By Daniel Barrow
Essay published in Paperwait 2002-2003, aceartinc, Winnipeg
Jo-Anne Balcaen’s installation begins in the tawny, wood-paneled stairwell of 288 McDermot. It’s an attractive space with high ceilings and a noble, oversized banister. It has become a point of character at aceartinc., and has attracted other installations in the past. In Machination, Balcaen shrewdly uses this space to preface the body of her installation, which waits at the top of the stairs.
Balcaen has installed speakers along the length of this steep, somewhat creaky climb, filling the space with what at first may be identified as the sounds of a factory, or perhaps an antiquated sewing machine. There is a pause, and then a sudden acceleration of industrial commotion, prompting a chorus of shrill, female screaming. By the time the gallery patron has reached the top of the stairs, however, and has become familiar with the sequence and rhythm (escalation-climax-resolution) of these sounds, s/he will probably have deduced that this is, in fact, the soundtrack of a roller-coaster, complete with daunting creaks and teenage sopranos.
Upon opening the door at the top of the stairs, our entrance into the second part of this installation is crudely but dramatically announced by a louder, more melodic feminine scream, which is followed by another, and then another. Six bouquets of colourful, illuminated flowers, equidistantly spaced on the gallery floor, bounce, sway and blink to an audio collage of various emotional vocal flourishes from popular divas such as Céline, Christina and Mariah. It’s irresistibly funny and most people would laugh out loud at this point.
I’ve seen the same mechanized bouquets sold in the kind of novelty shop that specialized in thorough-bred gewgaw like inflatable furniture, plasma balls and fog machines. I would guess that these bouquets were created without the consultation of any marketing and research development team. I can only imagine myself buying this product as a gift for a person with whom I was not intimately acquainted, but knew well enough to know that she laughed at everything. These are not objects of meaning, reason or contemplation. And yet, there is something unexpectedly seductive, and even organic, about the bouquets in this dark gallery context. They bloom and alternately fade with a jerky, blinking countenance. Apart from their contemporary kitsch appeal, I think the abstractions of these flowers are beautiful – in the same way that special effects from early cinema can today seem very moving. This specific beauty is then (depending on the length of your visit to the installation) rendered hilarious by an overwhelmingly feminine soundtrack.
Balcaen’s score reminds of the kind of audio collages created for women’s fitness competitions, where muscled and bronzed women flex, carthweel and pose to various, short fragments of their favorite bar songs. This collage is just as awkward and cheesy, but the overall effect here is somewhat ardent. Balcaen has isolated the moaning, pleading (or alternately exuberant) “take-me” zeniths from over 60 contemporary power diva ballads and edited them together in rapid sequence, providing a delightful score for her dancing flowers. In fact, Machination presents a near perfect marriage of image and sound, in which each is a funny, metaphorical echo of the other’s mechanical movements, essentially synthetic in nature, and genuine, if somewhat brash, feminine beauty.
Though the title of Machination sounds like it refers to the robotic dance of the flowers, the work is actually defined by Webster’s as, “… a scheming or crafty artful design intended to accomplish some evil end.” Balcaen is pointing to her continual craving for an authentic experience, and the synthetic and mercantile nature of her medium. If we can’t concede that Céline is a special talent, we must at least recognize her as an extremely accomplished vocalist (“the most powerful voice in the world”). And yet we can’t fully understand Céline unless we also concede that her love ballads are cunningly sweet and insidiously inoffensive.
Machination abandons the safe, ironic distance commonly associated with our generation’s fascination with “guilty” pleasures, allows for an authentic experience of love and joy, and yet playfully maintains a feminist critique of manufactured celebrity goods and those forces behind them. This is the playground of great irony.