Relating to the digital//Recoding human gestures

 

Humans emerge and define themselves in relation to technology. The dynamics of this relationship, and the latent fears and concerns it evokes, have provided rich material for many creative projects over the years. Film directors, for example, have tended to see the relationship humans have with technology in dystopian terms, predicting an apocalyptic domination by machines[1]. At the other extreme, are computer scientists and web designers who tend to see technology as simply a neutral tool that humans can use to improve efficiency or solve a problem. Between these two extremes are more nuanced theoretical approaches to exploring this relationship, which are characterised by a tension between the structured routines and pathways implicit in the technology, and the agency and intentions the individual brings to their use.

One artist exploring this tension is Eric Pickersgill. In his series of photographs, Removed, people are shown engaging with their mobile devices in everyday situations – on the parkbench, watching television, doing the shopping – yet they are not in possession of a mobile device:

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Eric Pickersgill, 2017, photograph from the Removed series.

 

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Eric Pickersgill, 2017, photograph from the Removed series.

Captured in each photograph is a sense of boredom or resignation, indicated by the facial expressions and body language of each ‘character’. Even when two people are shown in a photograph together, they appear socially isolated, having little to no engagement with their immediate environment or each other. Of course these scenes are familiar to us, however, upon close inspection the absence of the digital device is revealed and the scene is defamiliarised. ‘Defamiliarisation’, as an aesthetic technique, can be traced back to the work of Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky (1917/1965), who wrote that art is a technique of thinking with images. Shklovsky writes that humans are inclined to adopt an ‘alegbraic’ method of thought in which perception becomes ‘over-automatised’ or reliant on recognition, as opposed to seeing things in their entirety. Through defamiliarisation the process of perception is prolonged and becomes ‘an aesthetic end in itself’ (p.12), so the viewer might perceive things as they are, rather than as they are known or thought to be.

Another work that seeks to disrupt the semiotics of the digital is Lisa Gye and Darren Tofts’ The Secret Gestural Prehistory of Mobile Devices. The work is an online repository of photographs and paintings that capture people displaying gestures that appear to anticipate a future with digital technologies. The catch is of course these images were taken well before mobile devices were invented:

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Gye & Tofts, 2010 – present, The Secret Gestural Prehistory of Mobile Devices, Unidentified jogger, Central Park, New York City, 1976.
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Gye & Tofts, 2010- present, The Secret Gestural Prehistory of Mobile Devices, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, Havana Beach, 1965.

 

What’s interesting about these images – beyond the fact that they capture an array of interesting, sometimes unseen moments throughout history – is that they reveal an intimate connection between the hand, the ear, the eye and the mouth that predates mobile digital technologies. Although Gye and Tofts’ goal with this project was to critically remix an ‘image’s semiotic DNA’[2] this collection of images also encourages us to reconsider the automated manner in which we relate to and interpret digital technologies. When reading these images today, we inevitably frame our interpretations through the semiotics of the digital. Indeed, these uncanny gestures are given a function when coupled with an iPad or a mobile phone. Gye and Toft’s suggest these images foreshadow the technologies that will eventually ‘resolve these postural gestures into a meaningful function’[3].

These artists encourage the viewer to reflect on various aspects of our relationship with digital technology. Pickersgill’s work is about the power of technology to disconnect us from the embodied moments in our life, from the banal to the spectacular. In reality this is a choice that the individual makes, however, through the expression of the characters, the stillness of the composition and their black and white colour, this appears a ‘forced choice’, and far from enjoyable. Indeed, this series of photographs is the antidote to the glossy imagery that is normally used to promote digital technologies. By contrast Gye and Toft’s series highlights the idea that the gestures and postures associated with personal moments in some way pre-empted or shaped the functionality and design of the mobile digital technologies, suggesting that the digital has always been iteratively related to embodiment and the analogue. Using the technique of defamiliarisation, both works encourage the viewer to think about the less obvious issue of how human experience is inflected with the digital. Each evokes a tension between the agency of the individual and the structuring capabilities of digital technologies, encouraging the viewer to reflect on the extent to which human behaviour is either shaped by or shaping of mobile digital devices.

[1] One only needs to think of films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the Terminator series (1984- 2015), or Alex Garland’s Ex-Machina (2015).

[2] Tofts, D. & Gye, L. 2014, “A gesture in search of a purpose: A prehistory of mobility” in ed. Aceti, L. & Thomas, P. Interference Strategies, Leonardo Electronic Almanac, vol. 20 issue

[3] Gye & Tofts, 2011, see: http://www.secretprehistory.net

 

 

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