Dense Mesh, curated by Joshua Citarella at Carroll/Fletcher, London, UK, April 14 - May 25th, 2016
works by Lisha Bai, Ryan Lauderdale, Hannah Levy, Michael Jones McKean, Wyatt Niehaus, Kate Steciw, Chris Wiley
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At the close of 2011, I first encountered Into the Universe of Technical Images (1985) by Vilem Flusser, a text which has since cast significant influence on my practice. As a practitioner who came of age in the midst of our culture's analog/digital transition, the text resonated with my personal experience in a way few others had or have since. It felt as if a prophetic map of the future, that had somehow been lost to history, was now uncovered.|
As an artist exploring the space between the digital photograph and sculptural object, Flusser's thinking held special significance because it seemed to posit the image itself at the center of radicality. It suggested that the production and distribution networks of the 21st century would restructure society. This hypothesis seemed right at the time.
The past few years have been a process of understanding Flusser's philosophy as the basis for a critical practice concerned with technical images while also methodically stripping away its utopian claims. Within a more well rounded view, informed by recent history and the practical effects of the implementation of these technologies, it becomes clear that many of Flusser's hopes have failed to come to fruition.
Dense Mesh is a culmination of the ideas, practices and objects which have lead me to understand our globally networked contemporary landscape as something largely dystopian with few but notable glimmers of hope.
Vilem Flusser's Into the Universe of Technical Images (1985) describes the possibility for a utopian technological future, an information society which consists of individuals exchanging technical images.
|We are the first generation to command the power to envision in the strict sense of the word, and all vision, imagination, and fictions of the past must pale in comparison to our images. We are about to reach a level of consciousness in which the search for deep coherence, explanation, enumeration, narration, and calculation, in short, and historical, scientific, and textually linear thinking is being surpassed by a new, visionary, superficial mode of thinking.1|
|In many instances Flusser prophetically anticipates today's new modes of digital image production and the revolutionary effect of internet communications technology. The three decade old text speaks at times with stunning accuracy to our contemporary experience. Flusser's mode of thinking, envisioning as the process which gives form to information, seems to bear a closer resemblance to today's technical images (photography-with-software and the digital rendering) than any previously established model. Much of the text is spent describing the ways in which technical images will soon restructure society.|
|Taking contemporary technical images as a starting point, we find two divergent trends. One moves toward a centrally programmed, totalitarian society of image receivers and image administrators, the other toward a dialogic, telematic society of image producers and image collectors.2|
Flusser has high hopes for us; "this is when they will become truly human for the first time... the telematic society, this 'information society' in the true sense of the word, will be the first genuinely free society." His telematic society consists of many individual users engaged in a "combination game"; players exchanging endlessly revised technical images, whose content becomes increasingly improbable. The combination game is a collective practice which aims to generate new information within a post-historic society.|
The extensively outlined model of this telematic society has a topology not unlike the rhizomatic network, where "any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be".4 Each hypothesizes a structure which allows for any individual node (human or non) to freely engage in a direct, frictionless and non-hierarchical exchange with any other.
Several years after speculating the rhizome Deleuze offered a markedly more skeptical perspective. Building on the concept of societies of sovereignty and disciplinary societies 5, he makes direct mention of the means through which a newly emerging power structure will soon take hold: "control societies function with a third generation of machines, with information technology and computers."6 This concept of a fascistic control society is in many ways analogous to Flusser's "global totalitarian apparatus"; an interconnected web of keys and functionaries, where the technical characteristics of the apparatus begin to govern and in-form the structure of our society.
The current state and mechanisms of our present control society is most precisely diagrammed by Alexander Galloway in what he calls the distributed network.7 Galloway takes a comprehensive view of the actual technologies that regulate and protocologically exercise control over communication within networked culture, mapping how control exists after decentralization.
We may draw an analogy between the telematic society and the rhizome, and from the totalitarian apparatus to the control society. Here, Galloway may serve as a lingua franca between these two parallel philosophies and as a tether to contemporaneity by which we may examine the degrees to which each has come to fruition.
Galloway's model of the distributed network encompasses elements of both Flusser's telematic society and the totalitarian apparatus, revealing their dual nature. While the expansion of communication networks may create platforms which offer a voice to the voiceless, it is also that which lays the framework for control.
|Making a phone call from the slums of Cairo or Mumbai or Paris, the subaltern "speaks" into a database - just as much as I do when I pick up the phone. The difference for difference is no longer actual, it is technical. The subaltern speaks, and somewhere an algorithm listens.8|
In their practical application we find these two divergent trends of technical images inextricably coupled together.
