ENDUSER | review by Catherine Harty | VAI News Sheet

January 2019

In large black type, the word "ENDUSER" confronts visitors, while underneath, an instructable text begins: "you owe me, big smooth eggs of divine fertility laid out of the window into the endless landscape." The phrase "you owe me" is repeated throughout this text: "you owe me... snow... strawberries... colour...". Some, but not all, of the things 'owed' also appear in the presented artworks...

Penc presented two distinct and consecutive phases of this exhibition, each running for approximately a month at Triskel Christchurch - an eighteenth-century neoclassical Georgian church, which functions as Triskel Art Centre's main auditorium. The titular artwork, ENDUSER, featured in both iterations, comprising four holographic projections, sited at balcony-height, near the corner pillars of the nave, which were activated by viewers' movements as they passed through space. When not activated, this work exists as a mechanical structure, a single blade propeller on a steel pole. When triggered, the blade whirs into motion. As the speed increases, the spectral apparition of a ghostly head appears, revolving 360 degrees on its axis, before cutting to an upright rotating hand. In the context of the overall show, I would relate the hand and the head to making and thinking; to creation, production and measurement.

A two-minute film loop, titled The Last Judgement, is projected onto the first of two screens in the aisle, hung from the ceiling. The film features three figures — naked, hairless and de-void of genitals, reminiscent of action men dolls — inhabiting a bleak computer-generated world. They trudge atop a revolving disc; one figure wears knee-length black boots and pulls a rope attached to the wheel's axel. His labour in this dystopian gymnasium is being converted to energy. Of course, virtual, remote and unseen slave labour exists in our world, supplying the commodities that keep capital moving — from coltan mining in the Congo to textile factories in Bangladesh. The scene reveals a bleached rudimentary landscape, populated with geometric shapes and small figures that seem to be plucked from the hellscape of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. A short looped computer-generated film, Strawberry Advertisement, depicts a landscape of strawberries; sumptuous and seductive in their fleshy unreality and perhaps plucked by one of Bosch's unfortunate eunuch slaves. During the exhibition's run, a story emerged of needles being found in strawberries in Australia, which shut down the country's multi-million-dollar strawberry industry for several weeks. Speculation abounded of disgruntled pickers engaging in sabotage — a needle in the fruit replacing the spanner in the works.

The second instalment of the show included two film works and a sound piece. Marked for Deletion, a computer-generated animation, features a static snowy landscape over which footage of seven long flags has been superimposed. The flags move, but are not tethered to anything, bringing an uncanny aspect to the scene. It is a picturesque vista with pine trees and snow-covered cabins, the light suggesting dawn or dusk. The unfurled flags could suggest the simple measure of wind direction, hinting at windmills — an early method of harnessing nature's energy — or they may refer to political projects, the unfurling of the red flag a symbol of the masses rising up against their masters. In a similar vein, Digital Waste Disposal Site comprises a still image of a beautiful seascape, with horizontal and vertical lines superimposed on the composition's lower portion. A gridded cube moves through the arrangement, recalling the modernist desire to purify the artmaking process from the emotional subjectivity of the 'tortured artist' of popular cliché. Both films show the natural landscape — an archetypal subject in Romanticism — being contested by another force.

Hanging from the ceiling between the projection screens is Closing Credits, a steel-frame cube which triggers a cacophonous alarm when approached. This extended note adds to the low-level electronic hum already filling the space. It is a heavy looking industrial piece; the nuts and bolts are exposed, highlighting its materiality. This work oscillates between being a sculpture and a piece of equipment, housing the technology. The themes that emerge in `ENDUSER' are consumption and production. The finished products are displayed in all their beauty and seductiveness, while the labour spent during production of these artworks is hidden away.

Critique | Visual Artists' News Sheet | January - February 2019

Catherine Harty is a member of the Cork Artists Collective and a director of The Guesthouse Project.

