Devices mediate the way in which we experience the world. The digital age has fostered a new type of human being, who exists both in physical form in physical space, and also in a more ethereal form in cyberspace. The collision of these two separate realities has resulted in the birth of a new human. These beings are a jumble of human flesh and digital dreams. I seek to paint entities which are an amalgamation of the digital and the real.
I am not interested in technology because I find it sexy, or intriguing, but rather because I feel it is a defining factor as it relates to human identity in the 21st century. In the following pages I will examine how technology has formed our way of looking at the world and explore how to paint this world. Just as the pieces of my paintings can be rearranged to form a variety of different creatures, so can the digital identities which can exist across a variety of communities.
Part 1: Cyborgs Existing in Atemporal Landscapes.
The internet, which is now closely interwoven with humanity, has created a landscape in which all eras seem to exist at once. William Gibson called this “atemporality.” It is, in fact, a new type of timelessness. An atemporal space is one which cannot be defined as existing in any one time period. It goes beyond the pastiche of post modernism and embraces a new alternate reality which is both nostalgic and new at the same time.
Living within this atemporal landscape of cyberspace are different entities defined by their engagement with digital media. Some are the result of “real” humans with very real fingers tapping away at keyboards. Some are the result of bots which generate content that attempts to look human. This blend of computer bits and human bones coalesces to become a new type of creature, one which exists both virtually and on a physical plane. These are the cyborgs which exist both in the physical plane of existence, and also the atemporal plane of cyberspace. I make paintings of these entities.
While most of us do not have wires sticking out of our skin, it is difficult to differentiate between ourselves and what I will call The Network in many regards. For instance, in the past if someone was interested in portraiture, they would go to museums and look at carefully curated selections on walls tended by the gatekeepers of taste. Perhaps they would go to a library and peruse the shelves, all of the books categorized by time periods, nationalities, and artistic movements. In an atemporal space we are almost always using a computer, with a search engine as an intermediary. The algorithm has replaced the curator and the institution as the arbiter of taste. It is increasingly more difficult to address any problem because there are so many perspectives from which any problem can be addressed.
Elon Musk, whose company “Neuralink” attempts to bridge the digital and biological divide, said the following regarding the idea of a new type of cybernetic human:
“How much smarter are you with a phone or computer or without? You’re vastly smarter, actually,” Musk said. “You can answer any question pretty much instantly. You can remember flawlessly. Your phone can remember videos [and] pictures perfectly. Your phone is already an extension of you. You’re already a cyborg. Most people don’t realize you’re already a cyborg. It’s just that the data rate … it’s slow, very slow. It’s like a tiny straw of information flow between your biological self and your digital self. We need to make that tiny straw like a giant river, a huge, high-bandwidth interface.” (Rogan, 2018 : 28:27–29:14)
Finite State Machine 36x27 mixed media on panel
So how does figure painting fit into all of this? I make figure paintings of timeless cybernetic entities. I use robotic arms, plotters, and other painting machines, and I contrast these machine made marks with my own, made by my hand. I focus on figurative work as a vehicle to further discussion about how humans are becoming nodes on a huge network. Painting has long dealt with the topic of depicting humans engaged in very human like activities. Take the painting “Monk by the Sea” by Caspar David Friedrich, for instance.
In this painting we see a solitary figure against an immense background which almost engulfs them. The figure is turned away from the viewer, typical of “Rückenfigur” in German Romantic paintings. “Ruckenfigur” simply refers to paintings in which the primary subject’s back is turned to the viewer. This perspective invites the viewer into the landscape and the environment that the figure is situated in. However, the subject itself is closed off; their back is turned to the viewer. I chose this painting because it portrays an individual who is highly cerebral, adrift in a massive world that seems to be enveloping them. The landscape itself seems somewhat familiar but also incorporates Friedrich’s fantasy.
This romantic and visionary world is also present in a lot of online games in which we are presented with the backs of characters that are navigating an uncharted world. In the gaming platform Roblox, we are presented with a variety of games that are not even games at all. They are just places.
