For going on two decades, the body, ecology and technology have been Davide Balula’s central interests. Whether using a canvas to collect sediment and organisms from a riverbed, creating wifi antennae that emit monochromatic signals, or installing heat lamps in the gallery to amplify the audience’s body heat, the material and the immaterial have always been of equal concern. The prosaic and poetic never assumed to be antithetical.
But it is with Balula’s most ephemeral works that the human body has been an ongoing site of examination. The digestive system, the muscular system, the body’s relationship to architecture and environment have often been explored through performance — movement, improvised music, edible experiences and pyrotechnics.
For his 5th solo exhibition at galerie frank elbaz, Balula hones in on human functions that relate to emotion, empathy and focus. He has created mechanisms which consume, redistribute or abstract body fluids and brain activity.
Saliva, tears, sweat and bile, all synthetically produced in a laboratory for the show, have never come in contact with the world of the body, the biome, a person’s unique set of bacteria, which incidentally, cause these secretions to release their distinctive body odor. The disposable fluids, which the body secretes and abandons, are circulated throughout the gallery via rudimentary machines which act as proxies for basic body functions. For instance, with Automated Tear Drop, synthetic tears stream down a chain into a kick bucket, effectively creating a crying machine so you don’t have to waste your own tears. The works in the exhibition which remotely cry, breathe, spit, etc. function as poetic simulacra to our current technological moment, where machines are increasingly part of our everyday lives, inseparable from how we think, communicate and feel. Emails and text messages have replaced phone calls, emoji have replaced words.
The inundation of information brought forth by technology has not only altered our affect, but has also resulted in a pandemic addiction to distraction. With Attention Span Color Meter, Balula uses a brain sensor to read the electromagnetic frequencies of the focused and unfocused brain. These frequencies are wired into the gallery lighting and produce a fluctuating hue, so one’s focus literally colors the walls and the works on view in the gallery. Far from reading someone’s thoughts or emotions, the data collected is basic human brain function, both highly specific yet somewhat arbitrary, in that whether the brain being monitored is from an individual who is educated or uneducated, privileged or oppressed, old or young; the results remain indistinguishable from one another. Balula’s interest in principles of subjectivity versus preconceived universality, or the dismantling of power structures from a biological standpoint has been partly influenced by different feminists thinkers with a particular take on science, like Isabelle Stengers or Catherine Malabou.
In a work titled Self Breathing Lungs (Air Filter), a recording of breath moving in and out of a harmonica is projected through speakers installed inside engine air filters. So the human presence, as opposed to mimicked byproducts of humans, is represented through both the lighting and the sound of the exhibition. Ephemeral, but still physical if one considers (as Balula does) the fact that light and sound, while intangible, are in reality fading photons and sound waves.