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The Museum of Accidents | 1993

A performance installation which recreated a 1920s tea dance in the Great Hall of the Museum of Science and Engineering (now Newcastle Discovery) on 27th August 1993. As an orchestra played, ballroom dancers swept past a projection screen which showed a continuous cinema of virtual flight and accident of a simulated plane (the latest version of Microsoft 5.0 popular sim computer package). This work was commissioned by Locus +.
Louise K Wilson

In August 1993, the Museum of Science and Engineering in Newcastle played host to 'The Museum of Accidents', the second in a series of three events produced by the artist Louise K Wilson. The events, which embraced performance and installation, were intended to explore a range of issues raised by the strategies of exhibition employed by 'industrial' museums. The first 'Zehn Mal Null' ('Ten Times Zero') was staged in the Westphalian Industrial Museum (formerly Zeche Zollern II/IV), Dortmund, Germany, The third is in the course of being realised.
Wilson sets out to establish the relationship between the past and present status of a building - a relationship it is hoped will illuminate the histories which are being made within their regimes of selection and display. Both of these monumental buildings have undergone a change of use - the museum in Dortmund was formerly a mine and the Museum of Science and Engineering was previously the headquarters of the North of England's Co-operative Wholesale Society. Wilson ironically comments on this change, which is in itself representative of more profound changes within the socio-economic infrastructure of the West. As the heavy machinery of the Industrial Age is filed away to gather dust on the site of the museum, Wilson imports the technology which has displaced it to open up a dialectic between progress and conservation. In 'Zehn Mal Null' lasers traced the path once taken by the mine's winding cables while computers silently counted down the seconds since the installation of each individual machine. Both the machines and the computers were the products of Siemens, the German multi-national, detritus of the past and present unveiling the historical processes of adaptation and a hegemonic industry of progress.

What is absent from this archaeology is the human history in which technology is forged. Precisely as Walter Benjamin recognises the limitations of photographic transparency, Wilson questions the mute spaces of the museum, not in this case invoking the caption as the anchorage of meaning, but by releasing the human voice into the dead space of exhibited decay. Four separate recordings of a female voice singing different notes are welded together into a chord, re-energising the space with its presence.

"At the end of the nineteenth century, museums exhibited
machines; at the end of the twentieth century, I think we
must grant the formative dimensions of the accident its
rightful place in a new museum."
-- Paul Virilio (1)

'The Museum of Accidents' came into existence for two hours on the evening of 27th August 1993. Wilson played the role of accidents in the evolution of technology against the role of technology in accidents to great effect. The Great Hall in the Museum of Science and Engineering had formerly been a dining-room for employees and guests of the Co-operative Society (itself a throw back to utopian dreams of progress and democracy through production) and in the 1920s the venue for regular tea dances. This history was recalled through the restaging of a tea dance resplendent with orchestra and potted palms. The orchestra evoked the final moments of the Titanic when a courageous ensemble continued to play hymns as the great liner slid beneath the waves. Above the orchestra a projection screen displayed a virtual flight between two American cities (San Diego to San Francisco), in real time (two hours). As the dancers whirled in and out of the dry ice, the audience anticipated the promised crash of the virtual aircraft, a crash that never came. This failure to reach a moment of catharsis left many of them disappointed. The irony of 'The Museum of Accidents' is of course its impossibility - a virtual crash is in fact an act of digital accuracy, held together by the cybernetic architecture of the programme. What would be the point of the non-accidental accident?

The virtual crash is symptomatic of the post-industrial age; an age at arms length, where the physicality becomes an experience to reproduce. The real space and time occupied by the Titanic or the air crew and passengers of an aircraft is lost in the collapse of space and time into the non-spaces of the virtual. In the same instant 'The Museum of Accidents' becomes a virtual museum, a heritage site of recreated and possible experience, a site of false memories collaged from the ruins of a remembered history with an unfulfilled history of the future. A virtual museum, though, because its duration was finite (a real museum can never be said to be complete) and because it was empty. Empty of artefacts, empty of the total sensual experience of real technology, of the tactility of surfaces, of the humanity of technology on the grand scale. Instead a museum of silence, the silence of Big Science as it negotiates with micro-technology to make it's processes invisible, the silence of the accident after the moment of its becoming.

(1) Public magazine, June 4/5.1986
Mark Little

(Essay commissioned for the publication of the same name and archived on: http://www.locusplus.org.uk/lkw.html)

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