ENDUSER | critical text by Daire O’Shea

November 11, 2018

ENDUSER is the title of Tomas Penc’s latest solo show, which takes place in the Triskel Christchurch, Cork. The show is located in the nave of the old Christchurch Cathedral. Penc’s practice revolves around our relationship with contemporary digital technologies framed through the prism of dystopic irony. ENDUSER is no different, cleverly framing the exhibition within a site of worship clear parallels are drawn between our reverence for technology and theological worship...

This is a recurring theme throughout the show. Upon entering the dimly-lit space of the old church one is confronted with a solid white wall erected directly in front of the entrance to the exhibition. On this wall beneath the exhibition’s title, is a one way dialogue aimed squarely at the viewer, beginning with the words ‘You owe me…’

This is a demanding start to what turns out to be a demanding but extremely rewarding and immersive exhibition. Moving into the raised aisle between the pews of this cavernous space, the motions of the viewer trip sensors which switch on rotating holographic displays floating high up in the four corners of the church aisle. These holograms depict alternately, a bald idealised head and a hand. Flicking slowly between one form and another, the holograms all conform to a looped regular rhythm. One walks into the church looking for enlightenment and is given an oblique holographic sign from above.

On the hour, the soundtrack for this, the title piece of the exhibition begins. ENDUSER consists of these four holograms and a looped sound piece filling up the entirety of the church beginning with what can only be described as a synthetic gong, ringing a long, loud chime. This is followed by familiar words spoken in a strange voice, ‘You owe me…’

The voice is unmistakably female while being obviously synthetic. What follows is a list of demands which seem to be owed to this being, interspersed with chimes from this synthetic gong. The synthetic voice is obviously taking on the role of a deity within this place of worship. A technological deity, made by humans. One gets the impression it wants to be human, in some sense:

‘You owe me the life I have always wanted… synthetic dreams… strawberries forever sweet…’

These rotating holograms which are conjured up in place of a congregation are representations of humans, but abstracted to their most essential features; the hands for interfacing and the head for processing. These are humans as imagined by the machine, these are users in their most fundamental qualities, Homo habilis. One is never sure whether the voice is talking to the viewer or the holograms, perhaps they are the endusers of the exhibition’s title.

A fascinating feature of the exhibition is the site specificity. ENDUSER plays on the inherent spatial power relations within the church very successfully. The use of motion sensors to trigger the holographic apparition gives the space a sinister watchfulness, a trait that has always been associated with Christian spaces. Jesus may or may not be watching your every move, it is a matter of personal faith, but your smartphone definitely is, this is something which is universally understood yet often ignored. It takes the reframing of these digital apparitions into the religious space to hammer home the pervasiveness of this constant surveillance.

ENDUSER draws a satisfying if somewhat scary comparison between the figure of a deity and that of the digital. The dialogue that rings out cannot be understood as anything other than a sermon when it is squarely aimed at the aisles of a church and punctuated by long drawn out rings of percussion. Penc shows an astute awareness of the spatial politics present in this room and uses them to his advantage.

The Last Judgement [Fig.1] consists of a digitally rendered animated video that explicitly references the 1505 Hieronymus Bosch painting of the same name [Fig.2]. It is a minimalist depiction of hell populated by yet more homogenous representations of users, either labouring steadily or being subject to barbaric tortures endlessly on what is clearly an infinite loop. This scene, however, has nothing of the deranged brutal clutter and confusion of a Bosch painting. Here we have about a dozen characters and three buildings selected from the painting with the rest omitted. What is left of the copy/pasted painting has been abstracted and simplified down to its bare essentials, again we are not faced with depictions of individual humans instead we have homogenised users, and all of the action takes place in a pristine white abstraction that is explicitly reminiscent of the pure, futuristic minimalism that pervades contemporary technological hardware design.

