This sentence is in code. But you know the code. You can read this, so its encoding is more or less transparent. Meaning comes through without interference from the language in which the content sits. But imagine this sentence in French or Arabic. Or Braille. Imagine its content as a diagram or a piece of music.
In Codework, a show at Flanders Gallery in Raleigh, four North Carolina artists test the relationship between code and content. Heather Gordon, Kenn Kotara, David McConnell and Peter G. Oakley question the transfer of meaning among coding systems, display the beauty of opaque information, wonder about the meanings specific to codes themselves, and ultimately ask: "What doesn't signify?"
Heather Gordon's preoccupation is with the representation of information. Works from four different series are shown, including several new painted additions to her "Sound Bytes" series of circular graphs. Gordon portrays the binary code of MP3 recordings of charged cultural moments, including the announcement of one of Nadia Comaneci's perfect gymnastics scores at the 1976 Summer Olympics and Ronald Reagan's "tear down this wall" speech outside the Brandenburg Gate in 1987.
For these two Cold War-era recordings, Gordon uses a textural paint treatment rather than the flat charcoal and acrylic surface of earlier "Sound Bytes" pieces. "Perfect 10," the Comaneci work, glistens in red and white, while "Tear This Wall Down" is an almost invisible gray on gray. You have to tilt your head to catch the light just right to "read" the painting. But there's no way to hear the actual recording from looking at these works. To the eye, they appear as checkerboarded circles, nonetheless loaded with inaccessible messages.
Gordon aestheticizes more personal information in two other paintings that derive a geometric shape from a mapping of points. "How to Fold My Home" connects the numbered dots of places Gordon has lived, and in "How to Fold My Heart," the dots represent the locations of people she loves. In muted, shaded tones, these paintings look like unfolded origami. Gordon's impulse to fold space and time in order to bring these far-flung points together is both visually interesting and emotionally powerful. She critiques the cold distance inherent in any two-dimensional portrayal of three- or four-dimensional reality.
"Parking Lot" and "Cubicle," two white-on-red paintings that provide a mechanical drawing of exactly what they name, are somehow incredibly pleasant to look at despite the fact that they both portray systems of control. The delineation of a parking lot and the layout of office cubicles aim to maximize the number of operators possible within a fixed area, a decidedly economic objective. But Gordon's neat white lines upon the shiny candy-apple red background saturate the eye. Color itself is a code of control here.
As in Gordon's "Sound Bytes," visual representations of sound also feature in two modes of work from David McConnell. Three prints from his "Forest Series" transform the vertical graphs of sound waves from three classic rock song excerpts into trees. The Beatles' "Dear Prudence," Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" and Neil Young's "Out on the Weekend" have their left and right channels flayed and labeled with a visual sensibility that resembles Mingering Mike's fake album covers. Little roots trail out of them, suggesting a metaphorical relationship to the animate.
These pieces are a reminder of how code-dependent pleasure and understanding actually are. If you like the original song, then you have to like all of its transformed encodings, regardless of their aesthetic qualities, right? McConnell's print, in a significant way, is the song "Are You Experienced?"—but it's hardly going to give you the same reaction or information that listening to the song does.
McConnell alters existing songs into original musical compositions in five distressed-looking "music box" stack and bricolage sculptures. In addition to reclaimed wood and stereo equipment, each one incorporates a wind-up music box or toy (including some vintage Fisher-Price "radios"), the kind that employs a drum or disk with little bumps rotating against metallic teeth to pluck out a tune. McConnell has added or removed bumps and retuned the teeth to make his music.
Hanging on the wall, McConnell's "Environments" resembles a Cubist electric guitar. A chunk of wood and an album cover form the guitar's body, from which headphones dangle. "Duet" places a microphone between an old portable cassette player and an altered music box inside a tiny wooden upright piano. The jokey arrangement is stacked upon a thick plank atop an orange pot. With equal parts seriousness and humor, McConnell points out the pre-electronic definition of "digital" music. The bumps on the music box's drum are digits, as are the guitarist's fingers.
Three of Peter G. Oakley's four skillfully hand-carved marble sculptures point out how and why objects can become icons. The matte black handgun "Glock 23" and the sparkly white "Missile" and "Typewriter" are carved realistically, though stopping short of illusionistic replication. Instead of merely showing off technical skill, Oakley has adopted the flattened affect of Marcel Duchamp's readymades. Icons, after all, are impenetrable.
But the violent potential of these objects isn't flat at all. The gun and missile are explicit weapons; the typewriter's percussive nature echoes this. Oakley subtly discards expressive possibility from his "Typewriter" by leaving all the letter keys blank. This was definitely a choice, as opposed to an avoidance of detail. Tiny screw heads are rendered precisely along the typewriter's fuselage. Oakley has the chops to have done the letters.
His fourth sculpture, the illusionistic "Stack," is different from the others. The smooth white marble that Oakley chose for this sculpture of a stack of Styrofoam restaurant to-go boxes so perfectly matches the subject that you really think these are some boxes a caterer left behind in the gallery. The joy of this piece is its material irony: carving a mass-produced throwaway object from a substance associated with enduring masterworks such as Michelangelo's "David." Oakley reveals cultural code, not literal code, with "Stack."
In a way, Kenn Kotara's series "and if, between the two" is the simplest of letter-replacement codes, like how kids flip the alphabet backward and swap Z for A, Y for B and so on to write messages to friends. The Asheville artist has translated passages from Henry David Thoreau's Walden into Braille, painstakingly hand-punching the text letter by letter into 18 poster-size paper panels.
Kotara's invocation of Thoreau serves as a foil for Braille's military origins. Created so soldiers could read messages in total darkness and silence, the writing system was honed by Louis Braille for the visually impaired. Thoreau, who spent his famous night in jail for refusing to pay taxes in protest of issues including the Mexican-American War (spawning his essay "Civil Disobedience"), would have appreciated Braille's humanistic repurposing of the code.
Crucially, however, Kotara's work isn't exactly Braille. It's only visually legible; the paper is beneath glass, so its surface can't be read by touch. He's also left out the spaces between sentences and words, condensing language into a tight, pictorial grid of dotted forms. By denying both the haptic access method and conventional textuality, Kotara reminds us that language co-opted its grid from pictures. Even reading Braille is a form of seeing.
It's no shortcoming that, in the final analysis, the artifacts in Codework are largely aesthetic objects. Your eyes, however, likely will be opened to a lot more meaning encoded all around you. These artists provide a dehabituation tank, after which you might be able to read anything.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hidden meaning, in plain sight."