Miguel Soares - "Do Robots Dream of Electric Art?"

The Electricity Museum, Lisbon, Portugal - 13 October 2007

"If you are planning on going to Lisbon do not miss The Electricity Museum"

[Do Robots Dream of Electric Art? Programme][The glorious Electricity Museum]Portuguese multimedia artist Miguel Soares was born in Braga in 1970. He began his studies and exhibiting in photography in 1989. In 1995 he graduated in Equipment Design from Faculdade de Belas Artes de Lisboa. He now lives and works in Lisbon. His eclectic and prolific output has included works in photography, sculpture, installations (often utilising light, sound, video and movement), constructed objects, video, etcetera. An evolution into electronic music composition and 3D computer animation led to him directing videos for various underground musical artists including San Francisco ensemble Negativland as well as his own compositions (usually under the moniker of Migso).

His latest installation piece, Do Robots Dream of Electric Art?, takes its title from the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, itself the inspiration for Ridley Scott's seminal Blade Runner, forms the focus of this two month residency at the glorious Electricity Museum in Belem, on the coastal outskirts of the Portuguese capital. Three robotic lasers, a bit like those computer-controlled lighting rigs you see in top end clubs, are fixed to the ceiling, programmed to follow a pattern of movements that result in them collectively etching the outline stickman form a of a human figure on the wall of a darkened gallery space.

Conceptually this is robust and intriguing enough. The big idea revolves around this being the extrapolation of those early man paintings on the walls of caves - depicting that which was most important to them, sustenance in all its forms, in the shape of animals. Switch to the modern era and with humans programming ever more sophisticated machines and rising fears about the existentialist belief that man is at the centre of the universe being undone by the actions of mankind perhaps ushering in a new age where intelligent machines are the dominant force. If they were, in their early configurations, would they too, like characters in Dick's novel, aspire to be human and take on human traits? Like painting the thing that gave them life on their walls?

As a say, conceptually, this is stimulating stuff. Crucially, and fatally however, in execution it fails on just about every level. Once you take in everything there is to see in the spartan gallery space, aside from an initial undeniable slight chill at seeing the image of a stick man on the wall being created by moving machines with lasers, there is little to engage with for any length of time. Perhaps this was as much about the concept as it was manifestation, if so then it fares better; but as a walk-in piece of installation art to take in it comes up way too short. Dotted around the gallery and at the entrance were signs warning of the risk of permanent damage that was possible if you inadvertedly looked directly into the path of one of the three lasers. You'd think this unlikely, but seriously unnervingly, the lasers had been programmed to do an almost reflex action after drawing the outline that involved them spinning away from focusing on the wall at the far end of the gallery and rapidly tracing their beams around the entire gallery. It was only very brief and happened ever few minutes but it was very easy to accidentally look at the laser directly. This was both alarming from a health and safety perspective and disappointingly the most impacting thing about the installation.

Fortunately, the gallery also included a screen showing a video loop of selected Soares works dating between 1994 and 2007. Radio headphones mean you could either sit facing the screen or stroll unteathered around the main installation. The latter was highly inadvisable though due to the aforementioned risk of permanent eye damage! The approximate 50 minute loop was worth sticking with for the duration. The eclecticism of Soares work was ably demonstrated and it stands up on the whole as an interesting and often very imaginative body of work. Memorable pieces included a new video with no sound called Jumping Nauman (2007) that highlights the global locations of the 2006 Bruce Nauman exhibitions via an animated trip utilising Google Earth. Labels indicating the dates and locations of the galleries at which Nauman exhibited popped up and the screen zoomed in rapidly to an uncomfortably (but fascinatingly) detailed aerial photograph of each location. It was a great idea, straightforward in execution but surprisingly novel and even exciting.

Another 2007 piece Liine is a series of 10 images in a 4 minute video of photographs of Limousines before and after their middle sections have been edited out. Initially it seemed driven by the exploration of symmetry but became as much about the surrounding landscapes and backdrops as the vehicles that sat at the front of them. Several videos and animations for Soares' musical alter-ego Migso suggested that there is another facet to his work that warrants more detailed analysis. Expecting to Fly (1999-2001) was one a number of videos shot from the balcony of Soares' apartment. The one selected here witnessed what appeared to be the owner of a broken-down car at trying to flag down assistance on a quiet city road. However, the dusk light, surveillance like role of the camera and the only sound coming from the ambient noise of the evening air seemed to suggest darker motives may have been afoot. Of all the work though, Time Zones (2003) a 3D computer animated video for the Negativland song of the same title made in collaboration with the group was the stand out. A quirky but perfect blend of sound and vision.

[The glorious Electricity Museum]Finally, I must praise the beautiful and glorious edifice that is The Electricity Museum. Its several huge brick built buildings sitting right beside the river Tagus where supplies of coal would be dumped in a vast courtyard outside, loaded onto trolleys, wheeled via metal tracks in the ground inside the building where the coal was then processed from start to finish - from the raw material into electricity generated for the people of Portugal. A photographic exhibition provided a fascinating and detailed record of the original use of the several cavernous spaces. There's a definite Tate Modern 'cathedral to technology' air about the interior spaces even though here (unlike Tate Modern) they still contain much original machinery. Externally it has been so vigourously restored that when first passing it (without knowing what it was) I made a joke about it looking like a building made of real Lego bricks - such was the pristine quality of the orange brick, offset by the slate grey detailing. It is a beautiful piece of architecture that has found a terrific new purpose.

The former courtyard dumping ground is now a partial grass covered open air cafe, complete with palm trees, whilst inside is a small but pristine restaurant that any central London restaurateur would be proud of. With everything looking just so brand, spanking new, (the gift shop was, unfortunately, not yet stocked nor open) I assumed that it could have only recently opened. That we saw less than 10 other people during our entire afternoon there was the only disconcerting element. Let's just hope that its still an undiscovered gem ripe for the massive success it to richly deserves. If you are planning on going to Lisbon do not miss it. Do Robots Dream of Electric Art - 5/10, Selected Works - 7/10, The Electricity Museum - 9/10

Rob Dyer

Official Miguel Soares website: http://www.migso.net