Issue 3/2005 - Net section

Noise on the Margins

The work of the Uruguayan Net artist Brian Mackern

Alessandro Ludovico

What does it mean to make Net art in Uruguay, a sort of artificial country established mainly for economic and military purposes? First of all, it means 'solitude', even in a networked world. Like the majority of Latino Net artists, Brian McKern met other South American colleagues mainly thanks to European exhibitions and festival invitations. They seem to act like aliens, connected but scattered over a vast continent. But in a networked environment, 'solitude' doesn't imply ignorance or mediocrity at all. In fact McKern compiled a definition of 'networked ambients' in 1994, during the same period when the first European experiments with the Net as an art space were taking place, and well before any widely acknowledged definition of Net art. It's a matter of fact that the history of the Net is full of de-centered protagonists, probably because they are more motivated to move with their valuable work to the 'centers of attention' of cyberspace, being at the margins of the televised reality. But the smartest ones also know that it's important to put the best local resources in an international context. So Brian McKern always paid critical attention to the international scene, something which led, at the end of the nineties, to his translation into Castellano (Spanish) of the most famous classics by Shulgin, JODI, Cosic, etc.

But, on the other hand, he never lost his local roots and perspectives. Even if he has been sharp in his criticism of the South American context (»in these latitudes, Net art is simply ignored, so, in a way, it doesn't exist, he declared in 2000 in an interview with, he developed seminal projects for that territory. Among them is his celebrated 'netart_latino database' [ ], for example, which used a Spartanic ASCII interface to gave voice and visibility to many artists and collectives of the Latino area. His comprehensive map, developed over years, points to works, mailing-lists and references and describes the thin red line that connects the common cultural background and its sometimes subtly iconoclastic approach. The artists mentioned, in his opinion, are »fractalized in this continent (as this usually happens to other things here)«, but have »a kind of 'own voice'«. So his tie with the territory is omnipresent, even if only on an elegant level. The resignification of ancient community symbols, for example, is evident in the reversed definition of 'noise' applied in his project [ ].

This is based on the mass cult of Santa Rosa of Lima in the Rio de la Plata region. The beloved saint is celebrated at the end of August, when storms frequently take place in the region. So her 'presence' is connected to storms, rain and the consequent electrical activity. The sound-work consists of several recordings of radio static (electrical interference or radio frequencies) caused by the proximity/presence of the so-called 'Tormenta de Santa Rosa'. This 'religious psychogeography', fragmented, ironic and discontinued, builds on the emotional map of the invisible presence of saints, turning the 'noise', commonly considered unimportant, into important or even 'holy' signals. And, living at the margins of the economic powers, McKern has also been able to appreciate and elaborate the marginal aspects of established network standards.

One excellent example is his '' [ ] Web work. Exploiting ad infinitum the role of 'intro' code on Flash sites and in animations, he assembled a gallery of these so-called 'preloaders'. Here, these brief animations, made to tease the audience like the opening credits of movies, endlessly announce something that will never arrive (as in ‘Waiting for Godot’). This never-ending expectation, which reminds us of the 'waiting syndrome' of the early Web, also describes a temporal process (the infinite loop) used in time-based media (mostly video and sound). McKern also often used CD-Rs as a medium for distributing his own multimedia pieces. One of his Flash artifacts, 'mySweet.AWE32(ø1996-†2003)', which tells of the slow technical death of the artist's computer soundcard and how the sounds consequently degenerated into a blue human mood, was also distributed on CD-R. The hardware's deterioration reflects the intimate relationship between an artist and his own machine. How he shapes it, exploits it, and even becomes emotional with it. And this leads to one of his latest (and most important) works. During the 2004 PEAM (Pescara Electronic Artists Meeting) festival, he, together with his friends Los Machin (Nilo Casares and Lele Luchetti), conceived a structured conceptual performance related to the artist's PC as an icon. The personal computer, in fact, embodies a theoretical paradox, being at the same time a tool for making artworks and a medium for seeing them; and artists tend to short circuit all this together on the same machine. The PC is, in the end, not only the repository of the artist's career, but also the repository of his scratches, out-takes, a huge amount of external inspirational stuff, lots of intimate data and all the technical workarounds. So the team produced the 'Máquina Podrida [ ] project, where McKern's malfunctioning personal laptop was auctioned via the Eurobid Web auction service (and ironically placed in the 'antiquity' section) with all accessories and a complete DVD backup. This attempt was not only about the objectification of digital processes, but also about betting on an important part of the artist's identity. In this case, the computer, as the technical node that transforms solitude into the artist's voice, and represents the virtual self in all its discontinuous and scattered recordings, is auctioned as a symbolic act of separation. This digital artist's 'piece of soul' is then sold as his temporary inner memory, a living witness of 10 years' work in a far distant node.