Art Review: More than a random walk

New art installation by Liat Segal at the Herzliya Artists’ Residence is intriguing and compelling.

LIAT SEGAL: Much of my way of thinking and my inspiration comes from my scientific and technological background (photo credit: Courtesy)
LIAT SEGAL: Much of my way of thinking and my inspiration comes from my scientific and technological background
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As a wise woman I knew once told her anguished adolescent daughter, life is full of crossroads. There are always yes-no, right-left choices to be made. That particularly applies to our virtual digital world in which, when you get down to computerized brass tacks, it is all a matter of ones and zeros. That deterministic-bifurcation ethos lies at the heart of Random Walk, an intriguing art installation by Liat Segal currently on display at Herzliya Artists’ Residence, under the curatorship of Ran Kasmy-Ilan.
As you enter the exhibition space you get a sense of entering intimate confines. It is an alluring setting that draws the visitor straight into the thick of the action. You want to get to grips with what’s going down there from the get go. “What you have here is a sort of microcosm, or enclosed world, of cause, effect and ripple,” Segal explains, referencing the three titular sections of her work. “It is a sort of chain of events which begins with the tossing of a coin.” That, indeed, sounds definitively random. But is it?
Segal is a new media artist who has been fusing her academic and hands-on hi-tech backdrop with her newfound creative instincts for close to a decade. The binary outlook is close to heart and intellect, and she manages to marry the cerebral and sensorial in all her artistic output. “Personal dimensions and human behavior in technological environments interest me,” she notes. “I am intrigued by the ways we consume and analyze information, and the effects information flow has on our self-identities, personal communication, choices and intimacy.” All of that, and more, comes across in Random Walk.
A former research specialist at Microsoft, Segal gradually lost interest in a purely scientific approach to life, and broke away from what appeared to be a neatly demarcated career path, and began to delve ever more deeply into the less easily quantifiable, and more riskprone, realms of innovative mind-soul endeavor.
With a degree in computer science and technology from Tel Aviv University, followed by a berth at Microsoft, Segal seemed to have both feet firmly planted on the first rung of a promising line of a professional and, no doubt, financial advancement ladder. But her artistic muse would allow her no rest. After a few years at the hi-tech giant, she opted to place all her professional eggs in one creative basket.
“Much of my way of thinking and my inspiration comes from my scientific and technological background,” Segal explains. “Many times I see the world as collections of data, mathematical representations, or through biological models. Today this is reflected in my works.”
That is a clear theme all through Random Walk, and the yin-yang, yes-no, rightleft line of thought is fundamental to the whole exercise. The flip side – literally – philosophy is there from the start, that is, should you opt to take a right turn to the large circular dais with a black surface that appears to be constantly flexing itself. The drum-shaped platform – the Cause component – is actually constantly clenching and releasing the black latex surface which has a coin at its center.
It is not any old coin. “This is a silver dollar from 1979 with the portrait of Susan B. Anthony,” Segal says. The woman in question was an American social reformer and women’s rights activist who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement. She was also one of the driving forces behind the anti-slavery movement in North America. 
Segal admits to an ulterior motive for featuring the Anthony coin, which ties in nicely with the divaricating nature of the whole creation.
“THERE IS the word ‘Liberty,’ but on the same side [of the coin], you have ‘In God We Trust.’ They are, sort of, two strange opposites – liberty and God.” Then again, unless one happens to live in a repressive theocratic society, surely one can make choices regarding one’s adherence to a religious or secular lifestyle. The two inscriptions on the silver dollar do not have to be mutually exclusive, do they?
“Of course, people can make that decision freely,” Segal continues, noting another key text on the coin. “There is also ‘pluribus unus’ – one of many – which connects with other parts of this work.”
Random Walk is an enticing balancing act of advanced technological precision and happenstance. The coin’s calisthenic routine, flipped by the flexing latex surface, delivers the heads or tails results, which appear in the binary data displayed on a screen on the obverse side of the low partition.
“Both [outcomes] are absolute,” says the artist, highlighting the fatalist core of the installation, and of life itself. “Neither it nor you have the power to influence which outcome is presented. The tally is inevitable, involuntary and uncontrollable. Distribution is uniform and discrete, random and repetitive. Fate tosses a coin and it spins and falls – a finality.”
Moving onto the Effect segment, the coin-tossing result activates the second ingredient in the layout. Making the most of her seasoned technological knowhow, Segal rigged up a data-feeding connection, whereby the alternating heads-tails bottom line causes informs the ebb-and-flow of large contraption that at first glance reminded me of a scaled-down version the Kraken, the monstrous sea creature who had a bone to pick with the mischievous Jack Sparrow.
In fact, the seemingly ephemeral mass comprises 1,165 black polyurethane bands attached, at one end, to the far wall, with the other extremity converging onto a metal ring on a black rope that in turn is vertically connected to another stretch of rope weighted by a brass coneshaped object. The “pluribus unus” legend clearly resonates here. The whole mass also moves sideways, hither and thither, thereby creating a ceaseless reshaping effect.
Illumination also comes strongly into the final aesthetic equation. The black bands reflect the lighting across numerous permutations of gradations that run through the black-gray spectrum.
That comes across even more palpably in the third part of the work – the ripple denouement. In an echo of the circular peripheral deign of the other two sections, and similar to the coin-flipping platform, this part is covered by hundreds of upturned glasses with varying quantities of water inside. Each transparent vessel also contains several tiny magnets. The cone’s motion sets off ripples inside the glasses, and triggers more magnets hidden within the dais. This then stirs the magnets in the glasses, which respond by jumping every which way, colliding with the smooth glass walls, and creating audio and aural reactions. “Their movements are similar, but separate. They constitute a complex system, they are a mass,” Segal observes.
One can easily transpose the artistic dynamics to all walks of everyday life. One can ponder the fluctuating nature of our quotidian existence. Is it all a matter of circumstance and improvisational patterns? Or is there some guiding mechanics that, unseeingly, dictate the way we go about our lives? Either way, Random Walk makes for an intriguing and compelling spectacle.
“My installations and works have performative aspects,” Segal says.” I create the conditions and choreograph the behavior, but I also leave space for randomness – whether in the starting point and data, in the interaction with the activator of the work, or in its final outcome. After installing the setting and activating the work, I become a spectator myself.” That probably applies to the rest of us too.
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