one to wonder where Morton’s concepts find an expression of their own. Indeed, the installation “If the walls could sing” begins only upon an individual entering the “stage”, where their spatial movements are translated onto a singing avatar, whose words are supposedly based on Frost’s poem Mending Wall and the theme of division, yet their glitchy appearance renders any meaningful verse they espouse difficult to decipher. Despite the singers’ evocative and ghostly cries, this piece suffers from a lack of cohesion between the concepts and poor execution, meaning Morton’s ideal of representing the ‘sadness of keeping humanity divided’ is disappointingly unachieved.
The final installation, “#max140beats”, touches on another pertinent matter in modern social interaction: the prevalence of bots and spam on Twitter and their disturbingly large political influence on referendums and elections. Viewers are invited to tweet the hashtag “max140beats”, which is subsequently relayed on a projector in the form of flashing twitter icons and an oboe/clarinet, piano or lightly-plucked guitar strings accompaniment. Again, a potentially thought-provoking and important issue to address is hindered by Morton’s musical execution, with the jarring and grating soundtrack produced from a torrent of random tweets a far cry from the artist’s conception of turning ‘useless spam’ into ‘useful music’.
Overall, Systems is an ever-changing and infinitely unpredictable exhibition – no two viewings will yield the same experience. These experiments in interactions between viewer and systems, despite provoking intriguing concepts of the interminable possibilities of randomness within rigidly formulated frameworks, ultimately suffer from a lack of overall structure and unity. The exhibition gives precedence to randomness, leaving any strong artistic statement being forced to retreat into obscurity. One is led to consider Morton’s installations as merely half-conceived, uncompleted musical experiments that wholly fail to convince viewers of the potentially intriguing and engaging socio-political connotations explored.
Featured image: Tony James Morton via TESTT Space