Constant Screen (2012) limited edition poster to accompany 'Constant Screen' video installation
Much has been made of our networked present’s utopic possibilities, but it feels like a wave of anxiety and skepticism is emerging to counter the web optimism of individuals like Clay Shirkey. Is it right to read your work as an investigation into how usage of the Internet may not be altering how we think, feel, and interact for the better?
At the heart of my practice there is tension between fascination and wariness with new technologies, specifically the meshing of mobile telecommunications devices and the Internet. It is not an ambivalent position but it is conflicted. So yes - in part.
On the one hand I am intensely excited by the simultaneous nature of display, consumption and production that these interfaces encourage. I also understand the conditions of the digital (binary code that can be endlessly replicated) as fundamentally supporting information overload and excess, but see so many possibilities in embracing the torrent of information rather than attempting to oppose it.
At exactly the same time, I am wary and perhaps even frightened at moments. I can be a bit of a conspiracy theorist and as Internet space becomes ever-more commodified and our online lives are increasingly channeled through multi-national companies I do worry. I don’t, for example, like the feeling of being locatable through the GPS facility on my phone. I am a bit of a McLuhanite (I keep returning to, and re-turning ‘the Gutenberg Galaxy’) and when he states “any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment”, my response is to question what type of human environment is now being created and what type of human? Are these rapidly mutating environments ones that are conducive to human beings – or at least the human being I want to be?
Last year I spent quite a lot of time researching case studies of Internet addiction. And I think about this, as I lie awake at 3am browsing news stories on my smartphone feeding my insomnia rather than sleeping. I think about this, as I sit on the London Underground and everyone is on their mobile phone, e-book reader, or games console. And yet I can Skype my brother in Australia, half a world away and see his face in real time.
So I suppose I’m happy with this tension as I find it very productive as an artist. It feels quite honest too. Technological utopias and dystopias exist at once and together.
We previously talked about how smart phones and other portable technological apparatus are making the phenomenon of spatial and temporal displacement an everyday thing: a person can be standing on a train platform in London, speaking to a friend in Beijing, and checking a news feed from Cairo. I wonder, what are your thoughts on the rapid development of augmented reality?
I think it is the pace of change that makes it a very exciting time to make artworks. We are living at a time of incredibly rapid technological and social change with the rise of network culture. We are increasingly immersed in the digital, as Eric Freedman states “Computational space has become part of lived space”. Our perception of ‘lived space’ is now one of augmented reality, where vessels of the virtual are an intrinsic part of our intimate communications and immediate surroundings. Living in this moment is in many ways utterly confusing as well as intensely exciting; how can we formulate anything that is a response when everything is constantly new?
This constant newness means it’s more difficult to really familiarize yourself with something – to develop expertise or interrogate what something does at a deeper than surface level. However it is important to realize this rapid technological change is not happening to everyone everywhere. I have real concerns about the technological divide. If you look at the statistics of global Internet access you can see how the access to these technologies is entrenching global inequalities. And on a more local level there are sections of the population in the UK left out of numerous conversations by these changes.
In a way it feels like we’re living in a time where the physical and virtual realms have already collapsed into each other. In a way I can see traces of this idea within your work. Is it something you are interested in?
Yes. I am intensely interested in the interplay between the physical and the virtual, and how reality is vested and shared over both realms. Because of this I don’t talk or think about the virtual and the real in oppositional terms. Maybe this has always been the case in the sense of the virtual world of the imagination existing alongside and within the physical world. But the virtual world as it is articulated now is very different. Hito Steyerl describes digital circulation as being “about an audiovisual politics of intensity… about how to be immersed without drowning, or to be embedded without falling asleep and happily surrendering your feelings to a pervasive military-entertainment complex.” This virtual is a specific set of constructs that are ever-increasingly commodified and colonized by geo-political and commercial forces – but also populated by masses of user-generated content – home-made videos, unending blogs and so on. I see the intersection between these two realms of technology super-powers and the individual summed up in the aesthetics of the backstreet mobile shop, and the domestic familiarity of hand-held devices.
In my artworks I try and explore the physical properties of this virtual. The wiring, servers, LED lights, reflective screens, aluminum casings, the motherboards, tiny memory cards –and the physical activity of the body as we interact with it. This is why in my installation ‘Constant Screen’ against a large back-projected screen I decided to show some moving image works specifically made for displaying on small screens such as mp3 players. All the wiring formed part of a network drawing that enmeshed the viewer.
How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?
I have a background in sculpture and installation and although I have been responding conceptually to the Internet in my work since 2006, it is only since 2011 that I have started to engage with moving image and digital artworks.
Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?
During my time at the post-graduate diploma at Chelsea College of Art and Design, our course leader Babak Ghazi really pushed us to do something in a territory we were unfamiliar with. I had never made a video up to this point and felt like it was a good opportunity to try something new. It started a whole chain of experiments, which I am still conducting.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I did my undergraduate at Liverpool School of Art (now the Art and Design Academy at Liverpool John Moores), then a post-graduate diploma followed by an MA at Chelsea. It’s all been interdisciplinary fine art.
What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?
I am really still interested in collage, and in a methodology of collage as a way of understanding and making sense of the ‘Infosphere’. I think in a sense for me everything is digital now – in terms of my ontological condition fundamentally changing – so notions of the traditional and new technology merge. The properties of the medium maybe traditional but the approach to using it is what’s more important.
Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?
I have been involved in discussions with AIR (Artist’s Interactions and Representation) about developing a campaign on artists getting paid. So often the assumption is that you will pay the AV technician for work done for an exhibition but not the artist. I don’t think that’s right – if both experts are necessary both should be paid. I’m also involved from time to time with Artisan which is a network of media, arts and fashion creatives who are interested in Christian spirituality. I’ve been involved in setting up and running a couple of artist-led projects in Liverpool but not yet in London.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?
I’m self-employed and get the majority of my income through artist educator freelance work, though I’ve also done some commissioned work, residencies and some arts project management. With the artist educator stuff I mostly work in gallery contexts at the moment, with organizations like the South London Gallery and TATE. I focus on working with participants on creating a discursive space where critical thinking and questioning can take place – this is an approach that underlies my own practice.
Who are your key artistic influences?
Cripes! This changes but consistently for a couple of years I have returned to Hito Steyerl and Jason Rhoades’ work.
Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project? With whom, and on what?
I stopped collaborating for a couple of years with other artists as I can be a little bit autistic and really get sucked into projects in an intense way and I felt that I needed to step back from some collaborative stuff to focus again on my own practice. I’m considering a few possibilities again at the moment and just starting a research residency with the MFI group at John Latham’s Flat Time House.
Do you actively study art history?
Yes where it intersects with a line of questioning I’m following.
Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?
In addition to the artists and theorists I’ve already mentioned Shaviro’s ‘Post-Cinematic’, BAVO’s ‘ The Art of Over-identification’ and Franco Bifo Berardi’s ‘The Soul at Work’ have both been really helpful over the last year.
Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?
I think the display aspect can be really challenging because the nature of the medium means it can be viewed on so many different platforms. I struggle sometimes between wanting to really control this and the work to be seen in a set way and wanting the work to live in different ways.