Distorted Constellations: Exhibition Review

Distorted Constellations by Nwando Ebizie at Caustic Coastal – Part of HOME mcr Push Festival

Written by Josh Molyneux

Photography courtesy of C J Griffiths

‘Distorted Constellations’ is an installation and series of programs created and curated by artist Nwando Ebizie, which form an alternative reality in which to explore ideas of perception and neuro-divergence; a term used to describe brain functions which diverge from typical functioning. Ebizie has a condition called Visual Snow, which effects vision in a similar way that poor reception effects the picture on an old analogue television. It is this idea of diversity in how we see and understand reality which forms the starting point for this project. I visited the Opening Ceremony of the program, billed as an “elemental ritual”.

The program is being held at Caustic Coastal. This warehouse space on an industrial estate typifies the image of art venues in Salford that places like the White Hotel have generated: a no frills, chilly affair with an entrance down a little street that looks like a road to nowhere. On entry, I first encountered Nwando Ebizie as her alias Lady Vendredi, in a costume borrowed from Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element. Abstract visuals being projected onto the wall accompanied her playing tunes from CDJs. A quick explore of the layout showed several rooms. I got chance to look in one which contained a pane of glass hanging in the centre, with some paints and headphones playing abstract soundscapes to the side. Visitors were asked listen to the soundscapes and paint onto the glass in response to the sounds, and then wipe the glass clean for the next visitor. A camera filmed the glass recording how our perception of the same music varied. This set the tone for the evening, where visitors were asked to take part with and respond to the works throughout.

Back in the main space of the warehouse the ceremony then began, with Lady Vendredi giving us a mission statement for ‘Distorted Constellations’: an Afrofuturist ritual blending science, magic and history to examine unconsciously held beliefs about reality, through considering the phenomenological character – the personal ‘what it feels like’ rather than the scientific explanation – of our perception, with reference to neuro-divergent ways of sensing.

The number of ideas presented in this announcement showed how busy and varied the artist’s meditations on the subject are, and it was perhaps tricky to see how all of them would come together concretely, but certainly piqued my interest. A manifesto on the wall with references to “natural philosophy” and “psychomagic” embedded the intention to blur tradition and innovation, art and science, technology and spirituality, ritual and experiment.

We were then led into the first room, which was filled with a three-dimensional audiovisual installation. The room was dark, with projectors and UV spots providing all the light. Three cloth ‘walls’ marked off a space in the centre of the room from what was essentially a corridor between it’s perimeter and the solid walls of the room. We walked around this corridor at first, which was full of other ornamentation: more curtains of cloth hang down below shoulder height making the landscape feel like walking through a low-hanging forest. All of this material is woven loosely enough so that you can see through them, into the clear area in the centre of the room, giving the impression of a stage in the round. A large sculpture made from wires which glow in the UV light, criss-crossing one another in an abstract geometric form gives a distinctly space-age angular feel. Speakers are spaced around the room. There is a real feeling of being in an environment you are free to explore, with no question of look-don’t-touch. While the crowd initially stood surrounding the central space respectfully leaving it undisturbed, Ebizie ushered us onto it to lie on the floor which is covered in a PVC type material that in the dark looks like it could be water. From this central space, the other visitors still circling outside of the material that walled off the middle seem to look in at us, as we were now the exhibition.

Music played from the speakers, moving from glitchy IDM to beat-less ambient drone, into what to my untrained ear seemed to be a contemporary electronic take on traditional tribal drumming. As this music played, a light show – which I think was designed by Sean Clarke of Test Card – was projected onto the cloth walls, which shimmered as it both caught on the weave of the cloth, passed through to the further hanging material behind in the corridor, and then on through to solid walls of the room. An animation of light figures dancing to the music wove between abstract patterns like moving cave paintings undertaking an ancient techno-ritual. The effect is to be fully immersive, like entering into the chamber in which the rites of an unknown culture are performed. There are flat foam blocks on the floor of some parts of the room which I think must be to mask cables, but because the whole setup is designed to have interesting sensory stimuli, it feels like they’re just another quirk of the room. Even with no contextual information the room would be interesting, it is a curious construction that succeeds in feeling like an alternate reality.

I thought at this point there would be a performance in the central space, however, after having been given time to thoroughly take in the light installation, we were invited into a smaller room with low draped-material ceiling, like a Bedouin tent. Big cushions were littered around for people to lie on, with little surprise lollies and scalp massagers hidden among them, presumably to add another layer to the ‘sensory’ element of the whole event. Lady Vendredi then sat in a corner, lit with purple light, told a ghost story in a stage whisper about a girl who was thrown into the sea. Her body became a skeleton, which was later accidentally brought up from the depths by an unsuspecting fisherman. The impression was that this was drawing on oral traditions of myths and fables passed on. This felt more like a wind down, after the artistic heavy lifting of the evocative installation room, with Ebizie’s theatrical delivery making the experience playful, not too earnest or trying too hard to be obscurely allegorical.

With the culmination of the reading, the ceremony shifted to an even more loose feel when Ebizie asked us to “break bread” with her, which involved eating pizza and popcorn whilst a tray of burning essential oils was paraded around, adding more sensory layers to the experience. Here the ceremony reached its final stage with Lady Vendredi back on the tunes, as the audience roamed more freely to paint on the glass, get another look at the installation, loll back on the cushions of the Bedouin tent room or generally socialise in the main space. The night culminated in silly, ove-the-top dancing to jazzy, pop-y, afrobeat-y music, and this fun tone was a real testament to how the event was presented throughout by Ebizie; always accessible, no need for pretense, a serious point to make but without the need for an overly serious tone – the night always had an atmosphere of fun.

I did feel that while the layered details of the work and performance did constantly refer back to the subject of perception, it felt like a discussion of ‘perception’ as meaning our understanding of the world influenced by social factors or cognitive bias. People from different circumstances and contexts will interpret the same thing differently, rather than the literal different ways of seeing that an atypical brain process like Visual Snow would entail. In this sense the concept of neuro-diversity could have been probed more directly, but I am sure this will be addressed within the workshops and talks organised for later in the program – this Opening Ceremony was as much an opportunity to celebrate the launch of the project as it was a complete expression of the concept in full. With the cleverness of the main audiovisual installation and the quite captivating performance of Ebizie in her roll as host, I would definitely like to attend some of the later events in this series and get further into some of the ideas that the program seeks to unwrap.

The full ‘Distorted Constellations‘ program can be found on the HOME mcr website. Next dates are 24th and 26th January.

Check out our What’s On Calender for more exhibitions and events.

Our guest blogger Josh Molyneux is a designer/artist based in Manchester, working primarily on jewellery that draws on his background in philosophy. View his work or get in touch via Instagram @josh_mol_design.

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