Writing Award 2010 Best Review: The Erasure of Rhythm: Brendan Fernandes’ Relay League

Review by Daniel Schnee

I first spotted Relay League in a Tuesday twilight while waiting to cross the bus loop from York Lanes.  My first reaction was silent inner joy. I knew nothing of its circumstances, only its crimson and yellow neon glow, a small beacon reminiscent of the screaming rainbow of beer ads and Coke signs that lit my wild evenings spent on Japanese streets searching for green drinks, and all the other wild prizes of their popular economy. Neon mon amour, my Pavlovian trigger – I get eager to stop thought and start eating. But the reality of Relay League is of a different order.

Is this art? The work is a triptych of three ‘vitrines’, three glass-front alcoves overlooking the York Commons from the recesses of the Accolade East building. At first glance at twilight, the work seems to be three light-based installations separated by several feet, each possibly by separate artists. The third vitrine in particular appears to contain some kind of blinking neon Mexican wrestling mask or stylized image of a robot from no particular Japanese animation. Its flickering outline and left eye leave the impression that, like some minor beer sign in the corner of a blues bar, it suffers from some unknown electric disease that keeps it from staying fully lit – a malady it shares with the digital screen and video imaging system that precede it.

So we ’see’ the work, marvel at its effect, and continue on our way, secure in the knowledge that we have ’seen’ it. But in doing so we have made a decision that has eliminated or “erased” the work’s internal procedures. We have effectively ‘unseen’ its connotations by seeing what it denotes, some cleverly lit screens and a neon face. In that state its voice, its procedural signals; its rhythms have both literally and figuratively gone unnoticed. On further inspection, the “random flickering” of the neon conceals in plain sight a clever asymmetry; the sequence of long and short flashes that make up the SOS signal, which each part of the work cleverly contains. What is easily assumed to be my aforementioned electric disease turns out to be a series of long and short flashes out of phase with each other, yet clearly sequenced if one counts the number and series.

Are we to understand this work as representative of significant chaos within a formal system (an assassin’s hymn?), or a postmodern jape? The third vitrine glows bright – reminding me of a trendy restaurant sign in an Osaka suburb or some kind of dystopian Hello Kitty vampire icon, or am I just dreaming? The rhythm of the signal is lost in the joy of consuming its heady light – all dangerous code-matter diluted by the red sugar that sweetens the evening scene.

This is art. It has made me dream, think, erase, become hungry, become uneasy – undone my ignorance. No, this is great art and it is on display at the York University Art Gallery from now until June 6th, 2010.