materialising the digital

One theme evident in the work of several artists is materialising the digital. This idea is taken up in different ways by artists, from giving material form to digital information and data to opening up the ‘black box’ of technology to reveal the inner workings of the infrastructure.

American artist Evan Roth’s Internet Cache Self Portrait Series prints uncensored streams of images encountered through daily internet browsing. For a designated time period, Roth ‘cached’ or collected and stored all images he came across when using the internet on his computer and then later printed these onto rolls of vinyl in an uncurated and uncategorised manner. The work is described as a ‘self-portrait’ of the artist and is composed of faces of ‘friends’ from social media, corporate logos, extracts from Google maps and banner advertisements.

evan-roth-internet-cache
Evan Roth 2013, ‘Internet cache self portrait series’, Courtesy of Wesleyan University

When the immateriality of online engagements are manifest in this way, not only is the amount of information remarkable, but so too is the divergent and diverse nature of the information encountered. Photos of friends and loved ones sit alongside advertisements and logos in what appears to be a never-ending print roll of images. The human component of search – the sifting, sorting and curating of information – is also absent from this work, bringing a type of ‘equality’ to the images and icons engaged with.

Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda explores the vast universe of data through sound and image. Ikeda’s datamatics series (2006 – present) uses a range of digital techniques including audiovisual concerts, installations, publications and CD releases to ‘materialise pure data’. To do this Ikeda extracts each single pixel of a visual image using precise mathematical equations and creates vast visualisations of data. These works are projected seamlessly onto walls and floors, so that the viewer is literally immersed in data:

ikeda-data-tron
Ryoji Ikeda 2009, data.tron, 8 DLP projectors, computers, 9.2ch sound system, W16.0 x H9.0 x D9.0 m

While data is now integrated into many aspects of contemporary society, it is largely invisible and beyond conception. In these works, Ikeda materialises the immaterial to change the way viewers see and interact with data. Not only does the series highlight the immense nature of data, but through the immersive quality of the work the viewer is encouraged to explore the vast universe of data in the infinite between 0 and 1. At the same time, these works have a political dimension, alluding to the substantial role that data now play in coding space and time.

Taking a slightly different approach, several artists have created work based around the idea of opening the ‘black box’ of technology. As the term suggests, the ‘black box’ is typically the parts of technology that are purposely hidden from the user by the designers or creators; the artists working with this idea try to remove the black box to reveal the inner workings of the machine. Trevor Paglen’s Autonomy Cube is a sculpture designed to be seen and used by visitors. While the visual element of the work is based on exposing the hardware, several internet connected computers housed within the work create an open Wi-Fi hotspot. Viewers can join this network, however, it routes to the Tor network, a global network of thousands of volunteer-run servers, relays, and services designed to conceal a user’s location and usage

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Trevor Pagan 2016, Autonomy Cube, courtesy of the artist

Paglen’s work operates on several levels. At first, it appears to be in the tradition of the ‘readymade’, an everyday object that has become ‘art’ for being displayed in a gallery. However, decontextualised and stripped of its outer casing the technology takes on a different meaning, invoking a simultaneous mix of ambivalence and intrigue in the viewer. On one hand the wires and gadgetry of the work appear banal and hardly worth contemplation, but on the other they appear uncanny or strange, revealing something about the specificity and singularity of the technology. But as the functionality of the technology is somewhat removed or suspended from the viewer’s experience, the technology is cast in a new light. Indeed, opening the black box also means opening up the potential for other possibilities and applications of the technology, as the purpose of the object is no longer certain, but instead open for interpretation. Through this decontextualisation joining the Tor network appears an equal possibility for the viewer/user to consider, both in the gallery and beyond.

In another of Paglen’s works he uses a powerful telescopic lens to photograph the telecommunication cables that lie deep under the Atlantic. As he explains, much of the modern-day surveillance system exists metaphorically in people’s mind. Through this work he aims to capture the inner workings of this system. While these cables are owned by telecommunications companies, the NSA offers the company money to access these cables at ‘choke points’, the colloquial term for the coastal landings sites of these cables or shallow points were the cables converge.

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Trevor Paglen 2016, Tapped Undersea Cables, North Pacific Ocean

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