This vision is scary when considered as a prophecy of times to come but becomes sickening when thought of in terms of the present. Its layering of slick contemporary digital design on top of a late medieval depiction of hell conjures up neo-feudalist comparisons in relation to contemporary technology production. Neo-feudalism is a term coined to invite a comparison between the current advanced capitalist economic model and medieval feudalism in terms of the top-heavy division of wealth, labour and rights, to borrow a quote from William Gibson ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed’. Where ENDUSER seems to be comparing our relationship to technology to worship given its situation in Christchurch Cork which stands upon the site of a medieval parish church from the 1500’s, The Last Judgement is located in an abstract facsimile of the virtual space of Bosh’s painting created in the 1500’s. Penc often uses medieval cultural artefacts as touchstones for his exhibitions and with The Last Judgement he makes a compelling case for the relevance of Bosch’s themes over 500 years later as a means for societal criticism.

Moving beyond this projection screen one comes to the last work in the exhibition Strawberries Advertisement [Fig.3]. Here one is confronted with an uncannily perfect representation of a bunch of strawberries floating mid-air in an infinite white expanse. These must be the strawberries of everlasting sweetness demanded by the deity; they live up to expectations. Almost pornographic in their perfection, it is clear that they are not the real thing but digital representations. They may be forever sweet however they are also inaccessible, are these the fruits of the user’s labour? Abruptly the strawberries fall at once, as if in that very instant they collectively remembered to obey the laws of gravity which they had been ignoring thus far. They fall onto a mountain of yet more strawberries and bounce down the pile until they come to a stop. After this the video loops back to the start.

Unsurprisingly, given the title, this work uses the aesthetic language of advertising as its register. Just like everything else in the room it has been streamlined and abstracted to the point of complete anonymity, an advertisement pushing an image of a product that doesn’t exist for a company that remains anonymous.

Structurally the entire exhibition is essentially a series of overlapping circles. The fact that everything one encounters is rotating at various speeds and intervals (from the looped video pieces to the literal rotation of the holographic heads and hands to the repetition of the sermon on the hour) reinforces the idea that everything is stuck in an infinite loop and will not be changed. Penc makes use of differential specificity here as the underlying structure of infinite repetition mirrors the main conceptual thrust i.e. although society has advanced beyond the strict theological regime and feudalist structures of the 1500’s, by replacing Gods with Big Data and feudalism with advanced capitalist neo-feudalism we are doomed to repeat the same cycle for the next 500 years and beyond.

Daire O’Shea, 2018

The Paradise of The Heart | review by Catherine Harty | Circa Art Magazine Online

March 8, 2018

The Paradise of The Heart took place in two derelict buildings in the grounds of Elizabeth Fort, which formally housed Gardaí and their families. The site of the show colours how the work is perceived, the houses are cold, dank and gloomy. The spaces are domestic but abandoned...

On entering the first house, a motion sensor puts in play a computer generated short video loop. It is projected onto a screen installed just inside the threshold of the room on the right. This screen also functions to block further entry. On the screen the image of a dog (a guard dog?) is built-up through various coloured lines of light, a simulated camera moves closer to and around the image that eventually explodes into fragments leaving only the dog’s head behind. Then the loop begins again, the frictionless, tractionless, digital space is challenged by the sound track, which is loud, aggressive and mechanical sounding like chains, nuts and bolts being tossed and churned in a cement mixer. The piece, Barking Dog Seldom Bites by Tomas Penc, exhibits a punning playfulness on the simulations of virtual technology along with a condensed melding of the opposite poles of the “photographic” – ‘drawing with light’ with digital technology.

Upstairs two rooms contain works by Peter Nash. Galvanic Interruption is an installation comprising of twenty-nine small, wooden carved heads. Each head is attached to a short length of wire which is then jammed into wooden sticks of various heights. Periodically these heads ‘come alive’, their chins being connected by a long black thread attached to a motor. Intermittently the motor is triggered and the heads jerk into a parodic simulation of speech. Their chin-tongue-jaws opening and shutting frantically sound like a photocopying machine on its last legs. The heads have a wide variety of expressions: anger, melancholy, bemusement, shock, and acceptance. They all appear as male to me, very obviously hand-made, with no attempt to hide the mechanics of how they work.

