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Increasingly today our expectation and definition of freedom is being muddied with our need for greater accessibility and functionality; our passwords are remembered by Google, our plane tickets stored by Apple, our photos owned by Facebook. As the operating systems we use to interface our interaction with the world update (so that as we have freer and unimpeded access) the more our personal data is owned by corporations and held within their sprawling, subterranean server farms, mockingly stylised as ‘the cloud’.1 Our actions are increasingly more distanced and remotely enacted by software—through ‘signing’ verbose terms and conditions and regular day-to-day usage, the user has generated a latent, complicit agreement surrounding the legality and pervasiveness of these practices.
For Brisbane-based artist Chris Howlett, society’s immersed position within technology and virtual communities offers a unique opportunity to create art from new perspectives. Howlett’s two new exhibitions share one name—New Dawn, inspired by the artist’s channel surfing between two similar, but geographically distant, news stories. At Boxcopy, New Dawn features a looped four channel video work, presented on a custom-built, abstract lightning-bolt-shaped plinth. Scuttling between found news footage and in-game video, the mostly low resolution images float in a flat, moving grid. Cel shading is applied to give a graphic novel quality. Sources vary and mass content battles for primacy. The images are incredibly diverse; Grand Theft Auto 4 modded characters of Homer Simpson, Mickey Mouse, a Stormtrooper and jihadist, run through a CGI version of Times Square; stills of Langley, the CIA’s headquarters; Chelsea Manning; Edward Snowden as Where’s Wally; a Guy Fawkes mask; an Old Spice deodorant ad; kids firing assault rifles; an Assassin’s Creed 3 game jostling with user video of a home-made wrist blade; a flaming sword and gas masks; Satanist priests; a BBC news story on the Eurozone rescue plan; evangelical fits; robotic prosthetic limbs; Voyager 1 passing Saturn; a zoom out of the components of a motherboard, mixed with a zoom out from deep space; people throwing themselves out the windows of a flaming World Trade Center. The soundtrack compiles what sounds like multiple YouTube reaction videos—responses from users recorded via their webcams and uploaded for comment. From New Dawn’s heady plurality we struggle to gather any narrative or logic. Despite the sheer mass of everything we have seen, the weight of the information is so light that it is borne by a few writable DVDs. Beneath the Ferrari red-coloured plinth something living has been crushed to death, comic book yellow liquid oozes on to the gallery floor.
At Metro Arts, New Dawn takes on a different character. Carrying over the same plinths, hundreds of minutely detailed objects float above the gallery floor, including rotting junk food, mobile phones, severed limbs, cigarettes, calculators and a low res, ‘poor image’ of a Nesquik cereal box. An ice cream cone is half submerged in a hexagonal canvas painted Neapolitan pink. The objects themselves are a mix of handmade and 3D printed. The facsimiles connect with Howlett’s sculptural practice—with some handmade copies cast from their real world counterparts and others shaped purely from the artist’s imagination. Differentiation is difficult. Digital mediation for Howlett inevitably means obfuscation. A recent article in Pitchfork nicely crystallises this argument. With the recent ‘revival’ of vinyl record culture, we appear to be re-embracing the ‘more real’ quality of the past, that ‘tactile crackle’ that we associate with authenticity. In actuality, often we are unaware these vinyl records are remastered from the digital file.2 The lesson here is an old one (and one much more ably handled by Jean Baudrillard)—that any return to an ‘authentic’ experience is utopian and unrealistic. Our experiences are inscrutably etched into the surface of our being and cannot be shaken off.
