Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Electronic and kinetic art at Ambika P3

Kinetica Art Fair was open over the weekend at Ambika P3, the gigantic underground structures laboratory in the basement of the University of Central London, which was once the Polytechnic of Central London and a hotbed of architectural and structural innovation. The show featured an eclectic assortment of creations ranging from hi-tech to Heath Robinson, but it somehow lacked a defining sense of achievement. There were plenty of fairly amusing things but hardly anything to take your breath away and leave you wondering why that had never been done before.

The entrance to P3 isthrough some kind of maintenance yard, through a narrow doorway where people with tickets were left wondering if they had to join the long queue, or push their way through. Inside, you enter via a balcony overlooking the main space. The smell of frying burgers was not encouraging and the place was too crowded but the space itself is dramatic.

There were some very charming handmade exhibits, slapdash in the best kind of way, made to just about do what they are supposed to do without excess polish. A small tree branch suspended from three concentric rings, with the twigs cut exactly at the line of the rings above them, so the whole thing scrambles, and then reassembles again as a complete branch. Silly stuff like vibrating pictures that you couldn't see properly because of the movement. An old typewriter that no longer typed words, but had a nylon filament connecting each key to one of around forty noise-making devices: arms that struck bottles part-filled with water, a worm drive that sent balls down a chute, each mechanism different and amusingly impractical. The good thing about those was the way you didn't need an explanation, you could just watch and the whole thing was apparent. I didn't mind the tiny sailing boat with a rotating spring mimicking the rise and fall of waves, although that was just a little feeble. There was a beautifully made ball race, sending ping pong balls on twisting wire ramps, taking one of several routes down to the lift mechanism.

A lot of the show was predictable, and the hi-tech tendency which you would think must be the driving force behind this show, turned out to be less sophisticated than you might hope. Mutant robot monsters in the familiar heavy metal mould, a real live model wearing some kind of bondage outfit with robot appendages, stuff made out of bicycle gears. Lots of diffraction effects achieved in different ways. A whole room of effects with lights and mirrors. There was one thing I'd read about beforehand, a shiny cylinder reflecting a strangely-shaped metal blob, the blob being precisely calculated to look like a human hand in the distorted reflection. It worked, and you could see why it worked but that was all it did. Finally, I found something promising, a wooden lay figure about a foot high and next to it a modest array of electronics. The instructions were: stand on the black square with your hands up as the diagram shows. When the machine has finished scanning your body, a red light will show. Then you will be able to control the movements of the lay figure by moving your own body. It was out of order though.

Really, the star of the show was the two-metre metal globe suspended over the balcony from one of the industrial gantries that run across the ceiling. Covered in a grid of lights programmed with an ever-changing display and placed where you can stand right next to it, or see it from the far end of P3: nothing not to like about it.