Flusser argues that there is a means through which we may push back against the totalitarianism of the aparatus. Chris Wiley echoes; "artists are attempting to carve a way forward by rethinking photographic subjectivity. They are, in other words, working at the task of what philosopher Vilem Flusser, in his increasingly influential text Towards A Philosophy of Photography (1983), deemed to be the essence of experimental photography: 'to create a space for human intention in a world dominated by apparatuses."9,10 Flusser suggests that the answer resides within the social fabric of our communication networks. He describes a first wave of revolutionaries, those who "reconstruct the role of images in society" in order to subvert the global totalitarian apparatus and bend it to serve a democratic function.11
|Is it possible to reorganize the images' fascistic, totalitarian circuitry? Yes, telematics could make it possible. It is a technology of dialogue, and if the images circulated dialogically totalitarianism would give way to a democratic structure.12|
Yet here we arrive at the underlying problem within Flusser's philosophy, not only that technical images seem to have a relatively small effect toward horizontally restructuring society but that the technologies of image production themselves have always held integral and reciprocal relationships with other seemingly diverse, more nefarious fields. As exemplified in the distributed network, both aspects necessarily co-exist.
The very same process of technologization which bolsters the fields of communication and image production, is also that which facilitates factory automation and the war machine. They are two inseparable facets of the same larger program, the history of which stretches out long before and after Flusser's text.
Siegfried Kracauer describes the double face of modernity in the relationship between the Fordist assembly line and the amusement park,13,14 as does Walter Benjamin in his notion of shock.15 Gean Moreno summates; "The shock of the assembly line was tempered by the controlled shock of the roller coaster."16 A formal similarity can be observed in the mechanisms of the conveyor belt and the chain lift.
In 1947, Harold Edgerton, a leading figure in the field of high speed photography, (today commonly known for his iconic image Bullet through Apple, 1964), along with Kenneth Germeshausen and Herbert Grier, are given a contract with the Atomic Energy Commission to document nuclear explosions as part of the Manhattan Project. The resulting rapatronic camera features a non-mechanical shutter with such unprecedented precision that its accuracy out performs that of the trigger for the nuclear detonation itself. This new shutter technology is then incorporated into the trigger system for the Hydrogen bomb which marks the formation of EG&G Inc, a major defense company which still exists today.17,18
This same dynamic is clearly evident now. Digital communication networks allow users to organize and voice political dissent, yet at the same time also give way to government and for-profit monitoring. While the web allows for an appearance of horizontality and nourishes the nichification of culture it is also subject to hierarchical protocols. During times of civil unrest, as was seen during the Arab Spring, domain name service (DNS) may be shutdown to entire nations at once, effectively dampening if not altogether silencing the possibility for free speech.19
Smart devices incorporate geolocation, wireless signals and high resolution digital camera sensors, each of which have their own respective roles correlating to the deadly precision of drone strikes.20 The tools which guide one are also that which guide the other. As the features of our mobile devices improve, so does the exactitude of our war machines.
It seems that Flusser's repeated insistence on the visionary power of technical images is rooted in the idea of technology as a tool guided by or employed in the expression of a human subjectivity. By many accounts it appears that the model Flusser had feared, the totalitarian apparatus, has more likely become manifest. It now seems as if all trajectories of technology more likely point toward the impending exclusion of a human subjectivity.
The factory floor is automated. It is not air conditioned or heated or lit. It operates automatically and in complete darkness, unintended for and unfit for the presence of human bodies.21,22 Wyatt Niehaus' Lights Out series points to the present state of the factory. While automation may promise to deliver us into a post-work society, in its practical application it has at every historical juncture only displaced human workers into further marginalized positions.
K Composition (Factory - Open Floor Plan), 2015, employs the same production techniques realized by the lights out robots themselves, mimicking a fetishized form of the factory's output. The Kawasaki "K" is mounted with air-release graphic film, the same vinyl which is applied to cars and other machines, over a base of automotive primer paint.
The 20th century gave rise to various utopian visions which forecast a consummate technological future. These grand social and technological projects have presently arrived in a quite disillusioning form. In Ryan Lauderdale's work the ideological remnants of this retro-future now deteriorate alongside newly refined forms. Minimalist surfaces and the people-flows of Brutalism here coexist with something distinctly more calculated, almost alien, a future society whose mathematical precision resembles fluid dynamics. It seems to allow no space for the human.
Hannah Levy presents us with ergonomic forms which make reference to the body yet offer no intuitive functionality. Absent utility for any past or present human physiology, they point towards the possibility of a transhuman future. Blankets of fleshy silicon become reminiscent of 3D printed graftable skin. The uncanny simulation of biological forms, stripped of their innate value; a consciousness, suggests a dehumanizing and material objectification of the body without a soul.
Kate Steciw and Chris Wiley each individually engage in practices which mirror Flusser's concept of the combination game; aleatory processes of recoding available flows of signs into unconventional or implausible pairings.
Steciw navigates the algorithmic logic of search engines and stock photography websites. She collects digital images connected through descriptive keywords to form a constellation of interconnected commodities. This source material is spliced together within sculptural space, condensing image, representation, production, and distribution into a singular object, offering a totalizing view of the photographic universe.
