Donald Harding: Transcode
@ The Empire (London, UK)
Expanding the meaning of communication towards the outer reaches of form and function, Transcode centered upon two video installation works by London-based artist and documentary filmmaker Donald Harding. Each use archival elements that have been reworked to drastically alter, but strangely enhance, their original ‘meanings’.
For MLK, Harding takes Martin Luther King Jr.’s epoch-defining I Have a Dream speech and, leaving the images well enough alone, concentrates his manipulation on the original locus of meaning, the words. Subjecting the audio to a series of processes, Harding renders King’s hallowed words into music, creating an avant-garde audio work of astonishing depth and intonation.
Harding transforms every word of King’s seventeen minute speech from digital audio file into a series of MIDI bloops and bleeps, which are then arranged into a ethereal musical score performed by a string octet. A mouth which once uttered words of eternal hope and freedom from oppression, is now eliciting a beautiful chamber soliloquy. The framed display of Harding’s musical scores only strengthens what is an intriguing, moving and quite brilliant piece of work.
The positioning of MLK within a former house of worship (now reinvigorated as an art gallery), provides another interesting facet to Harding’s piece. The subtle excommunication of the space and the placement of the work, elevated at one end of the main room (the pulpit), perhaps demonstrates a strange kind of victory of art over religion, but also a sense that where religion once held sway as the only medium truly qualified to carry emotion, it has been undermined (just as many religious figures feared, and continue to fear) by music, art and the moving image.
And so whilst MLK was essentially a single-channel video work with accompanying framed elements, the second piece – ReMorse – was a much truer installation work, in which Harding explores the rupturing of communication between intent and execution via a declassified 1960s newsreel.
A U.S. Air Force Commander shot down in North Vietnam and held as a prisoner of war, Jeremiah Denton gained notoriety for bravely bluffing his captors during a staged television interview in which he was forced to speak out against the war and claim that he was being treated well. Feigning sensitivity to the lights, Denton cooperated with the North Vietnamese whilst surreptitiously blinking in Morse code to spell out a covert communiqué: T-O-R-T-U-R-E.
In housing ReMorse, Donald Harding has constructed a completely blacked-out space, dislocating the visual and the aural and inviting viewers to edge closer to the sound and light emanating from tiny holes in the opposite wall, which conceals a television. Using this series of deliberate communication ruptures as a catalyst – on both his behalf and on behalf of Jeremiah Denton – Harding has altered the original newsreel footage to allow Denton to recite the typically poetic final message transmitted by the French Navy when Morse code was finally abandoned in 1999:
In aiming to emphasise the layers of meaning which underpin our communication systems, Harding cleverly repositions the history of twentieth century communication in order to question how languages and codes both help and hinder our common understanding. In both their initial subject matter and their poetic reimagining, each work also exhibits a yearning for an optimistic world in which communication might exist less as a tool for escaping oppression and, perhaps, more as an exemplar of our pursuit of personal liberty and heightened sense of common understanding.