This piece is intended to encourage others to look closely and critically at public/projection art. Beyond being attention grabbing, Yandell’s artwork speaks to the pressing, global issue of climate change. I wanted to add to her noise / Alex Talbot is a Melbourne based editor/writer. She enjoys swimming and drinking coffee (but not at the same time).
A Meditation on Consequence: Responding to Yandell Walton’s Human Effect
Human Effect is an artwork by accomplished projection installation artist Yandell Walton, in collaboration with animator Tobias Edwards and software developer Jayson Haebich. Yandell’s art is presented by The Centre For Projection Art for Melbourne Knowledge Week, in association with ART + CLIMATE = CHANGE 2017.
A wall of projected light displaying dense foliage takes up a good portion of the Arts Centre’s north wall. This exhibition has a clean and simple look, but stick around and you’ll get a glimpse at its sinister side.
I arrive at 6:25 p.m. on a brisk Thursday night to experience Yandell Walton’s ‘Human Effect’. I am eager to learn exactly how I will be interacting with a garden made of light and image. There’s already about 15 people here: all in good spirits. As is often the case with participatory art, there’s an air of shrewd hesitancy and suspense.
As I admire the greenery—a mix of Daintree Rainforest and native Australian flora, including magnificent deep-red banksia and bottlebrush—the warm light tempts me closer. The plants stir and glow while two huge butterflies dance the night away. The detail of the flora is mesmerising and as I walk toward it I can almost believe I’m about to be offered a Narnia-like exit from St Kilda Road into a glorious, neon arcadia.
But this feeling doesn’t last for long.
As I tentatively wave my hands through the attractive light-projected plants, I notice something is wrong. Slowly and painfully their moist green leaves dry up, turn brown and brittle, and disappear. The spot that I have touched is now barren, there’s nothing but my lumbering shadow. I feel dejected, and a little repulsed by myself. The bright light had impressed the garden into my mind and I can picture what used to be there perfectly. Of course, it’s all to do with sensor points and complex programming, but it feels personal, it feels like I’ve ruined it and for no good reason at all. I have to admit it’s a fairly grim experience.
Many people (including myself) associate their touch with creation, care, making or mending. In Yandell’s plant universe, your touch is purely destructive.
Perhaps you will be the exception? Maybe the garden will bloom and blush for you?
Not a chance.
The garden doesn’t discriminate, the message is clear: if you’re human then your touch will spoil the natural environment.
Yandell is at the exhibition. She’s wearing a thick beanie and a bright sports jacket. She’s saying hello to everyone who hangs around post-selfie. She tells me she has hosted this artwork (which has existed in various forms since 2012) in eight different locations both in Australia and the USA. She sighs when she mentions Baltimore, the artwork sat in a main thoroughfare and it created so much excitement and noise that Yandell couldn’t watch anymore, she went back to her hotel. Yandell is realistic about public art, she says for the thousands that see the work, only a small portion of them will think about it critically.
I suppose that’s the bittersweet nature of interactive work: its playfulness. I watch Yandell watch the participants. A father chases the aforementioned iridescent blue butterfly along the right-side wall trying to grab it for his son’s amusement, the child shrieks with glee as plants slowly wither around them. But the playfulness is key, of course, as is the brightness and scale. It almost seems like a cheap trick to draw people in this way. But for years now climate change has been the subject of countless broadcasts, alerts, essays and lectures, and frighteningly the vast majority of us are able to ignore these warnings. Therein lies one of art’s supreme powers: it engages us when we’d otherwise turn away.
There’s a moment after the commotion, everyone’s taking a rest and standing back; the garden is resurrecting in front of us. Our careful distance is rewarded. This is where we are most useful, in a space where we can acknowledge and appreciate our delicate plant ecosystem and interact—not by force—but with thought.
Human Effect was on display on the external north wall of Melbourne Art Centre from 1-7 May.
We’ve teamed up with RMIT’s School and Media and Communication and asked students to respond to the themes of Melbourne Knowledge Week and reflect Melbourne’s future. This response by Alex Talbot examines the work of projection artist Yandell Walton.