Sensory assault on audience in Bradford

Michael Bracewell on an installation which uses sound and film in an attempt to thrill
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The Independent Online

In a darkened, cavernous space, rather like the stripped-down, blacked-out set of an empty television studio, three huge screens - each a video diptych - begin to pulsate with flickers of silver phosphorescence. Advised on entry to remain seated in front of the screens rather than roam about, viewers are held in a state that is as much apprehension as anticipation. From all sides, sudden beats and pulses of virtually sub-sonic bass begin to hook in with the flickering screens. The sounds seem to go for the sternum and backbone, as the twitching, shuddering, solarised green head of a straining man - "played" by the Austrian dancer Michael Krammer - begins to flash from screen to screen.

In a darkened, cavernous space, rather like the stripped-down, blacked-out set of an empty television studio, three huge screens - each a video diptych - begin to pulsate with flickers of silver phosphorescence. Advised on entry to remain seated in front of the screens rather than roam about, viewers are held in a state that is as much apprehension as anticipation. From all sides, sudden beats and pulses of virtually sub-sonic bass begin to hook in with the flickering screens. The sounds seem to go for the sternum and backbone, as the twitching, shuddering, solarised green head of a straining man - "played" by the Austrian dancer Michael Krammer - begins to flash from screen to screen.

This is your first experience of "Noisegate", a monolithic, deafening audio-visual installation created by the Austrian art duo, Kurt Hentschlager and Ulf Langheinrich, who work under the name Granular Synthesis. As a technique, "granular synthesis" is a computer-assisted means of organising ultra-short fragments of digitally recorded sound or "granules" into larger patterns. As a name, it seems to mix a scientific process with the gritty cool of a speed garage dance act. This conflation of meanings could be an apt description of the duo's work.

The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford is an ideal venue for the sensory assault of "Noisegate". In many ways the work is a triumph of showcased digital technology, as much as it is a dramatic tour de force. Found down a darkened corridor beyond heavy steel doors, the work seems to double as a white-knuckle ride: a dizzying, digital ghost train, in which the spooks and cobwebs are replaced by an intense experience of sensory disorientation.

The museum has already received a few comments from the public about the disturbing nature of "Noisegate", leading the information desk and museum staff to issue warnings about strobes and the unsuitability of it all for unaccompanied children under 16. The piece runs for just 20 minutes each hour, but with such a build-up you might be reminded of the portentous warnings accompanying the new "Valhalla" ride on Blackpool beach.

The theatricality of "Noisegate" is what creates its ambiguous, and largely ambivalent, status as a work of art. Hentschlager says: "Our idea was to attack an audience, rather than please it, although we found out later that we entertained our audience much more than we expected."

"Noisegate" has been compared to a rave, but veterans of post-punk "industrialism" might liken its intentions to those of early Final Academy concerts by groups such as SPK, Throbbing Gristle, and Cabaret Voltaire. On a well-trodden path that led to neo-constructivist performances from Test Department and Einstürzende Neubauten, these "sonic assaults" were ultimately matched by the claim of oddball rockers Devo that they could play a chord so loud the listener would instantly defecate on hearing it.

Based in Vienna, Granular Synthesis have pioneered electronic and virtual arts as a response to what they regard as "the urban museum" of their native city. Claiming their inspiration to be "the soul" of machines and their impact on human "souls", the pair take the stance of philosopher scientists, articulating the ceaseless tics of inner conflict. They have also compared themselves to "a mini circus, presenting their bundle of cybeasts". But what does all this amount to? Started in 1998, "Noisegate" has toured the world in many different forms - edited through complex software and re-looped from hours of audio-visual samples. Despite its being likened to Warhol's serial imagery and Francis Bacon's portraits, it's a work that's difficult to place within video art; unlike the work of Douglas Gordon or Sam Taylor-Wood, there's no connection withpsychologically charged portraiture or cinema's pop cultural influence. A nearer comparison might be Bruce Nauman's "shouting man" video installation.

Ultimately, "Noisegate" seems to be a single-minded act of confrontation, unconnected to anything save its own contortions. The viewer is first challenged, then embraced by its inhospitable environment - visitors who arrived in a huddle together in a pantomime of reassurance, ended up stretching out full length on the floor, chilling.

'Noisegate': National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford (01274 203305), to 10 September

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