James Clegg, 'Craig Mulholland: Grandes et Petites Machines' (Art Review, 22, 05/2008)

Grandes et Petites Machines constitutes a corpus of abstract, portentous sign systems – seemingly emanating from an inhuman source. Over two venues we encounter and reencounter geometric and technological forms, prompting us to imagine the structured agency of digital information and rationality – a cajoling simulacrum. Concomitantly, individual works such as Multiple Choice (all works 2008), a large aluminium globe partitioned geometrically with etched lines emphasised by an omnipresent black polycarbonate, cause us to link these forms to an austere totalitarianism.

With titles such as Anger Management, Flexi-Time and Quantity Surveyor, Craig Mulholland seems to be reflecting upon the impersonal homogenisation of emotions, leisure time and material space. The use of aluminium and the futuristic forms assert technology’s collusion, while bearing some resemblance to a modernist notion of dystopia. In the film Peer to Peer we witness a host of pixelated, dreamlike geometric forms folding and unfolding before us. The ‘operator’ sits in front of four monitors displaying other geometric forms. In a sardonic, operatic voice he starts singing, “My mind beats on”, over and over. This evokes a stream of consciousness, but one tied to technological rather than ontological networks. The ‘operator’ later encounters Paths of Resistance, Mulholland’s encumbered microphone forms (also exhibited independently). They thrust forward like a clamouring press, trying to capture and encode verbal expression. There’s an odd mix of humour – think Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940) – and an ominous foreboding.

The whole exhibition is confident and accomplished, and the body of work is connected in phantasmagorical fashion through Peer to Peer. Grandes et Petites Machines draws you in and immerses you in its heady coda. However, if the exhibition’s central aim is to explore the repercussions of digital technology’s representation of the world around us, we might be critical of the fatalistic manner with which digital technology is represented by the exhibition. That the web was established by free communal file sharing, that it has, to some degree, democratised people’s ability to contribute and disseminate information, is absent from the world of Grandes et Petites Machines. Rather, information technology is seen as something distinct from ourselves, as abstract and inhuman system.

The French mathematician and philosopher of science Henri Poincare argued that the quality of a fact, the basic unit of information (the commodity of choice for digital technology), is determined pragmatically by its apparent of simplicity and scope. For Robert Pirsig – philosopher and author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), a literary attempt to address people’s fear of technology – Poincare’s observation was not a testament to the fact’s drive towards abstract and utilitarian information, but rather an indication that facts necessarily arise from intuitive, social drives. Pirsig wrote, ‘The Machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things’. Mulholland’s exhibition is rich and complex, but it might entrench our notions of information technology’s otherness rather than open up possibilities betweens us – as biological machines – and the Grandes et Petites Machines that extends our limits.