The heart of Apophenia, Keny Marshall's exhibition at SPACE Gallery, is a fantastic contraption titled "electro-acoustic experiments." The heart of this contraption is a pair of small puffer fish. Skittering around in a large glass bowl via the surprising strength of their tiny fins, they constitute the show's only organic, living and unpredictable elements. Through an artful and intricate employment of technologies, the fish moving through their enclosed environment become composers of a strange and lovely symphony of reconfigured brass horns, attached to tall bellows and arranged throughout the gallery.
It works like this: The fish bowl is under unswerving surveillance by two eyeball-sized video cameras that transmit their signals to two monitors. The monitors are in turn monitored by eight photo cells, which are triggered whenever a fish swims across the video screen. When a photo cell is triggered, the signal is sent via a network of electronics to one of the bellows, causing it to inhale and exhale, forcing air through its horn(s) and filling the gallery with a swelling, brass-section-on-Robitussin tone. The continuous movement of the fish creates a continually shifting aural composition that reverberates throughout the hard-walled gallery space.
Sound complicated? Well, it is. But this complexity is rendered completely visible through Marshall's elaborate efforts to expose its technologies and render its mysteries transparent. Though you may have no clue what the eight little boxes resting above the video monitors actually do, flashing LEDs indicate when they are doing it, and wires running to and from them place them in a legible context. A dedication to transparency allows anyone to follow, broadly, the division of labor among this Pittsburgh-based artist's array of mechanical, computerized and robotic parts.
This level of access into ordinarily inaccessible technology is a driving force for Marshall's work, an aesthetic of transparency he shares with contemporary DIY technicians like L.A.-based artist Tim Hawkinson. Marshall is motivated, to quote his artist's statement, by a critique of the "increasingly invisible world that technology inhabits."
For Marshall, the unveiling of high-tech mechanisms also provides insight into their ideological constructions: the framework of thought that propels their creation. In a world hell-bent on microchips, nanotechnology and deceptively smooth plastic shells to conceal it all, Marshall's approach is a playful protest against our rarely questioned immersion in man-made environments we can't attempt to understand.
On a more formal level, "electro-acoustic experiments" is enamored with the sculptural qualities of its high- and low-tech parts. It is a celebration of rusted shafts and bolts, plastic ties and clamps: little art objects that prop, hold and stabilize. Their employment is clearly driven by function, but a poetic sensibility for surfaces and shapes seems equally crucial. The glass fish bowl, for example, could easily rest on a pedestal, in line with the traditional approach to showcasing objects in galleries. Instead, it sits atop an old wheel-driven tripod whose rusted, weathered components look as though they've been excavated from a sunken ship.
"electro-acoustic experiments" is so mesmerizing and ambitious that it dominates Marshall's other sculptural installation on view in Apophenia, curated by former SPACE curator Sharmila Venkatasubban. "3D pipes" is a large assemblage of pipes, valves and gauges that creates a massive nebula of industrial-themed interconnections. It stands in contrast to "electro-acoustic experiments" in its non-functionality; part of the allure of the kinetic piece is Marshall's ingenuity in combining parts to create the whole. "3D pipes" lacks that monumental intention, and instead revels in the intricacies of Marshall's visual style. These intricacies are certainly worth poring over, but "3D pipes" is oddly camouflaged in SPACE's already-industrial space, and it loses its punch sitting amid the black steel beams. In addition, the wall drawings that decorate the gallery, though based on Marshall's sketches, seem unnecessary and even distracting from the main event.
"Apophenia" is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in seemingly random or meaningless data. It's a slyly technical title for a technical show slyly steeped in metaphor, the politics of technology (and our unquestioning use of it) and other sticky human ideas. Marshall's work is thoroughly provocative; he is as expressive with his gadgets as this city's best painters are with their pigment, and missing his current wonderwork would be a serious technical oversight.
Apophenia continues through Dec. 31. SPACE Gallery, 812 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-325-7723