Alan Butler creates an experience of sensory excess in his new exhibition.
As you walk into the upper gallery at the RHA, you are greeted by a barrage of visual and acoustic stimuli; rotating screens on an elevated metal girder; a set of light projections that restively haunt the ceiling and walls; an open tent, filled with swirling mirrors, that spills fluorescent light changing in colour and intensity; and among the various objects, humming in the air, there are spoken words, voices; some of them calm, others strained as though imperilled. Alan Butler creates an experience of sensory excess, straining the audience’s cognitive and perceptual faculties by immersing them within a clashing media climate that seems to distract and demand your attention in equal measure.
Indeed, ‘climate’ is at the heart of Butler’s show: the meteorological environment that allows our biosphere to flourish is under threat, and Butler attempts to channel the anxiety produced by this incipient cataclysm into a new set of installations. But how does one grapple with the climate crisis, without suffering from the agony of imitation? Environmental decay has been explored extensively, after all, by a wide-range of acclaimed artists, whether it be Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch on the steps of the Tate Modern, or Cai Guo-Qiang’s The Ninth Wave sailing down the Huangpu River in Shanghai. Closer to home, one could pick out a dozen examples without straining; Siobhán Hapaska springs to mind, whose mutant sculpture renders objects like tree-trunks unnatural by incorporating them into strange machinic ensembles.
We are now in the mountains, and they are in us distinguishes itself from other eco-art exhibitions, by narrowing its focus on the concept of global or planetary representation. This is not an exhibition that cleaves to a lofty ethical position, nor is it suffused with a morbid anticipation of the end of civilisation (though that thought does sit somewhere in the shifting plates of this volcanic show); instead, the essence of Butler’s work is obsessive hypermediality. In a state of almost hysterical reflexiveness, the artist asks questions about what it means to view the world, to depict it as one coherent, total entity, and consequently, to understand its demise.
Concerns such as this can be traced back to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, writing in the late 18th century. In his attempt to divest metaphysics of gratuitous abstractions and to place it back on the path of proper knowledge, Kant criticised debates common at the time, on the basis that they recycled the same groundless claims. Two such dead-ends were, for Kant, the debate about whether the world was chronologically finite, and the debate about whether the world was composed of atoms. Rather than focus on the merits of one argument or its antithesis, Kant was at pains to explain that the core premise itself was flawed: there is no such thing as ‘the world’. According to the philosopher, the world is only an abstraction conjured by reason, a faculty of the mind. Reason, motivated by a monstrous desire to extrapolate, takes our legitimate knowledge of conditioned experiences and imagines them, illegitimately, as moments of a totality. But this totality, which the metaphysicians casually identify as ‘the world’, does not exist.
For centuries, Kant’s sceptical position has inspired new critiques of reality, especially in the writings of those who grapple with the role that media play in fashioning our sense of world. Jean Baudrillard, for instance, laments our new era of simulation. Personal experience, one’s intimate feeling of the world, has become ineradicably enmeshed within the global system of media technologies, “substituting the signs of the real for the real.” For Baudrillard, we no longer have a private and direct access to reality; we are instead consumers of a reality-effect. At this stage, even traditional “media and the official news service are only there to maintain the illusion of an actuality, of the reality of the stakes, of the objectivity of facts,” according to the philosopher’s pessimistic view.
Butler is not, as I mentioned a moment ago, nearly so despondent or gloomy in style, but he shares with Kant and Baudrillard a sensitivity to the way our understanding and feeling of the world is endlessly mediated through representational vehicles.
Take Totem and Spatial Audio, two works produced in 2023 that are combined in one installation, and which occupy a central position at the beginning of the exhibit. One element of this complex, rotating assemblage are the multiple screens: simple monitors that feature the ‘home-screen’ wallpaper we all dwell so intimately with; images of landscapes and woodland creatures in exhaustingly high-definition, greeting us every time we open a laptop or smart-phone, and which those devices return to whenever left alone. These images comfort us on many levels: they are typically scenes of exemplary states of nature, magnificent mountain-ranges or starry skies designed to bring us a sense of restful contemplation, but they are also the threshold to our digital lives, as deeply ingrained as my own home’s front-entrance; the doorway to every virtual satisfaction we are compelled to seek, whether information, entertainment or work. Several white neon-tubes in the shape of clouds circle the plinth, further addressing the strange symbolic partnership between contemporary technology (cloud computing) and natural phenomena, and both screens and clouds are accompanied by the fragmented recording of a low-key discussion, which peppers the air with evocative phrases like: “In a perfect world I would select everything,” “I’m going to increase the resolution, and then you wait”, and “A good habit to get into is saving often.”
Totem and Spatial Audio illuminate Butler’s abiding interest in the technical and mediatised fashioning of the world, but as referenced at the outset, this interest plays out within the context of environmental collapse. Content: LIVE! Is perhaps the most eloquent artwork in the collection, speaking both to climate change and Butler’s long-term preoccupations as a new-media artist. A digital 3D figure stands in an impressive natural reserve, addressing the camera with a microphone in their hand, a simulacrum of news reporting. They stand in the midst of a howling gale, their body battered by the wind and rain, and the AI’s tremulous voice is raw with anxiety, permeating the entire exhibition. This frenzied speech is a recitation of My First Summer in Sierra by John Muir, a 19th century naturalist and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States. His book documents the author’s adventures through the Yosemite region of California in 1869. The video is an impressive 8-hours long, and, fascinatingly, the video-game engine is generating in real time: the artist explains that the only constants are the words this AI screams, but everything else – the position of the camera, the location of the figure in what turns out to be a precise rendering of Yosemite’s 100km² territory – are completely random; the stochastic results of a live simulation.
The 42-year old artist’s technical and software proficiency are evident throughout his installations. Curator Sarah McAuliffe speaks admiringly of Butler, describing him as “extremely skilled in the technology involved in the making of his work, which was a huge help for our team. Working on the installation,” she says, “was an exciting and insightful opportunity for all of us at the RHA.”
This same excitement was palpable among the art-going audience who joined me in the exhibition. Urgent and immersive: a must-see.
We are now in the mountains, and they are in us is on the RHA until October 1.
Words: Tom Lordan