Moira Jeffrey, 'Artist of Note Worth Watching' (Scotland on Sunday, 17/02/2008)

With his own art-rock opera and video, Craig Mulholland’s imagination knows no bounds as he explores life in the surveillance age, Writes Moira Jeffrey

It’s a short film. It’s some sculpture. It’s a whole whack of paintings. It’s a four-screen video installation. It’s an art-rock opera with a proper libretto, created on the king of computer technology usually reserved for that modern musical genre apparently known as happy hardcore.

The standard tabloid line about contemporary artist is that they are lazy underachievers. Glasgow artist Craig Mulholland’s excessive master work Grandes Et Petites Machines, elements of which have invaded the city’s art school, its arthouse cinema and the commercial gallery Sorcha Dallas this week, suggests the opposite. The two sister exhibitions and Mulholland’s film Peer To Peer, which will get its theatrical premier on Thursday at the Glasgow Film Festival, contains such a wealth of creative references that it is hard to imagine the artist has slept in recent months.

Mulholland is an artist whose work bridges any number of divides. He is a highly skilled painter whose career, since graduation from Glasgow in 1991, has included shows at some of the country’s crustier traditional venues. Yet in recent years his work has also been seen in places considered to be the epitome of contemporary cool such as Tate Britain and the White Chapel Project Space. His handiness with a paintbrush is not in doubt, yet these days, he is as well known for his digital animation as his brushwork.

For these shows the list of materials is somewhat mind-boggling: video, aluminium, polycarbonate, palette knives, pegboard and string. I can’t remember when, if ever, my own scribbled notes on an exhibition have contained such gems as “brain on a plinth” and “fleshy tripods rot”.

A the heart of all the work is the creation of the 12-minute digital animation Peer To Peer, for which Mulholland received a recent Scottish Arts Council/ Scottish Screen Film and Video Award. It is a bombastic exploration of the information age, which meshes images of our surveillance culture, CCTV and satellite technology with a cut-and-paste collage aesthetic that originated with movements such as Dada and Surrealism at the turn of the last century. While technology nowadays can produce images of startling and seamless beauty, Mulholland deliberately uses it to recreate the monochrome and juddery visuals of an era when moving film was still in its infancy and the excitement of the machine age was in its first flow.

Even more incongruous in the fact that Peer To Peer is actually an opera, with music by Mulholland and words created with his collaborator, artist Laurence Figgis. Its narrative thrust is the interdependent relationship between a camera operator and the technology he serves. If this sounds a bit like the film Red Road, be assured be assured that it is miles away from it in both look and feel. The work certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. Some of it is clunky; some of it is high camp. If at times it feels like Mulholland has tried to stage a musical version of The Matrix using some paper plates and computer technology from the era of the ZX Spectrum, you’ve got to assume it is done knowingly and admire his zest and ingenuity.

Why work in opera format when exploring social control? It’s apparently inspired by the experimental use of classical music in shops and public places to discourage crime. If this all seems a bit paranoid the remember this is a month in which news stories have been breading about “mosquitoes”, devices which emit high-frequency sound allegedly only perceptible to young ears and designed to drive young people off city streets.

This is not unfamiliar territory for Mulholland. Previous exhibitions such as Bearer On Demand at Glasgow’s transmission Gallery and Plastic Casino in a former sweatshop space in the City’s Osborne Street have tackled such weighty topics as the monetary system and consumer culture. His show RFID at Stirling’s Changing Room was inspired by the development of radio frequency tracking devices: controversial technology used to trace the physical movement of consumer goods.

Grandes Et Petites Machines is an attempt to visualise some of the more hidden aspects of our obsession with information: the way that through everything from computer search engines to supermarket loyalty cards we unthinkingly conspire with those agencies that compile and store data about us.

The two exhibitions spin out from the film in various ways, including related drawings and artworks that double as props. In the Mackintosh Gallery at the Glasgow School of Art we find a series of abstract drawings and paintings. Some are created by etching and drilling aluminium in a method that echoes the manufacture of circuit boards, others use the rather sad material of painted and ragged peg board. Not all of these are as careful and considered as the work in film. Of the sculptural works, the strongest is Paths Of Resistance a riotous assembly of sinister tripods, which have sprouted odd fleshy protuberances or sinister spikes.

At Sorcha Dallas there is a four-screen digital animation, Rising Resistance, with draws on the imagery of Peer To Peer and uses florid language lifted not from revolutionary politics as one might assume, but from stock market commentary. A sculpture of an aluminium globe reflects the way in which global mapping leaves us under the perpetual watchful eye of satellite technology.

Mulholland has name-checked the sounds and the visuals of consummate art band Kraftwerk as key influence on his work. He has spoken in interviews of his love of Joy Division and New Order. Recently pop culture has been recycling imagery from those odd years of musical creativity on the cusp between the Seventies and Eighties. What with the chill wind of recession, the credit crunch and an increasing sense of bugging-induced paranoia, there’s plenty of room for a contemporary revival of the darker aesthetics of that age, and Grandes Et Petites Machines fits firmly into this tradition. There is, however, a healthy dose of cheeky humour and self-awareness in the work as well: mock opera as much as rock opera. When the show travels to Bristol venue Spike Island later this year it will be reconfigured again. Mulholland might need to assess whether, in the longer term, his artistic rout should itself be grand or petite. I do wonder if de-cluttering some of the source material and more repetitive two-dimensional work would have allowed the video and the strongest sculpture to speak much more clearly. On the other hand, it’s hard not to admire an artist whose work ethic and artistic control extends from craft to keyboard and from the palette knife to the page of a musical score.