BY Izi Glover in Reviews | 02 JAN 97
Featured in
Issue 32

Tracy Mackenna

BY Izi Glover in Reviews | 02 JAN 97

High above the BT Tower, over the dishes and transmitters and their invisible matrix of communication signals, frolics the red and blue clarion caller - the corporate image of Britain's largest telecommunications provider. As millions of dots and dashes, bleeps and blips are coded, decoded and finally reconfigured into intelligible speech, this leaping figure symbolises the call of communication: the message.

In the lee of this pinnacle of communications technology stands the work of Tracy Mackenna at the Lotta Hammer Gallery and the adjacent space, Cleveland. The title of the joint exhibition, 'Blips', suggests the components of electronic communication, but the works in the show are all, bar one, text pieces, and the sign for the exhibition is handcrafted and analogue. 'Blips' is chalked onto a neat, blue-painted rectangle where, written in a controlled hand, it appears polite and non-confrontational. Suggesting a blackboard, the sign implies an exchange of information between teacher and student. At Cleveland, this strategy is somewhat undermined. The writing on the window shutter suggests a different allusion, with its ellipsis: '...lips'. Again, the chalk writing is on a blue background but, when joined together the phrase 'Blips ...lips' is more poptastic graffiti than didactic dissemination.

BT's advertising campaign tells us that 'Talk is Cheap', but in the gallery, speech is free. You may help yourself to four large printed pages from four large reams on the floor. The texts are printed in a contemporary RayGun style: different typefaces merge and obscure the content. The layout of the texts evokes a letter format, and indeed, one is a letter, written to 'Yuri' in Moscow. Suddenly our comprehension is exercised with a narrative twist; but the letter trails off, the tale is unresolved and there is no reply from Yuri.

Framed envelopes are hung on the opposite wall to these take-away texts. Felt-tip phrases executed in classroom styles (squidgy purple and orange outline) adorn the opened and emptied envelopes. These personal scripts embellish, rather than being contained within their folded spaces. Each expresses hopeless or confused sentiments, such as 'I am invisible', 'I will slip in', or 'lost in transit'. The brash colours suggest a buoyancy of feeling, not present in either the doodlings or the pathetic state of the used envelopes. The envelopes themselves have been captured - their state of passage (sender, recipient, bin) interrupted, and are now in stasis. They have become altered, and hence disavowed, vehicles of communication. On the wall they are framed, contained and titled into becoming art commodities.

Written in chalk on a black rectangle is an incomplete register of names. This is a list of people who have slept under the blankets lying on the floor beneath. These five folded blankets present perhaps the most obscure of the texts. The stories, woven into the material, or applied to the wool with felt letters, are interrupted by the blankets' folds. A more random dialogue occurs in this work - on one side of the blanket the text is ambiguous or inconclusive, but once the blanket is turned over it becomes blatant. The presentation of these bright blankets on the floor also seems ambiguous. They are not folded and stacked with Benetton rigour, nor are they spread out as in other text blanket projects, but are half folded, half displayed. Their placement implies that they have been discarded, unwanted, although they are obviously new, specially made and probably expensive.

The wall-text strategy is again visible in the installation at Cleveland. Over one wall, random associations of writing and speech spin out in two interconnecting webs, but a pair of central nodes have been erased from the system - could they have contained the word 'translation'? This erasure suggests a refusal to decode communication: although the work is 'readable', it is mute. Perhaps the coding/decoding system is simply intended to baffle, since on the facing wall is a shelf arrayed with tiny Japanese novelties: reduced composite photos, a stereo system and little handmade books. Operating as the opposite of a code breaker, this cluttered shelf confuses the texts and issues in Mackenna's work.

Although a potential dialogue is implied by the scale and construction of these pieces, their texts are actually obscure: any subsequent engagement with the work is problematised and denied. While high above, the components of communication speed through the airwaves around the BT Tower, at ground level, in this show, our interface with Mackenna's assembled messages is mute - we can see the signals, but we cannot read them.