The installation Domestic Animal takes up the second room, it consists of a sculpture in a vitrine and a drawing on the wall. Both are representations of what appears to be the skeleton of a cat. The sculpture is made of wood, and has a more polished quality than the heads of Galvanic Interruption but again stresses the hand of the artist. The drawing of the skeleton also incorporates text; these could be the musings of the dead cat – who appears to have had a liking for cheap whiskey, lying on the couch and daytime soap operas. Or perhaps the ‘I’ in question is the artist who updates his CV and muses on procrastination. This makes the drawing a paradoxical work, an artwork that records the artist’s blockage around making work.

Nash’s Alternative Anatomies is located on the ground floor of the second building. A small sculpture, an animatronic figure assembled from pine, thread, toy parts and copper wire. This little fellow, a duck-dinosaur, sits inside a vitrine. On a wall is a series of Indian ink drawings, read from left to right and top to bottom the duck-dinosaur cartoon seems to be building himself up from armature to fully feathered creature. There is a sound of swarming bees or perhaps more ominously flies which fills the space.

Nash’s video piece Proposal for a Town Hall plays on a large TV monitor in the other room. This one- minute stop motion video shows a drawing of an industrial structure, suggestive of both a lookout tower and a diving structure. A little figure emerges, walks to the end of the plank, takes a look and walks back. On his fourth journey he pukes over the edge, the screen goes black and the loop begins again.

Tomas Penc’s Zukunfmusik is a sculptural installation, located on the 1st floor of the second house, made from concrete, steel, 3D prints and found objects. On the floor are concrete blocks assembled on which two small red figurines seem to be engaged in building up the structure (actually one seems to have given up in despair, his head in his hands). The mould for the building blocks was fabricated using a 3D printer. The other Penc piece, Hidden Potential comprises the swarming sound that seeps throughout the building and the steel structure inside this room’s threshold. This functions as a screen with a peephole through which a taller person than me could look.(I’ve been informed by one such person that there was an image of a hotel corridor, a familiar filmic scene – I imagine the corridor from the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining).

The form of the show complements the description given in the contextualising material. The quote from The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart is a sprawling extract referring to the diverse items a journeying pilgrim comes across on his outward but ultimately inward (returning to heart) journey. The art on exhibit ultimately rests on an inward affinity with either the technology of the past or the future.

Nash’s whittling away on wood is as much a tactic of the present as Penc’s embrace of the virtual, digital design programmes and 3-D printers. This is so because the contemporary is marked by the balancing of retrograde and future techne in answer to the question of how to make in the present. Both poles of craftsmanship exist in contemporary art because ‘the now’ of art practice cannot clearly state what exactly that may be.

Written by Catherine Harty

Catherine Harty is a member of Cork Artists Collective and a director of The Guesthouse Project.

Published on: Thursday 8 March 2018

Click here for the original article.

The Paradise of The Heart | critical text by Daire O’Shea

January 27, 2018

In the words of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi: ‘Dystopic irony means something which is at the same time euphoric and depressed, dark and light.’ The same can be said for the works for both Tomas Penc and Peter Nash in their current exhibition in Elizabeth Fort, Cork The Paradise of the Heart...

In the words of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi: ‘Dystopic irony means something which is at the same time euphoric and depressed, dark and light.’ The same can be said for the works for both Tomas Penc and Peter Nash in their current exhibition in Elizabeth Fort, Cork The Paradise of the Heart. The spectre of the digital age and the anxiety it produces hangs over the exhibition like a dark cloud and yet, here in this pair of dilapidated houses within a fort in the heart of Cork city there can also be found moments of serenity and even humor.

In the year 1631 the Czech scholar John Amos Cornelius published his famous allegory The Labyrinth of the World, The Paradise of the Heart. A work of Baroque psychoanalytic literature, it tells the story of a pilgrim who goes out into the world in order to find peace but instead is faced with confusion and chaos. The book ends with the pilgrim heading home reflecting on the neglected safe-house of his own heart where he can finally begin to find peace, ‘I found not here rustle and rush, noise and crash, unrest and reeling to and fro, tussling and violence (things of which the world is full). Here everything was quiet.’

