CODE Live 1 and Trimpin's Sheng High

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      At the Centre for Digital Media until February 21

      With just a few hours to go until its official opening, the CODE Live 1 site—a warehouselike space at the Centre for Digital Media’s Great Northern Way Campus—is a hive of activity. Under Chinese artist Wang Yuyang’s spectacular Artificial Moon—an enormous glowing sphere of energy-efficient light bulbs—a harassed-looking worker is carefully taping off a wall that will soon be painted with vertical lines of colour. A little further on, another technician is positioning a pair of stereo speakers, which are already pumping out a dry, minimalistic electronic soundtrack. And just inside the door, Ontario-based media artist Geoffrey Shea is making the final adjustments to PLAY: The Hertzian Collective.

      Mounted on your left, as you enter the Cultural Olympiad’s art-installation showcase, are several circular video screens; playing in the background is another abstract, synthesized soundtrack. Apparently, you can manipulate both sound and image by calling a posted number on your cellphone, and so several of us, including Shea, do just that. The electronic score changes to a single human voice, reading a cut-up version of a poem about childhood games (“Year after year, alleys are played.”¦we all had a bag of marbles”), also penned by Shea, and the images shift, too: from waves to faces to bright red cherries dripping rainwater.

      “A big part of people’s enjoyment of this,” Shea explains, “is exploration.”

      Well, maybe so, and there’s no denying that PLAY: The Hertzian Collective provides at least momentary diversion. It’s good, too, that art exhibitions are beginning to cede some control to viewers, but PLAY raises a troubling question: why make interactive art if you don’t have the resources to come up with something that’s at least as immersive as, say, a video game?

      The theory behind Shea’s installation—according to his artist’s statement, it’s about the creation of “an ad hoc collective” of collaborators—is far more interesting than its execution, and the same is true of another CODE Live 1 piece, Don Ritter’s Vested, in which viewers get to don a battery-powered mockup of a suicide bomber’s vest and press a red button to “explode” big-screen images of iconic architectural masterpieces. Thought-provoking, yes, but also somewhat hollow.

      Ironically, the most effective of CODE Live 1’s several installations is also its simplest. In one of the venue’s rooms, the Montreal collective Artificiel has installed a hanging garden of large incandescent light bulbs through which viewers very, very cautiously stroll. The room seethes with electrical energy; between that and the fragile glass, the air is fraught with perceived danger. But, paradoxically, that’s undercut by the almost musical humming of the bulbs, which changes in intensity as some of them turn on and off; all those photons also have a calming effect, as if you’re undergoing light therapy for seasonal affective disorder.

      Condemned Bulbes made me oddly happy. Some may feel differently; one viewer, for instance, had a viscerally negative reaction to the display, and couldn’t wait to leave.

      Trimpin: Sheng High

      At BOB’s Gallery until February 28

      More obviously inviting—although perhaps not to those with little tolerance for minimalism—is the Seattle sound sculptor Trimpin’s Sheng High, currently installed in a temporary gallery at 163 East Pender. Here, a disc marked with reflective tape and read by a rotating “tonearm” of light sensors controls an array of faux-bamboo tubes hung from overhead rails. These slowly dip in and out of large plastic buckets full of water, producing—since inside each tube is mounted an air-pressure-activated pipe-organ reed—a gentle cacophony of ever-shifting tones.

      The means are simple, but the effect is magical. In this grubby building—just steps from the din of Chinatown and the despair of the Downtown Eastside—Trimpin has created a virtual forest animated by a Zen orchestra. With its East-meets-West implications (the sheng, an ancient Chinese instrument, is probably the ancestor of both the mouth and pipe organs), Sheng High is perfectly suited to its setting—and an oasis of tranquillity during what is likely the busiest month in our city’s history.