Sonica: Infinite Lives @ Tramway, Glasgow, 27 Oct
Robbie Thomson's Infinite Lives is a sensory delight and a product of copious craftsmanship – part creepy, part silly, and all weird
The fact that Robbie Thomson has not one but two performative installations on the bill at this year’s Sonica speaks to the Glasgow-based visual artist’s enormous graft and creativity, especially given the degree of consideration evident in every aspect of both XFRMR and, tonight’s performance, Infinite Lives. Like XFRMR, Infinite Lives is a dense, multi-faceted work combining music, visuals, sculpture and lighting to create an astonishing, one of a kind multi-sensory journey.
But where XFRMR benefits from its hyper-specific focus on the Tesla coil, Infinite Lives by contrast wants to cover everything – from the microbiological all the way up to the astronomical, traversing worlds both organic and digital while attempting to probe subjects like the nature of consciousness and mass surveillance. It does so while mixing a bludgeoning electronic soundtrack and existential musings inspired by psychiatrist RD Laing with rudimentary puppetry and B-movie camp, resulting in a bewildering, psychedelic odyssey that’s thrilling from start to finish, if not as coherent as it could be.
The performance begins in darkness, a thick, acerbic drone bulging against the bricked edges of Tramway 4. Before us is a line of shadowy contraptions silhouetted against a black screen, the centremost of which looks to be, disturbingly, a severed head on a desk. The atmosphere in the room is tense, and several of the audience audibly jump in their seats when a group of wireframe sigils flash onto the screen. Here and throughout Infinite Lives, Thomson exhibits a masterful grasp of anticipation. Like a DJ lingering on a particular rhythm, Thomson has a way of methodically ramping up the intensity of each section, looping and layering visual and aural motifs before punctuating them with sudden bursts of frightening activity.
Next we are fired on, machine gun-like, by a strobe light mounted on a fleshy arm before a flurry of what looks like monochrome microscope photography kicks off in the background, showing fungal-like matter throbbing and tearing in gross-out detail. Then a spotlight flicks on in the middle of the stage, and the head awakens.
Imagine a grimier version of Neil Buchanan’s bust assistant from Art Attack orating about the conflict between the “inner” and “external” selves and you’ve got some impression of what Infinite Lives’ centerpiece is like. It’s undeniably unnerving at times – like when it undergoes a sort of seizure, its eyes and mouth spasming open and closed – though at others it’s exactly as goofy as that description sounds. The same goes for the CGI portion of the performance. The narration in this section is dark and disturbing, featuring a voiceover from someone who confides in us their belief that Microsoft controls every facet of their being, from when they wake up to when they want a cigarette. The visuals, conversely, look like the sort of thing that might be played for laughs in a Oneohtrix Point Never video, all stiff animations and laminated textures.
Given the glee with which Thomson plays up these more campy aspects of the performance – we half-expect blood to shoot everywhere when the robotic needles descend into the spread of organs, located stage left – we’re left a bit unsure about how sincerely to take its more serious moments. A particularly memorable section, for instance, sees a camera pointing down into a tank of water as a light pulses beneath it. On screen we see plankton swimming around, appearing and disappearing with each flash; tiny, barely visible, but definitely alive. If, as the programme note suggests, Infinite Lives wants us to consider whether such microscopic entities could have the capacity for consciousness, then the experience they undergo here must be something akin to torture.
Whatever we’re supposed to take away from the piece on an intellectual level, Infinite Lives is a sensory delight and a product of copious craftsmanship – part creepy, part silly, and all weird.
Sonica 2017 runs until 5 Nov, full details and tickets available from sonic-a.co.uk