Jenn E Norton: AR and the Gears of Life.


Jenn E Norton

Tributaries, 2022 Nuite Blanche (York University, Keele campus). 3D animated projector and AR installation that "portrayed the native and invasive species that live in the ever-changing forests, grassy ground and waterways of the area".


InterAccess, an artist-run electric media production facility in Toronto launched its 2021 fall season with the multisite augmented reality (AR) exhibition Geofenced. Curated by Karie Liao, the exhibition features four new digital art commissions by Canadian artists Scott Benesiinaabandan, Cat Bluemke & Jonathan Carroll, Adrienne Matheuszik, and Jenn E Norton. Curator Karie Liao reminds viewers/participants that AR content is presented through a “geofence” or a “virtual geographic boundary composed of GPS coordinates”. It is this undetectable fence that “enables software to trigger a response when the device enters or leaves the real world area” (InterAccess exhibition brochure).

In the Geofenced exhibition, five artists experiment with the invisible geofence boundary, oscillating the digital realm between the past, present and future. In her curatorial statement, Liao contextualizes the geofence as a metaphorical framework through which to consider how AR technologies alter the environment, either by making spaces more accessible or by creating new barriers”; a rich opportunity for artists to reposition reality and time.

The new home of InterAccess at 950 Dupont St. in Toronto was once home to the Hamilton Gear and Machine Company in previous eras.  Through her AR work In Careful Fitted Ground, time-based media artist Jenn E Norton unearths the historical incarnation of the industrial Dupont building through her two site-specific interactive AR animations of churning mechanical gears. On the interior gallery wall, each three-dimensional gear conceived through AR software is embossed with Emily Dickinson’s No Notice Gave She, but a Change (1863) encouraging the poetic stanzas to be rotated/altered by participating viewers. The original two-dimensional black and white painted forms on the wall become the support mechanism for Norton’s AR mastery. When activated, the painted forms in the gallery illuminate the guts of the 950 Dupont industrial-age building through grinding gears embedded with Dickinson’s embossed text.

Emily Dickinson, 2021

The artist’s exterior AR location unearths a cavernous pool from the building’s industrial past life through a fissure in the cement steps that lead to the gallery’s entrance. Like a swelling scar, the digital portal reveals the building’s previous cooling channel that was once used to solidify the burning hot gears produced at the factory. When activated, the digitized underground water source unites the historical manufacturing function of the building with Dickinson’s ever-changing poetry stanzas caught within the gears of time. Through her “careful fitted ground”, Norton uses a digital technology of the future to propel the industrial past into the crevices of the present.

Reaching back to the fifteenth century, Norton, Emily Pelstring and Edie Soleil from the Witches Institute recently repurposed the 1559 Witch of Malleghem engraving by Pieter van der Heydon, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder through AR technology to create After the Witch of Malleghem. In the original Witch of Mallaghem engraving, also referred to as “The Stone Operation”, a chaotic village scene depicts the operating witch and her assistants as they prepare to remove “stones of madness” from the heads of patients as a village crowd jeers and applauds the carnival of surgeries.

After The Witch Of Malleghem, 2021. This augmented-reality pop-up print remediates The Witch of Malleghem, a 1559 image by Pieter Brueghel the Elder depicting a witch and her assistants removing "stone of madness" from villagers' heads. Through dramatic re-enactments and re-animations of the figures in this work, we reflect on the visual rhetoric used to de-legitimize healing practices outside of the dominant patriarchal religious/medical establishment in Europe during the period. By artists Jenn E Norton, Edie Soleil, Emily Pelstring.

The three-person collective states on its site: “We insert our own camp humour into The Witch of Malleghem, leaning into the surrealism, grotesqueries, and absurdities of the original image and reclaim it with a sense of humour. Laughter, after all, is also a form of medicine”. As viewers’ devices are traced over the AR print, theatrical vignettes emerge from within the two-dimensional surface, giving rise to a cacophony of fifteenth-century surgical scenes where stones are physically/comically removed from the heads and posteriors of villagers. A combination of lost soul voices, ancient tower bells and contemporary digital sound notes set the tone for a parody of “the visual rhetoric used to de-legitimize healing practices outside of the dominant patriarchal religious/medical establishment in Europe during the period”.

One of the underlying themes of the print is to challenge the authoritative methodology/beliefs of the Christian medical establishment of the time that prescribed all healing powers to God. Women were maligned, preventing the healing powers of midwives, herbalists and nurses through accusations of sorcery and witchcraft that led to medieval persecutions, death sentences and tortures. 

The water mill, located in the upper left-hand corner of the engraving played a key role in Bruegel’s satire of the villagers. In the popular culture of the day in Germany and the Netherlands, the water mill represented the hope of turning dim-witted men into wiser men, curing them of their madness by churning grain-laden bags of folly into wisdom. In her The Water Mill in Bruegel’s Witch of Malleghem (1559)/Incurable Folly, Yona Pinson reminds readers that the mill in Bruegel’s engraving satirizes the Catholic establishment, while the re-enactments viewed through the collective’s AR technology reinforce an assumption that neither the tedious grinding of the mill nor the witches stone surgeries or acts of God can cure the folly of mankind in the village of Malleghem.

It's fortuitous that Norton’s attraction to water has led the artist to exhume vital liquid threads from the past that have played a crucial role in both mythologies and manufacturing processes. Without the essential fluid, neither the villager’s mill that was indispensable for trade/ industry of the time nor the 950 Dupont Hamilton Gears building that produced everything from the river locks of the St Lawrence seaway to the sliding roof of the Toronto’s domed stadium would have evolved into our contemporary reality. And yet, as the After the Witch of Mallaghem AR print illustrates, the folly of mankind persists.

Tributaries, 2022 (Nuite Blanche)

Jenn E Norton is an artist using time-based media to create immersive, experiential installations that reframe familiar objects, landscapes, and activities as fantastical, dreamlike occurrences. Using stereoscopic, interactive video, animation, augmented reality, sound, and kinetic sculpture, Norton’s installation work blurs the boundaries of virtual and physical realms. Norton’s imaginative video compositions of disjunctive imagery are bound together in post-production, using a combination of pre-cinema and contemporary display technologies. Recent exhibitions include Lorna Mills’ ‘Ways of Something’ in DREAMLANDS: IMMERSIVE CINEMA AND ART, 1905–2016 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in/future, at Ontario Place, and Slipstream at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery. She is currently a PhD candidate in Visual Arts at York University. (InterAccess brochure biography)