From: “Martin Mills”
Date: October 7, 2008 12:47:55 PM GMT – 04:00
To: “Christian McLeod”
Subject: Four ideas regarding “Further Unmanned Strategies”
London is the most highly surveilled place in the world, with an estimated half-million CCTV cameras on private premises alone, not including the galaxy of government surveillance equipment. McLeod imagines this fog of security as a nightmare landscape of black helicopters and battleships in the Thames. Biblical plagues of insects morph into drones, buzzing through the city, recording everything in their wake. The war machines come home. After their efficacy is proven in Iraq and Afghanistan, the logic of capital dictates that these technologies be utilized in “new markets” – that is, our back yards. The unmanned predators that dot the skies over Baghdad are advancing on London; it is just a matter of time.
McLeod is obsessed with recording, seeing this as the function of the artist. He is at pains to point out that there is no moral interpretation going on here, merely observation. Whether or not he cares about the legal and ethical implications of a surveillance society, does not intrude into his role as artist. It matters only that it exists, and since it exists, he must depict it. His library contains books on Carnivore, Echelon and other hi-tech eavesdropping systems. The artist as recorder is a notion which engaged Rauschenberg, Burroughs, and many of the other saints of late modernism – they used cutting and collage to describe their existence, the growing piles of garbage and waste that emerged from a strategy of planned obsolescence, the hypocrisy of the institutions of perpetual war for perpetual peace. But times have changed, our governments prosecute enlightened wars to prevent future catastrophe, consumption is the key to saving the planet. Staring into the flickering screens that now form our windows to the world, the screens stare back at us, logging every key stroke, every private view. McLeod likes the blurry, unfocused look of a world polluted by information, where we are never alone.
Nature seeps into these pictures like the damp October weather. His surfaces are rain-blasted. Water occupies centre stage whether in the form of the river that forms the borders of his views of Tate Modern and the Millennium footpath, or in the soaked red brick of Inner Temple. Charing Cross is smudged out by the oscillations of a million windshield wipers. London in October is a dreary, rainy place, the foliage trampled on and turned to a viscous mud. McLeod places clumps of this material judiciously across his canvas, water running between them.
Natural boundaries have been a recurring theme; McLeod is fascinated by harbours, mountain ranges, rivers. The Montreal paintings are filled with the St. Lawrence. The seminal Ibiza series of 2005 focuses on the shoreline. In McLeod’s London, the Thames splits the city in two; Foster’s Millennium Footpath, guarded by the looming presence of Louise Bourgeois’ ‘Mother’, spans both solitudes. He walks through the city, observing and being observed, leaving a shadowy presence in grainy images written twenty-four times a second to hard drives held in a secure, undisclosed location.
His visit coincided with Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth installation at the Tate Modern, which inflicted a giant crack through the Turbine Hall. One has to wonder if the epic scale of the piece compelled McLeod to consider working larger. Then there is the Tate’s Rothko room, the masterpieces at the National Gallery, all haunting the marks McLeod makes on the canvas, asserting that a painting can be more than the moment, can stand the test of time and tell us something about ourselves.
The thick paint hangs from the canvas, enormous splotches carved and etched, other areas left strategically unmarked, the primed canvas shining through like egg white. These paintings have been scraped away, images discovered, discarded, recovered, jewel-like, built up through layers of excavation, offering unlimited points of entry. Zoom in and zoom out, like a satellite camera, patterns repeat themselves at different scales. The subtle architecture of the grid is just a jumping-off point, these paintings contain multitudes.
Martin Mills is a Toronto-based writer, entrepreneur, and computer scientist.