Wiley takes influence from the social and cultural significance of the city of Los Angeles, exploring the ideological implications of its Dingbat architecture. These purely aesthetic, space age modernist exteriors popular in the 1950's and 60's have since begun to crumble. They literally and metaphorically reveal themselves as an ornamental veneer concealing a structurally weak foundation. Wiley describes his unconventional frames as a token of the ersatz. They function to satirically misdirect our attention toward the exterior, conflating bizarre and idiosyncratic references, skewing taste levels by comedically intertwining kitsch at unexpected junctures. "Edge and center combine within the interface binding together the frame and the work. Interfaces thus link both inside and outside."23
Lisha Bai's Bricks (67.5 units), 2016, a composition of loose slabs stacked into a colored gradient, functions as a material enactment of digital image production. As the concept is given form it acquires a resolution. Its physical manifestation becomes a process of literal interpolation; each brick as a unit or pixel within a larger mosaic bitmap, each particulate grain of sand joining as constituent elements in the resolution of a concrete brick. The conspicuous indentation of the artist's hands upon two individual blocks shows her envisioning in a fundamentally Flusserian mode; pulling from the abstract to make illusory concepts graspable.24
Expanding on the accelerated obsolescence of technological devices, Michael Jones McKean critically zooms out from this relatively shortsighted timeline to a larger than human scale. We begin to understand objects as having an impending obsolesce within themselves. Objects appear like physical batteries; material recycled and transmuted into new flows, they act as a means of holding energy within a very temporary form. A notion which can be applied equally, and somewhat unnervingly, to our own bodies as well.
Within this almost cosmic scope the significance of a human subjectivity seems to wane drastically. The nostalgia attached to a vision of man without technology now appears tremendously arrogant, unnecessarily privileging a human consciousness, fetishistically extracting one small piece that is merely the product of a much larger ecology.
The existential crisis inherent within such a line of philosophical inquiry is counter-balanced with a newly found and sublime sense of inter-connectedness similar to nirvana. We, our bodies and the artifacts we produce, as well as our environment, are the product of flows of energy that are cosmic and universal in scale. The transmission of solar energy from the distant star Tau Ceti becomes as present and familiar as our immediate surroundings.
From this broadened perspective, the idea of technology as a self-destructive, evolutionary force seems an organic occurrence, merely a pattern in nature. But this is then perhaps where Flusser's argument now makes a newly invigorated return; when we acknowledge that it is in fact only human subjectivity which imbues our world with meaning.
|Therefore our illusions are not things we should abandon to fall into nirvana but rather are quite the opposite, our answer to the yawning nothingness... The veil of technical images that surrounds us is not to be torn but rather woven more and more closely... [an] increasingly dense mesh.25|
It seems as if Flusser's concept of the totalitarian apparatus, hypothesized in 1985, has today come to fruition in the form of climate change, the intelligent war machine, the surveillance state, factory automation and the seemingly unavoidable, locked in place, systemic flows which forecast an inevitable and catastrophic end to the anthropocene.
Can communications technology serve as a vehicle for social change? How does one negotiate the envisioning power of technical images, which unlock unprecedented degrees of creative agency for humanity, against what appears to be the immanent downwards trajectory of human value through technological progression? Is there a possibility within the dialogical fabric of networked culture to enact a meaningful social restructuring and so push back against the totalitarianism of the apparatus?
1, Vilem Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images p.38 (1985); 2, p.4; 3, p.94; 4, Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (1980); 5, Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975); 6, Gilles Deleuze, Post Script on Societies of Control (1990); 7, Alexander Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (2004); 8, Alexander Galloway, The Interface Effect (2012); 9, Chris Wiley, "Depth of Focus." Frieze, 1 November (2011); 10, Vilem Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography p.75 (1983); 11, Vilem Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images p.76 (1985); 12, Vilem Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images p.171 (1985); 13, Siegfried Kracauer, "Roller Coaster", Frankfurter Zeitung, 14 July (1928); 14, Siegfried Kracauer, "Organized Happiness: On the Reopening of the Lunapark", Frankfurter Zeitung, 7 May (1930); 15, Walter Benjamin, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" (1939); 16, Gean Moreno and Michael Jones McKean, "Dark Psychedelia", DIS Magazine (2014); 17, http://edgerton-digital-collections.org/docs-life/egg-the-company; 18, Trevor Paglen, "Frontier Photography", Art Forum, March (2009); 19, James Glanz and John Markoff, "Egypt Leaders Found 'Off' Switch for Internet", The New York Times, 15 February (2011); 20, Grégoire Chamayou, A Theory of the Drone (2015); 21, http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/02/europe/germany-volkswagen-robot-kills-worker/; 22, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/worker-killed-by-robot-in-welding-accident-at-car-parts-factory-in-india; 23, Alexander Galloway, "Interfaces", Flusseriana (2015); 24, Vilem Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images p.38 (1985); 25, p.39