I’m standing in the converted loft of Anonymous. A desktopful of error alerts is projected from a Kinect onto a wide, crescentic screen. Shrugged over a laptop on a bench in the centre of the room is a zinc-stubbled Dude Lebowski. His tan is darker than his tobacco T-shirt. The room is filled with the mud breath of his coffee. He talks quietly into a mobile held in the crotch of his shoulder and squints at the load bars and installation-argot and giant, leaping menus.
Leaning closer, I try a little News Corp. The scoop has already splashed itself across the big screen. A software update is required. The Dude puts the mobile on the bench and massages his neck. The exhibition leaflet reckons that this fifteen-foot patchwork of translucent, support-desk horror is the Observer Effect. An interactive generative installation that crosses the viewer from the physical world into the virtual domain. It has certainly made somebody cross. I wade through the malaise and offer the artist a handshake.
The Dude with the Persian tan is David Cotterrell. A WSA alumni and Sheffield Hallam professor, he has recently spent time in Afghanistan designing his newest show, Monsters of the Id. He lived with the Joint Forces Medical group in Helmand province, and with civilian agencies in northern Afghanistan. I ask him about the title of his show. It is, he explains, a wink to the 1956 Leslie Nielson sci-fi thriller, Forbidden Planet, a film that nobody, no matter how convincingly they insist otherwise, has ever watched or heard of. Today is the exhibition’s opening day and the first work of the exhibition has malfunctioned. It will be running later. It just needs time.
What started with a handshake turns into a guided tour. We walk in conversation into the next room of the gallery and find in it the biggest artwork of the show, Searchlight 2. If you visit the Hansard regularly you’ll have realised that the gallery’s curation team aren’t just handy, they are a gang of DIY-revolutionaries who rise each month to overthrow the incumbent regime of MDF partitions like freedom-thirsty Tunisians. February is no different. The team have demolished most of the gallery’s internal walls and created a central room the size of Kim Kardashian’s ensuite.
The artwork it contains is a low, long, winding-sheet-colour desertscape that supports the projections of tiny, frenetic pedestrians. As David tells me, it is the desert from the vantage of an aerial drone. The ghee dunes of the Hindu Kush have been ghosted to leave infra-red, silhouette negatives. Trekking nobodies spawn at one end of sculpture and vanish at the other. The work is cabled to Observer Effect, their sprites are shared, so the two works form a tandem piece that hosts a mysterious, grey population that can either be watched RTS-style in this room or encountered skin-to-pixels next door. An estranging, imaginative bit of tech. David walks back to Observer Effect. It has apparently fixed itself.
A single, peculiar arrow on the leaflet’s map leads me to an overcast mock field-office. It is furnished with a desk, a whiteboard and a one-sleeper tent. On the desk is a console and joystick for a drone – UAV pilots apparently don’t need a monitor – and a few items of convincing militaria that include a flask and a notepad. It is an incredibly lonely-looking room and the drone joystick is, cleverly, the most entertaining object inside it. I peek in the tent. It is clean and smells of Millets. The fake office looks uncomposed, but there is a documentary appeal to the plastic desk units and the military cords and the anglepoise lamp. And if the drone console and joystick aren’t genuine, they are excellent models.
On the way back out I notice a fourth work, Apparent Horizon, in an alcove. I stick my head in. A breath-fresheningly-blue glow is blasted into my face. Soapy and Aryan, it starts to whisper to me all the verses of blue’s creation story: primordial tachyons, Sinatra’s glances and Larkin’s windows, Greek Stripes and Naval socks, all the way up to Big Society and Ribena Light. Then the projector bulb asks me a question: what has my blissy blue heaven got to do with the war in Afghanistan?
I babble some answers. It is a Zen lament of the young dead soldiers. It is a focusless, boundaryless, theosophic metaphor for insurgency without deadline, for rebellion without cause, for a painful war that can’t catch a regular front-page back home. It is a standard of peace for a region that has been bullied by the Reds – Macedonians then Mongols then Soviets then Republicans – for hundreds of helpless years, a blue joke at the expense of the poppy-wearers over here and the poppy-farmers over there. It is a sign of what it means to make a newsreel new and real to a toggle-knifing, double-tapping, kill-streaking generation. It is a sky, well, grave, window, tone, glass, sea of terrifying, news-worthy, sniper-ranged beauty. It is David Cotterrell’s masterpiece.
Actually, it is an unconnected projector. Another late starter. I have chosen a bad day to visit, but the gallery team do promise that by the time you read this all the installation will be finished and that the technology will be running smooth as mirages. I recommend that you go. Monsters is already looking great, modern and clear-headed, and the technology itself is worth the free admission.