Synthetica : art, technology & us
Dr Cameron Rose
Art and technology are by definition divorced from nature. Art is the product of human creativity and technique; it is an object, image, sound or movement that exists as a unique manifestation of our imagination. Technology comes from the Greek tekhnologia: “a systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique”. The key word is systematic, a repetitive application of method. A process that implies a denial of chance and serendipity as can be found in manual production.
However art has always reflected nature. From cave paintings to inspire the successful hunt, a fertility symbol to continue the tribe, cosmic imagery to understand the universe, or the abstract realisation of thought and philosophy, it is the physical translation of the nature of our mind.
Technology extends our nature; language stores our knowledge, sound is translated into electrical currents so we can hear voices from long ago and far away. The photograph captures light and movement, extending the gaze to the micro and macroscopic.
But there is a suspicion that art and technology mischievously thwart and corrupt nature. Knowledge itself was seen as the demise of the innocence of Eden, the forbidden fruit that would show us how things really are, subsequently revealing ourselves as naked. In the third of the Ten Commandments we are told “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”. These idols were thought to detract from the true essence of being, as if the image itself challenged nature and the authority of its creator.
The Protestant tradition Calvinism emphasised simplicity in worship, and sought the removal of anything that might distract from the contemplation of God, including the removal of icons, images and relics from churches. Ironically technological innovation allowed reformist Christianity to blossom with the introduction of the printing press, distributing the bible to the masses so they could make their own interpretation, allowing a personal and individual relationship with God.
In the 16th century Islam regarded even the printing press with suspicion. Sultan Selim I of Istanbul punished with death those guilty of the dark practice of printing. Yet the Muslim world still found a way to practice art and technology, one has only to look at the exquisite patterns in the tile ceilings of mosques. Patterns based on geometry but manifestly beautiful in their design.
And that perhaps is the key. No matter what confabulation of art and technology, the human race will find a way to relate it to our lives, our world, and our human nature.
But there is also a dialog between art and technology (though not divorced from each other they do sometimes need counselling). Photography was considered an inferior form of expression. At an early meeting of the Photographic Society of London, established in 1853, one of the members complained that the new technique was “too literal to compete with works of art” because it was unable to “elevate the imagination”. The American philosopher John Dewey argued that where science states meanings art expresses them. For example we can understand water as the molecule of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. But this definition evokes nothing of the experience of water. Think of Hokusai’s The Great Wave of Kanagawa (c. 1830), the Latona fountain at Versailles, or video artist Bill Viola’s Ascension (1996), The Crossing (1996) and Emergence (2002), showing figures immersed in cascading water from above, or emerging re-born from the baptismal font.
Now consider Jellies. Coupling Series (2010) by Boe-Lin Bastian. Wobbling provocatively on a washing machine, it expresses the jelliness of jelly far more effectively than understanding that gelatine is collagen extracted from the bones of beasts. This jelly writhes suggestively in slow motion to the domestic rhythm of suburban white goods. It may ask us if the conveniences of modern life are turning us to jelly, gyrating fruitlessly and flabbily to the monotonous beat of modernity?
This is art’s place. It is not there to blithely accept all technological advances as benign. Art interrogates technology as part of the landscape. Turner painted his smoke-belching steamers, Mondrian his grids inspired by the streets of New York. One can imagine the heady crescendo of twentieth century capitalism on the streets of New York, neon lights beckoning you into an artificial world of spectacle lit by the imagination. Bonnie Lane’s Make Believe (2012) suggests the glamour of this era, culture commoditised into the truncated legs of a Ziegfield dancer. Kristin McIver’s neon sculptures deliver a somewhat asinine hope, Divine Intervention (2010) uses neon text to proclaim “Life Unlimited” surrounded by fake plastic evergreen leaves. It is an electric garden of Eden with the promise of immortality denied by the synthetic flora that will never bear fruit.
The Dada movement created work from the excrement of mass production and Andy Warhol glorified it, celebrating the democratisation of mass consumption.
