The Voyages of AL and AL

Curator Bren O’Callaghan explains why you definitely shouldn’t miss our current exhibition, Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse, by artist and filmmaker duo AL and AL. The show finishes this Sunday and has attracted over 12,000 visitors so far…

The night sky is a repository of myth, traced and studded with an applique narrative of human endeavour and Olympian puppetry. A winking, cross-stitch tapestry revealing tales of collusion, collaboration and conflict, bouncing between binary poles of free will and prescribed fate. Far from the polluted, cola spill smear-view that our cities afford, to stand and stare at the heavens from a remote forest or plateau is to taste the horror of eternity.

Writers, poets, artists and those working in creative fields have long slipped on the welder’s visor of their craft, the better to look directly at the blinding glare of existence. Yet a rise in populist, scientific discussion of this cosmic minestrone we call life is prone to becoming somewhat bland, divorced from both dazzling glamour and pant-dampening fear.

It is as if the vocabulary and symbols employed were somehow distilled in aid of a laboratoire-farmed, pH balanced syntax; emotional impurities removed, subjective flavours – a strawberry naivety, or a dill pickle contrariness – leached and neutralised in favour of clipped, BBC newspeak.

Artist duo, filmmakers and partners AL and AL challenge this status-quo, subverting and in the process complementing the study of not only the stars but the building blocks of life; atoms and neutrinos, sub-aqueous DNA cocktail twists and basketball shaped depressions in galaxial spattered bedspreads: a booster fuel augmentation via the lens of the imagination.

Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse is their biggest exhibition and body of work to date. Detailing three key journeys undertaken with groundbreaking scientists, it is a presentation the defies categorisation but encompasses black holes, artificial intelligence and nano-biology with an epic sense of a vast, inter-connected Odyssey; equal parts wisdom and wonder.

A regular commentator upon the work of AL and AL, Dame Marina Warner, described the exhibition in her opening address at the 2016 John Rylands Research Institute Lecture as “A promethean vision of the future”, aligning AL and AL’s practice with mythic forms of prefigurement and prophecy. Riding an incoming tide of gravitational waves, we need such oracles and their prescient visions to help us process vast amounts of leaden data.

Icarus at the Edge of Time draws upon the artists’ live concert hall performance and collaboration with Pulitzer Prize nominated writer and physicist Professor Brian Greene, with a score by Philip Glass, re-presenting the duo’s visual accompaniment as a three-channel moving triptych. A revisionist pass at the story of the boy punished for daring to harness the power of flight, Greene replaces gravity with the general theory of relativity – originating as a bedtime story for his young son.

It is frustrating, if understandable, that so many reviewers focus upon the methods employed by AL and AL, renowned for their mastery of computer-generated imagery. Unlike the thousands employed by the likes of WETA Workshop or Lucasfilm, the pair works alone in their at-home studio outside Manchester. I’ve long imagined nearby housing estates subjected to recurring power outages, local engineers scrambled and perplexed, unaware of the green glow and phosphorescent mist leaking from beneath an otherwise innocuous pair of double garage doors.

The art of grafting pixels and polygons is, in essence, a form of sculpture, albeit not fully acknowledged due in part to suspicion stemming from prevalence, an incorrect presumption of automation, and perhaps public exhaustion at the endless parade of anthropomorphic insurance ambassadors.

But AL and AL can trace a direct lineage with the likes of artist Bruce Nauman, whose exploration of innerspace within the parameters of a studio floor edged with tape, and the use of his own body as a paint brush to daub a cuboid canvas with performative action, resulted in such seminal work as Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1967-68).

This overt reference to an underlying grid has a special resonance within digital painting and film – a starting point from which a matrix of multiple routes becomes possible simultaneously.

Sol LeWitt’s Wall Structure Blue (1962), consists of chroma-key blue oil-and-pigment upon wood with a smaller red square at the dead centre, reminiscent of a target, or more suggestively, a button of a jackpot machine  – hit nudge to gamble. In the light of AL and AL’s expansive, generative multiverse, it is a work that prefigures the tumbling digital display of Doc Brown and Marty McFly’s DeLorean time machine in the Back to the Future movie series. The dashboard in question has not one but three digital clocks: Destination Time, Present Time and Last Time Departed, a thrilling departure from linear-time, travelling in all directions at once whilst seated.

AL and AL’s The Creator is a forty-minute, Prix du Jury winning, sci-fi-fairytale response to the final hours in the life of Alan Turing. A haunting monochrome requiem in which the father of artificial intelligence is visited by thinking machines from the future, Turing’s self-immolation giving rise to a new species who perceive his death as Year Zero, Christ resurrected, only to die in perpetuity.

This and many works within the exhibition are imbued with a sense of secular spirituality, the artists believing that physicists and mathematicians such as Green and Turing are high priests of the information age, their formulas and theories, like scriptures written in Latin or Hebrew, requiring faith and trust in those able to play the strings of an algebraic operetta on our behalf.

“When you have fully understood the code, you will understand everything,” explains an imprisoned clone to her scientist captor (a dozen-plus roles played with impressive nuance by actress Sophie Linfield), from within her barred cell in AL and AL’s newest opus, The Demiurge. “The problem with you, William, is that you’re looking for a completely predictable cause-and-effect universe. It doesn’t exist!” It is a stark warning in leaning solely upon verifiable evidence.

Meteorites are fallen star-shards devoid of angelic hue if simply broken down into constituent chemical grains. AL and AL board their orbital sailboat and combine scholarly discipline with a splash of mad artistry. To quote The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “All men have stars, but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travellers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky.”

Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse continues in our main gallery until Sun 10 April. More information can be found here.

A publication of the same name as the exhibition features essays on the Multiverse by Professor Brian Greene, legendary graphic novelist Grant Morrison and world renowned author and mythographer Marina Warner. From HOME Publications and Hayward Publishing.