C.O.T.I.S. by Kit @ 200 Gertrude Street*, Melbourne, February 1999
by Werner Hammerstingl ©1999

"Clearly more media-savvy than the average bear.." I muse as I listen to a member of the "Kit" collective (which has collaborated since 1992) describe the group's concerns with concealing the personal voice and appearance identity of it's members from the press, and the complimentary efforts by journalists to reveal that which is so playfully hidden. Who can resist such a game?

Members of the Ku-Klux Klan or the Fratelli della Misericordia kept their faces well hidden from the camera and the public by wearing masks to conceal their identity. But these individuals subscribed to rather extreme social and religious views. "Kit" on the other hand appear to avoid parading their individual identities as an inherent strategic component of their art practice.

In a society and a community where the measurable and otherwise quantifiable is a necessary operating component, any hidden properties are likely to create unease.

Kit, apparently very fond of acronyms, titled the Gertrude St work "C.O.T.I.S." (Cult of the inserter seat), an acronym which Kit tellingly has to share with the U.K. organisation ‘Confederation of tape services'. There just isn't enough code to go around, even acronyms are having to multitask.

Acronyms are of course the language of officialdom and de-personalised, perhaps even dehumanised administrations. The "Kit" use of "C.O.T.I.S." provides a small clue as to the possible strategy of the work- a politicised critique of structural domains perhaps?

Artists have taken on at least some of the practices which had in earlier times been the combined tasks of the village elder and the village idiot: wisdom and irreverent, innocent satire.

"C.O.T.I.S." as a work produces many conceptual nodes of entry to a matrix of concerns that links the contemporary condition of a heavily technology augmented society.

I wanted to discover, before contemplating the specifics of "C.O.T.I.S.", what else "Kit" had produced since 1992, so I decided to search the web. My search produced no hits for these rather elusive artists, but gives us a great view into the kind of society which "Kit" is addressing with it's work. Here is an extract of headings returned by my favourite search engine:

  • kitcar.com has been the Internet's premier and largest kit car information mall
  • Wholesale electronics components and educational kits
  • A legendary timepiece with its wagging tail pendulum and moving eyes, the Kit- Cat Clock has brightened many a wall/home for over 50 years.
  • Fyrst USA First Aid Sports Medicine Kit for Athletic Injuries
  • The Resellers Source Kit
  • Life Kit, Disaster survival kits for the first 72 hours
  • The GHB Exothermic Experimental Kit
  • Virtual Frog Dissection Kit Version 2.0
  • Immigration, citizenship, visa, green card, legal, kits
  • Hallelujah West-Survival Kit 
  • Ultimate Survival Kit. Perfect for taking along on hikes, camping trips, fishing and canoeing. (Keep one in your car and one in your house for emergency use).

    So, nothing to direct to a site on this collaborative group of artists who dragged the fuselage of a crashed small passenger plane into 200 Gertrude Street. And yet a lot of context which informs the work C.O.T.I.S.
    Mortality, survival, legality, emergency, dollars are all terms prompting a relationship with the issues raised by this peaceful, dead aeroplane in a gallery.

    The perverse shrine constructed by C.O.T.I.S. (aka Kit ) is a combination of the "readymade" (or more correctly: Industrial junk) fuselage and some lovingly made "Phantom limbs".
    Wing and tail sections which, due to their obviously diminished scale, disconnectedness from the body and upholstery unsuited to the utility we expected of the body before its demise, might be pregnant with satire or desire.. we will have to wait and see.

    The upholstery reminds of Hadrian Pigotts "Instrument of Hygiene (case 1)", from 1995 where the artist placed a porcelain washbasin, some copper plumbing fittings and two cakes of soap into a plushly red-velvet upholstered, fitted case. The case might have held some unusual musical instrument until it displayed it's contents of fetish.

    At least two more British artists connect with C.O.T.I.S in quite intimate ways. The first comparison is perhaps a little obvious: the carcass of a plane which, as much as any mechanical entity can, had died- and the lovingly made superbly detailed "Dead Dad" (1996-7) sculpture of a nude adult male, by Ron Mueck .

    The other example I wanted to mention is Jonathan Parsons "Carcass", a dissected map (all the roads have been removed from the original map with what must have been surgical precision) of "Greater London", displayed in an acrylic case. Parsons "Carcass" is fragile beyond belief- an entire circulatory system of a great entity is a challenge between gravity and millimetre-wide strips of tenacious paper.

    Ok, you get something of an idea how it all fits together, but I've not yet mentioned two features of the work: the first is a soundtrack, the second aerial photography of crash-site images printed on the upholstery used to cover the wing and tail-sections.

    The sound is inconsistent, emerging from a concealed source inside the fuselage. We cannot place it exactly but it is familiar. The catalogue informs us that it constitutes fragments of "Black Box" recordings. Sometimes they appear to play backwards as if this could reverse the final moments of disasters that terminate in eerie silence after the sound of impact subsides.

    The catalogue lists the 10 pre-impact recordings of plane crashes referenced by C.O.T.I.S. . I will not repeat them all here except to say the last comments by flight crews share the normal human dimensions of expressions. We have the fatalist: "that's it.. I'm dead", the inevitable "oh fuck me" and the uncomprehending: "What's going on now?".

    The irregular sounds emanating from this aeroplane body accompany the visible debris: the twisted seats and the wires slithering from the instrument section like spilled guts. Continuing my scrutiny of the interior I notice small personal items of the demised occupants : a cotton bud here, a toothbrush wedged between vinyl and aluminium there.. nothing of great significance and yet informed by the fatal history of this relic.

    With this history in mind it is easy to see a convergence between the private and the public elements of the crash. The upholstery on the wings and tail sections reinforces this with its printed imagery comprising aerial images of crash-sites. Debris locations are highlighted with white marks like the body outlines of victims in old detective films.

    At this stage our attention is directed at the evidence. The evidence of a crash and how we encounter it involves a complex process of mediation between privilege (authority), convention (social moires) and the collective quest to establish causality.

    Crashes, and other disasters responsible for loss of life are endlessly picked over for evidence of causality. Modern investigators emulate the poor of Calcutta who scrutinise the terrain for scraps of food (means of survival). Evidence is collected so that the "body" can be re-constituted and analysed for the weakness that caused the disaster.

    This essentially functionalist approach tends to define things in terms of cause and effect but even at its most successful, cannot reconcile the ‘inner' nature of the event . The obscenity of random in an ordered society is enough to make anyone nervous.

    In a society where we have successfully sanitised our experience of death, where most of the dying is in controlled environments such as slaughterhouses and hospitals, or virtual on a screen or embedded in text, a plane/car crash occurs outside the specified locations for death and becomes a macabre but brief monument to the failure of a system which has wrapped itself in mechanical and electronic aids for survival.

    The relationship between the technology disaster and art has been examined across a variety of media, ranging from Andy Warhol's "Disaster" images (mid 60's) to J.G. Ballards "Crash" (1975) and Mark Pauline/SRLs techno-destructo-fetish events during the '80s and '90s.

    The "C.O.T.I.S." work by "Kit" adds food for thought..... will continuing technological augmentation realise the extropian dream or will we simply become more vulnerable?

    As we hurtle into the next millennium we have to pass 2000. Good luck!

    View images from the exhibition:

    *Note: "200" Gertrude Street , just like "1999" is only one digit away from 2000. ©Werner Hammerstingl, Melbourne, 1999