VIVID Projects are currently showing an exhibition of art by Donald Rodney, an artist from Smethwick who pioneered the use of technology in art in the Eighties and Nineties. Rodney suffered from sickle cell anaemia, a condition that would send him in and out of hospital for most of his life, eventually killing him in 1998. The first artwork encountered when entering the gallery, Autoicon, delves into this life history through various records and archival materials related to the artist, surfaced through a digital search interface (a ground-breaking novelty at the time). A film showing interviews of others affected by sickle cell anaemia is also included, with a search interface giving access to their thoughts and experiences in the same manner as the Autoicon.
Sickle cell anaemia often leaves sufferers temporarily or permanently requiring a wheelchair, and Rodney was no exception to this. His experience of sometimes needing assistance getting around led him to create Psalms, a modified wheelchair programmed to move autonomously. This artwork was created a full five years before the first Roomba models became available, demonstrating the forward-thinking nature of the work created by Rodney and his collaborators, including the technologist Mike Philips. Two lightboxes showing key moments in the history of black sport point to Rodney’s participation as a founding member in the Blk Arts Group, which brought race relations to the fore in British art of the Eighties.
The work that left perhaps the strongest impression on me was the one Rodney made with Rose Finn-Kelcey, entitled Truth Dare, Double Dare. Invited to collaborate for an exhibition at Ikon Gallery in 1994, the pair spent several months attempting to make an artwork that was genuinely collaborative and respected both their positions. In the end, they exhibited an audio piece in which each artist in turn describes the frustrations they experienced in working together, and the thoughts and judgements they found themselves making about each other. It’s a very brave work, peeling back layers of civility and politeness to examine the defence mechanisms and points of resistance that so often come in to play, consciously or subconsciously, whenever two people are drawn into a relationship of personal or professional intimacy. It’s a sharp reminder of how, as the stakes increase, trust becomes that much more valuable and costly.
Reimagining Donald Rodney is on show at VIVID Projects, Birmingham until 5 November.