This exhibition blends body and machine
March 12, 2015

"Red is the colour of heat, danger and seduction": Natalie Dray on her installation at Cell Project Space, in which glowing electrical appliances take on new associations

Electrical appliances click on and off in Natalie Dray’s solo exhibition ‘DRAY’ at London’s Cell Project Space, on show until 8th March. Pinks and reds abound, casting a softer glow across the stark open architecture of the gallery. The invisible mechanisms of technology are opened up as Dray forces them to the forefront, cladding sockets in newly adapted, colourful cases and draping wires across walls. She draws a fine line between the rhythms of the body and those of her machines, layering the two to reveal an enmeshed system of artificial and emotional intelligence.

POSTmatter: ‘DRAY’ is very minimal, pushing viewers to become acutely aware of the space of the gallery itself. What is your interest in minimalism, and how does this relate for you to the gallery environment? 

Natalie Dray: When I'm considering a gallery space and my work, I try to allow myself to be embodied by artificial constructions that are autonomous from my physical perception. I try to multiply myself through additional sensors without losing the sense of my body's expression. I think about the subtlety of light, colour and shape, and how these elements affect emotional response and resonate a mood out of sync to the drone of industry.

A lot of the show is invisible, being installed behind the walls and concealed between existing architectural features, but the show is not stripped back or idealising bare essentials. I installed a 32 amp ring main with 5 switch spurs adjacent to 5 x 3 amp timers, which program my electrical appliances; sockets, fans, heaters and lights, to power capacity at 10 minute intervals. It may not be immediately obvious, but these underlying features of the show become perceptible through the switching rhythms and conflicting functions of the appliances. Sometimes a heater might demand your gaze, suddenly powered and glowing penetratingly into your skin as your back is turned.


PM: The heated lights within the show all glow a distinct red, which recalled for me everything from a seedy bar to Eggleston's iconic photograph of a single light bulb. Was it a conscious decision to focus on this colour, and why? 

ND: The colour red is synonymous with heat, danger, and seduction, and I like to work with these layers of associations, the confusion of the mechanical and biological in the identity of gestures. The glow evokes the presence of a woman, of flesh in a strip club, but it is also the apathetic reality of the heater's function. The red and orange tones are the natural colour emissions of electromagnetic radiation in infrared heaters. I used a ruby glass sleeving to reduce the glare, so the heaters can be observed comfortably by the eye when turned on in the room.


PM: You explore the limitations of manufacturing by using the power availability and capacity of the room to dictate when the lights turn on and off. In this way, you complicate the agency between yourself as an artist and the arbitrary regulations of the products and power sources that you worked with. In light of this, how do you view your own role in relation to the technology that you utilise? 

ND: I view myself as adaptive; my body has the capacity to absorb new ways of utilising resources and information. I'm aware of the point in time that I find myself living. I try to find ways of becoming more conscious, and I don't mind being affected by the architectures of a city built through the acceleration of an Industrial Revolution. I want to be affected, and my body and my work reflect what it means to be living in the specificity and fragility of this moment, where intelligent agents are at once human and insentient with little differentiation. A thermostat is an intelligent agent and reflex machine as much as human skin, in the schematics of the regulation of temperature in a closed and controlled room.


PM: You hacked the products in your show, is this undermining their originally intended functionality? What interests you about electronic and computer hacking in this respect, and how do you view its role developing within the art world in the future?

ND: The appliances I designed for the exhibition are fully operative: the electrical elements work as designed to by the original equipment manufacturers, and the design complies to regulations. The modifications are more cosmetic. For me, hacking is more about working with an attitude, and allowing this frame of mind to permeate what I make. It's about taking and playing with the monopoly of masculine and machine gestures, feminine expectations and conventions of uniform engineering. I've been thinking a lot about this quiet aggression and monotony of the 'standardisation process', particularly in systems achieving dominance by market and structural forces, rather than through public awareness.

I believe these unconscious and apathetic growths in complex forms of organisation are set to propagate more forcefully into our future. They are becoming more complex and less easy to understand, and I don't like the idea of becoming passive. I want to be able to provide things for myself, and build my mind up so that I can take part in building the things around that inform and stimulate it. This is why I learned to build computers; it makes sense to know what’s necessary to include in terms of hardware, and how it can be tailored for better efficiency in my studio. I think that it's important to embrace technology, while simultaneously challenging it as a means to free ourselves of its restrictions and authority.