Almost four hundred years after the publication of The Labyrinth of the World on a blindingly bright and crisp Winter’s morning I walked into one of the beautifully dilapidated houses of Cork’s Elizabeth Fort, and was frightened out of my skin. Penc and Nash’s practices are both heavily invested in our relationship to contemporary technologies. In their shared world technology is dystopic and disembodied, a source of constant anxiety. There is an unbridgeable gulf between the virtual world and the physical and both bodies of work which make up Paradise of the Heart highlight this gap pushing it to extreme proportions.

Barking Dog Seldom Bites is the first work one encounters in the exhibition and the experience of it destroys any preconceived notions one might have about this show being the usual quiet contemplative gallery visit. Hidden behind a doorway in the cramped hall waiting for the unwary passer-by to trip its motion detector and emit its unearthly metallic growl, Barking Dog consists of a digital apparition of a ghostly canine projected on a screen. Despite the inevitable initial fright, however, a closer inspection of the room in which the sculpture exists reveals the apparition for what it is: we can even see the cables and amplification equipment that lie behind the screen. The dog, though seemingly vicious, is a harmless audio visual construct and once we have realised this it’s spell is broken and it holds no more fear for us. Here we can find hints of dystopian irony as the ephemerality of the digital is brought to light and after the shock one is left seeing the humor in the situation and it is a source of hope. The dog impinges on our sensual universe both audibly and visually but cannot physically harm us. Barking Dog Seldom Bites had me literally jumping at shadows.

Nash’s practice too is created in reaction to contemporary technologies and the ever increasing ready availability of information. Instead of concentrating on the failings of the virtual and its powerlessness in the physical realm Nash concentrates of the fallibility of human interpretation of data and the possibility for wonder and magic within this interpretation. Nash uses the incredibly time consuming process of wood carving openly defying digital societies insistence that time is our most limited and valuable resource and that to ‘waste it’ is the most dangerous sin one can commit.

Upon walking upstairs I was confronted with Nash’s Galvanic Interruption, a chorus of disembodied heads, mechanical automatons who periodically sing (or scream?) a silent chorus by way of a motor attached to many strings each of which is connected to the moving jaw bone of an individual head. At first glance this chorus of floating heads look like mass produced trinkets until a closer look reveals that each is a painstakingly hand carved copy of the next. The process of carving here, time consuming as it may be, illustrates the magic of human interpretation, each of these elements is utterly individual and bears the indexical imprint of the artists hand.

This theme is taken to its logical conclusion in the next room, where Domestic Animal consists of two elements, a two dimensional drawing of a cat’s skeleton in profile and a three dimensional hand carved model of a cat’s skeleton encased in a handmade vitrine. What Nash has done in this case is carved and assembled a three dimensional model of a cat’s skeleton using only this two dimensional anatomical profile as his source material, and in extruding this profile into a model the end product becomes not a physical representation of a cat but more so a literal representation of the human brain’s ability to take incomplete data and fill in the blanks to form a whole. It is at once an ode to the computational power of the human brain, and also a celebration of its inherent fallibility. A digital programme wouldn’t make the errors in scaling and assembly that can be found in this sculpture and it would be less rich because of this. Played off against the prowess of human ingenuity in this room are the flaws which make it so unique. The drawing of the cat’s anatomical profile that rests on the wall is annotated, not with the correct titles of each bone as one would assume, but with the many small anxieties that clearly come from within the artist’s psyche and yet are near universally relatable, ‘have you updated your CV recently?’, ‘recommended for you’, and ‘slumped on the couch at 9 o’clock poking at a smartphone’ are just a small selection of the multitude of anxieties that may well have been prodding at the sculptor during the long hours spent carving each individual bone of the cat’s vertebrae. All of this results in a gem of a sculpture that approaches the legitimate and at times overwhelming anxieties of being left behind by an information saturated society with skill and wit.

