Totally Turned On, Entangled in Celestial Bodies


Alice Combs’ installation Total Turn On at Counterpulse, San Francisco

My first step through the door was blind. I heard voices coaxing me into the darkness. Navigating a space with very minute colorful lights was destabilizing. Cords hung down from the power sources and lights above, draping the space. As viewers naturally moved toward the lights to see they became more entangled.

The culmination of a two-week residency at Counterpulse, Combs’ Total Turn On was installed in the basement project space, a former porn theater. The space was strategically filled with power strips plugged beyond capacity, creating clusters of active indicator lights, and myriads of cords. The clusters were positioned with spaces between them— there would be a “hot spot” of lights adjacent to a dark void.

Alice Combs, Total Turn On, Counterpulse, March 7, 2017. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Alice Combs, Total Turn On, Counterpulse, March 7, 2017. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

A moment of clarity— one discovers that the voids indicate walkways, giving gravitational weight to the sites of light. Just as the power being sucked from the power strips and plugged in apparatus creates a central collection of electrical energy, these clusters draw in the eye. Like moths to the flame, the work becomes alluring, drawing the viewer towards the clusters of light, and concurrently towards a snarl of cords. And as eyes adjusted, the networks became clear—the “hotspots” invoke celestial bodies, both with a sense of gravitational pull and an array of clustered light similar to galaxies. The limitless but confined installation offers an uncanny experience of the looking at the stars through banal electrical plugs that illicit a feeling of claustrophobia—- tangled in the cords. Both entrapped and extraterrestrial, viewers were caught in flux between the imagination and physical reality.

Alice Combs, Total Turn On, Counterpulse, March 7, 2017. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Alice Combs, Total Turn On, Counterpulse, March 7, 2017. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Combs’ choice of material offers a visceral response to viewers as they navigate the space. The ubiquity of tangled cords used constantly in daily life— from headphones to cell phone chargers - offered a tactile experience, one at times physically jarring. This led to a cautious frame through which to see the larger installation. One must view the clusters from a slight distance, the closer a viewer investigates the work the more entangled they become. From a distance, as eyes adjust, the craft and strategy of the installation can be understood. One begins to recognize material, offering another access point to engagement. The connections of the individual objects resonated with the commonality of these clusters in our daily lives, charging our various devices. The artist began this visual inquiry by unpacking the power implied by the words “turned on.” Playing out both the utility the binary of “on” and “off” of devices, but also by creating a seductive space that turned the viewers’ attention “on,” and, like a siren, pulling them toward eminent entanglement.

Combs presents a visual aesthetic to a tangled contemporary reality in which we hide behind desks and under beds. In this way, she unearths the unique and beautiful potential of the things we often obscure, though we need them to carry out our daily lives.

Tim Kopra is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Oakland, California. He illustrates an altered perspective of the social and physical infrastructure in daily life. Tim’s process is based in experimentation, including interactions with public spaces and in-studio investigations into everyday objects. His decision making is guided by physical, academic, and experiential research carried out in both traditional and untraditional ways. The language of architecture and the history held in urban debris collide in his aesthetic.

Alice Combs, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) MFA program in Painting, uses everyday materials like human hair, blueprints, and rusty metal, manipulated through repetitive and laborious processes, to create assemblage drawings and sculpture to address the aspirational bases of individual and collective action.

Alice Combs’ installation was accessible for only one evening, but thorough documentation and a brief interview can be found here. You can explore more of Alice Combs’ work and practice at

Counterpulse is currently located at 80 Turk Street in San Francisco, just off Market. It has been a vibrant institution supporting experimental and interdisciplinary creative production for 25 years, previously in SoMa. Often focusing on dance and performance, Counterpulse seeks to offer opportunities for emerging experimental work with a focus on catalyzing art and action while maintaining an open site for dialogue, with an emphasis on making their space open and accessible to everyone.