Both the Boxcopy and Metro Arts components of New Dawn grapple with the multiple perspectives and views that we as users have of the world around us. As Hito Steyerl argues in her 2011 essay In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment in Vertical Perspective, our vision of the world is no longer linear, out towards the horizon.3 Instead, we look down from above in ‘God’s eye view’. Drones in the air currently target insurgents using infrared cameras from a height of 10,000 feet.4 DARPA, the US Department of Defence’s secretive research arm, is currently deploying the ‘Gorgon Stare’, camera equipment mounted on a single drone that can capture a super resolution video of an entire city, the footage’s definition so complex that it requires processing by 2,000 intelligence analysts.5 In Howlett’s Boxcopy exhibition, the eye of the satellite zooms and pans effortlessly, as if strutting. Our capabilities to understand the world are significantly outstripped by our technology’s ability to record it. As Howlett (and Steyerl) notes, high resolution increasingly also brings with it a social status.6 Near the end of the film, a purple skinned, muscular man blindly falls down a cliff face in constant motion, the action presented realistically thanks to physics engines that ensure a body hitting stone in reality is properly equated in the virtual world.
Despite the pessimistic tone, Howlett remains optimistic that technology can still provide opportunities for resistance. In the accompanying interview with Mathias Jansson, Howlett places his hope in the modding community and sketches out a speculative online space that ‘actively promotes creativity, debate, self-expression and a truly democratic approach to sharing personally relevant information’.7 Steyerl also fights back, riling up against presumptions that ‘poor images’, the fluid, low res, everyday files the majority of the world handle (and which are utilised in New Dawn), are somehow less valuable. Rather, they are no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. It is about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation. In short: it is about reality.8
Increasingly our hopes for privacy lie in the ‘deep web’, the unpoliced, unsearchable underbelly of the Internet. Unfortunately, today, to seek out anonymity implies a need to hide, engendering presumptions of guilt. A primary tool in building an alternative model is Tor, an ‘anonymity network’ originally conceived by the US Navy to protect government communications, but co-opted in the last decade by the digital rights movement.9 Press surrounding Tor has encouraged a negative image—the service is often generalised by the media as being a haven for child pornography. Though the nature of the technology means user numbers and activity cannot be known or recorded, the press has also declared that around a third of Tor users in the United Kingdom are committing criminal offences.10 Despite these implications, the solutions today to the world Chris Howlett’s New Dawn elucidates remain consistent—go underground.11
Chris Howlett, New Dawn, 2013. Detail, installation view, Boxcopy. Image courtesy the artist and Boxcopy.
Chris Howlett, Actor 5 (Spam), 2013. Detail. Digital print, polyurethane, lacquer and epoxy resin, ed. 1 of 10. Image courtesy the artist and Metro Arts, Brisbane.
Chris Howlett, Actor 1 (Ice cream Coles Polygon), 2013. Detail. Polyurethane, lacquer and epoxy resin, ed. 2 of 3. Image courtesy the artist and Metro Arts, Brisbane.
Chris Howlett, New Dawn (Burger), 2013. Detail. Image courtesy the artist and Metro Arts, Brisbane.
1. Slavoj Žižek, ‘Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange: Our new heroes’, The Guardian, accessed online http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/03/snowden-manning-assange-new-heroes
2. Mark Richardson, ‘Does Vinyl Really Sound Better?’, Pitchfork, accessed online http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/29-vinyl-records-and-digital-audio/
3. Hito Steyerl, ‘In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment On Vertical Perspective’, e-flux, accessed online http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective/#_ftn13
4. Medea Benjamin, Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control, Verso, London, 2012, p.21.
6. Mathias Jansson and Chris Howlett, ‘New Dawn: Interview’, accessed online http://www.gamescenes.org/2013/09/an-interview-with-chris-howlett-mathias-jansson-during-the-last-decade-we-can-see-a-closer-connection-between-war-vid.html
8. Hito Steyerl, op cit.
9. Charlotte Philby, ‘The Tor System: Welcome to the dark internet where you can search in secret’, The Independent, accessed online http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/online/the-tor-system-welcome-to-the-dark-internet-where-you-can-search-in-secret-8651364.html
11. Bruce Schneler, ‘NSA surveillance: A guide to staying secure’, The Guardian, accessed online http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/05/nsa-how-to-remain-secure-surveillance