Paul Yore’s When will it End (2014) also uses this detritus in a post-apocalyptic totem that wouldn’t be out of place in the garden of Zebedee from the children’s television program The Magic Roundabout (1964-1971). Sticks strung together with plastic slinkies, fake flowers, rubber hot dogs, synthetic fur and feathers. Its elements desperately accrete to make sense of its fleeting existence at the end of an absurd technological food chain of petroleum, plastics and poisonous factories far away. We are disconnected from the origin of these objects; they arrive manufactured far away by unknown hands and processes.
Yet technology can be sublime. Quantum theory shows we can smash the atom to such an extent that it knows it’s being watched. The Hubble telescope extends our gaze into unfathomable reaches of the universe. Simon Finn’s Stages of Descent (2013) depicts the movement of a roving camera on Mars; a camera that explores not only the surface of a distant planet but also reveals the urge to see beyond the limits of our normal gaze. However his work is rendered in charcoal, a process that in his own words “re-links the corporeal with the aid of the machine.” It reveals a desire to humanise technology, bring it back to the body, and bring it down to earth.
For this is the conundrum: we enjoy the benefits of technology, but we don’t entirely trust it. We can go for long drives in the country, but consume non-renewable fossil fuel in the process. We adore the ability to call whomever we want, whenever we want, but miss out on being un-contactable. We send emails whilst lamenting the lost art of correspondence. We accept the civilising logic of CCTV but despair at our loss of privacy. Like the goldfish in Bonnie Lane’s Life is Pain (2010), we either demure to the incessant gaze of technology or leap into unknown, flapping helplessly in the non-connected world.
But within the digital bosom of our age, we virtually experience phenomenon that was once myth and legend. Natural and human disasters are no longer recorded in epic poems or Biblical stories. Tsunamis fill our screens, the miseries of war banally stain our television, World Trade Centres fall like the Tower of Babel and we see it, over and over again. As in Kate Shaw’s The Spectator (2012) where silhouetted figures gaze upon an erupting but ultimately impotent volcano, we look upon the bizarre and tragic with a detached curiosity, for to be engaged would be to go mad at the wall of televisions like David Bowie as the Alien in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), or enraged like Peter Finch in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), who is as mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore.
But I argue that technology is nature. In the same way that termites build their nest or bees their hive, we create our own systems and environments. We can imagine impossible spaces, places beyond nature as in Alice Wormald’s paintings. These works challenge the conventional landscape, both as represented in painting through the technique of perspective, and the subsequent manifestation through the lens of photography. Wormald’s work embodies ambivalence in verisimilitude, purposefully creating an “unsettling hybrid” that suggests the real but happily breaks the conventions in its representation.
I wonder if that is our fear, a fear that would see us confuse the copy for the original. Walter Benjamin famously considered how art in the age of mechanical reproduction both destroyed and liberated the aura of authenticity from the work of art. Whilst for the “high-priest of post-modernism” Jean Baudrillard, the copy could be “more real than real” like the genetically engineered human replicant in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). I argue it is not that we are concerned with distinguishing between the artificial and the real; but rather we now wonder if we still care?
In Blade Runner, the leader of the replicants, Roy Batty, comes to grim terms with his synthetic mortality. Though a product of art and technology, he thinks and feels and at the end of his life laments his lost memories saying:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain. Time… to die.”
Art and technology may extend beyond our natural selves, but they are also inextricably linked with our mortality.
[Works featured are from Synthetica, a touring exhibition produced by BLINDSIDE and NETS Victoria in 2015. Curated by Claire Anna Watson, Synthetica examined the relationship between art, technology and us. It included the work of seven artists — Boe-lin Bastian, Simon Finn, Bonnie Lane, Kristin McIver, Kate Shaw, Alice Wormald and Paul Yore — whose diverse approaches include painting, sculpture, video and 3D modelling. A version of this article was originally published in Trouble isn 126, August 2015. – ed.]
SOURCES: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=technology [Accessed 10 May 2015] M. Prodger, | Photography: is it art? http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/oct/19/photography-is-it-art [Accessed 12 May 2015] | http://www.simonfinn.info/html/Bio.html [Accessed 12 May 2015] | It is curious to observe how we discovered the technique to accurately represent the natural world before a photographic technology that would do the work for us – Synthetica Exhibition Catalogue.