Recurring time and time again throughout the exhibition is the uncanny experience of looking through a portal into a different and dangerous place from the safety of these charming unkempt houses complete with peeling wallpaper and creaky floorboards. This space is a literal manifestation of Amos’s dilapidated yet comforting Paradise of the Heart and from it we can look out at the dangerous and turbulent labyrinth of the world. Upstairs in house number two Penc’s Hidden Potential is the best example of this. The last work encountered in the exhibition, walking down a darkened hallway towards the ominous cacophony of a beehive hard at work we are confronted with a peephole, the type found at a front door; it is typically safety device installed to protect ones home from the unknown by allowing the inhabitant to identify visitors who come knocking at the door without breaking the integrity of the home’s fortification. Through this hole another hallway can be seen to be continuing along the path but this virtual hallway (entirely CGI) is far more plush and luxurious than the one I find myself standing in. I can almost make out faint movements of what could be individuals at the far end of the hall looking back at me but cannot be sure. Suddenly the unseen hive that has been noisily bussing throughout the hallway comes to an abrupt stop and as silence descends so too do ashes, coating the luxurious virtual space in a dust, the dust of some unknowable catastrophe along with the now expansive silence. But just as with Barking Dog there is no reason to fear, what is happening in that virtual dimension is removed from mine own body and cannot invade the reality of my world. As this scene of disaster appears in silence through the peephole I was reminded of the passage quoted by the artist from Amos’ allegory, a passage which speaks about the safety and consolation to be found within the fortress of the mind ‘I found not here rustle and rush, noise and crash, unrest and reeling to and fro, tussling and violence (things of which the world is full). Here everything was quiet.’

The Paradise of the Heart is an exhibition that is in turns frightening, beautiful and funny. It is a literal manifestation of Amos’s psychological inner paradise realised in Bifo Berardi’s mode of dystopian irony. All works in the exhibition were created specifically for this space against the backdrop of an ongoing dialogue between the two artists and there is an obvious deep connection between the two bodies of work, despite the vast differences between Nash’s delicate carvings and Penc’s digital creations. I left this exhibition with a newfound perspective on the bizarre anxieties that eat at all of us in the digital age and, strangely though it may seem a small glimmer of hope for the future nestled in the safety of the inner sanctum of my own mind.

Daire O’Shea

Angular Oppressors | review by Sarah Kelleher | Irish Arts Review

Autumn 2016

In Cork (CCAD), Tomas Penc flies the flag for installation in his graduate project in part homage to Carle Andre, Robert Morris and Laurie Anderson. He references our contemporary engagement with technology and explores our ability to create and navigate perceptual experiences...

Tomas Penc's accomplished degree presentation at CCAD draws on our ambivalent relationship with technology, while formally conjuring a post-minimalist re-imagining of Robert Morris' cubes by way of Rebecca Horn's performative, musical sculptures. Four stout chimneys made from reclaimed household brick, each with a steel frame extension, support an exposed mechanism of wires and violin bow. Each 'chimney' is accompanied by a miniature tower in cast aluminium, backed by a arced sheet of embossed paper that acts as a diaphragm. On entering the space, the viewer provokes each structure into action and the violin bow is drawn across a rotating bar to emit a sonorous tone. Moving through the room, weaving through the structures, triggers each of the towers to emit their own unique resonance until a buzzing harmony is reached. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty reminds us, it is in the communion and integration of the senses that perception occurs; and the body, as much as it is a seeing body, is also 'an object which...reverberates to all sounds.' The idiosyncratic structures which contrast the supposed solidity of sculpture with the immateriality of sound also collapse two registers of spatial experience. The towers recall Carl Andre's call for 'sculpture as place', whereby the body calibrates space as it is shaped by the sculptural objects in the gallery. Meanwhile, the ear is a vital instrument of balance, sensitized to register the external vibrations of the environment and so internalizing the world outside itself. Penc's installation literally brings body of the viewer into play: indeed, his structures make one less a passive viewer than the orchestrator of our perceptual experience. Tomas Penc is the recipient of CIT Good Start Exhibition Award and the National Sculpture Factory CCAD Graduate Award 2016.

Legacy and Promise | Irish Arts Review | Autumn 2016

Sarah Kelleher is an independent arts writer and curator, and a PhD candidate in UCC supported by the Irish Research Council.