Ross Manning – Spectra II (2012). Fluorescent lights, fans and timber.
The Spectra series is an example of Manning’s ongoing engagement with the sonic. While the work itself creates low-level sound from the fans, it is the musical quality of the light mixes that Manning understands to be compositional. The sonic is understood less literally here than it usually is within the field of sound art; rather, it is engaged with on a conceptual level, a play between light waves and sound waves, the frequency spectrum of light imagined as sound. For example, in Spectra, light stands in for sound frequencies, creating an imagined series of harmonic notes and indeterminate compositional outcomes.
Manning exhibits a continuous engagement with everyday objects throughout his installations. Many of his works are produced using objects or technologies that most people have an established history with. In the case of Spectra, the lights and cheap plastic fans are an intrinsic part of the lives of those of us who visit the installation. We know these materials well, but their being assembled into the floating and spinning kinetic sculpture causes us to rethink our relationship with them. Likewise, our regular relationship to everyday objects is reconceptualized through the presentation of other items that feature within Manning's installations: LCD televisions, clock chimes, overhead projectors, a pianola, LED candles, and plenty of rope.
A final element of Manning’s media critique can be understood through his treatment of inputs and outputs. We generally think of art as being centered around outputs; even in heavily process-based works, we almost always look at the outcomes before we consider the process that created it. In Manning’s ongoing use of photovoltaics (solar panels), input and output are combined, in a similar manner as his amalgamation of light as sound.
Not only do many of Manning's installations produce light, but they also capture light as a signal to run or feed the system itself. More precisely, Manning’s use of photovoltaics employs light to generate a signal that is transduced into sound. In his paper “PV Aesthetics,” Sydney-based experimental artist and musician Peter Blamey points to practices that include photovoltaics as never having “just one process, characteristic or function taking place, but all of them occurring simultaneously” (Blamey 2015). In this approach, output is input, and input is output. Manning’s light-generated signals are produced by plugging cheap garden-lighting solar panels directly into his mixer; fluctuating electric current generated by light hitting the panels are then directly amplified as sound. Sound here becomes the vehicle for perceiving the energies that create the signals – here, the energy of light – making Manning’s interest in sound/light crossovers explicit.
Blamey himself produces feedback systems from discarded and repurposed electronics, including PC motherboards found in computers that have been dumped on the street. His work thus involves scavenging e-waste to produce computer music that foregoes the digital. The motherboards in his performances are activated by sending a signal through the circuits that are closed in an indeterminate fashion by thin copper wool. In performance, he coaxes the steel wool onto and across the surfaces of the boards to produce various signals. Describing Blamey's performances, Douglas Kahn states, “The microscopically restrained complexity of the tightly controlled circuitry on the motherboard is met by the airy, rat's nest complexity of the jumbled copper wire: a chaotic caricature of connectivity" (Kahn 2013: 238-9). In installation, these systems are run from solar power, but within these systems the usual critique of electrical power's sustainability is short-circuited. This is achieved through the conflated employment of solar energy via a light that is itself powered by mains-electricity. Thus, clean energy is powered by dirty energy (or at least an unknown source of electricity). Of this approach Blamey states:
By tracking the relationship between materials and processes, what is of interest is how this ‘direct solar’ approach has been used by artists to make available energy both the source for and the subject of their work—in other words, a simultaneous incorporation of an investigation into available energy phenomena. (Blamey 2015)
Various energy sources and emissions form both the input and output of his systems, but the source of both input and output is a feedback system itself, one that turns back onto itself. Thus, the seemingly straightforward “good” electricity of “clean” energy is called into question, as good energy is generated from bad energy.