Roblox game “Adopt Me”
One of the first things you do in this game is to customize an avatar. One can choose from a variety of accessories and body parts. From my experience playing with my daughter, I can attest to the fact that an avatar is not something which is set in stone. It is something that is constantly morphing into a new version of itself. You can be any gender, any race, and any age. The pieces of your digital identity are constantly changing, much like the pieces in my cut up paintings.
Roblox game “Dress up”
This painting(s) is in constant flux and can be rearranged. In fact, much to the dismay of my gallerist, I prefer that these pieces are reworked into a variety of forms. These modifications and constant mutations of the avatar are integral to my work as a painter. I am responding to digital characters in these landscapes and contrast them against real human flesh and bone. The fact that I am open to allowing others to make arrangements of their own avatars speaks to a relinquishing of control as the artist. Someone who buys the pieces can also participate in the creation of their own work.
Pure Chaos, 8’ x 8’ , Mixed Media on Laser Cut MDF
Part II: I’ve Got That on Vinyl
What is it about the virtual which necessitates a move to the analog? Is it because of a nostalgic love for outdated media, or the texture and feeling of items which are hand-made, or is there something intrinsic about analog media itself that lends itself to being a container for ideas? Paint is a slow medium that takes time to experience. It is quite the opposite of the digital media we are accustomed to, which fights for our attention with flickering lights and glowing colors. Paint has limitations, is immediate, textural, and contains the irregularity of the surface on which it lies. Compared to computers, it is quite ancient. Paint is generally mediated by a human body, not software. It is gestural rather than methodical. Painting is still largely a human activity.
Paintings are real things that exist in real life. They are made of wood and canvas. Artists spend hours working on them. They get special trucks to move big paintings, and museums go to great lengths to take care of them, even when they are in storage. This is in stark contrast to the digital world (video games, the internet, entertainment), which is immediately available and absolutely disposable. You click on a page and then it goes away. You do not have to recycle it. It is ethereal by nature. It just vanishes. I navigate this digital dreamworld, and document it in one of the most archaic ways imaginable, which is by using paint. I use machines in the creation of these works to highlight the juxtaposition of the human hand against a mechanized one.
The idea of “gamifying” your life is now quite commonplace. There are meditation apps which give the participant points and the ability to “level up.” Counting our steps and even our sleep patterns is now monitored by a variety of computers. Where we go, what we eat, and who we spend time looking at and talking to on social media, it is all being remembered.
At the center of these games, and this existence, is the avatar.
I Robot , Atari Games, 1983 Alexa, Oil on Panel 12” x 16”
An interesting aspect of the avatar is that the face is rarely seen. It is more like a body which is meant to be occupied. In a series of photos by Robbie Cooper depicting people and their avatars, he places two images side by side. One is of a pretty straightforward photo of a human, and the second is their avatar. Seen side by side, we get a glimpse into what their avatars mean to them, and how they are an extension of their own sense of self.
One does not need to turn into a cartoon avatar to be creating a digital identity. The most common way is through social media. When Instagram model Jessy Taylor’s Instagram account was deleted, she took to YouTube to beg for her account to be reinstated. “I’m nothing without my following,” (Taylor, 2019: 0:27–0:30) she screamed through tears. Her account was later reinstated, and her follower count has increased after the video of her crying went viral.
Dr Danielle Leigh Wagstaff, a psychology professor at Federation University Australia, conducted a study into the psychological effects of Instagram on its users. She stated, “With Instagram, we have immediate access to all of these idealized images, which aren’t always an accurate representation of the world.” Wagstaff continued, “People tend to post only their best images on Instagram, using filters that make them look beautiful. We have a false sense of what the average is, which makes us feel worse about ourselves.” (Gritters, 2019) Our digital selves are often at odds with reality. Various dating sites have begun to prohibit face filters on the photos on their site. These beautification filters often improved the looks of individuals to such an extent that those going on dates felt scammed when they met their date in real life.
Paintings, like people in relationships, are best viewed in real life. They are similar to analog media, which is outdated but continues to flourish. The tactility and experience of a painting in real life simply cannot be replicated in a virtual tour of a museum. The point is that the paint is right there in front of you, the result of an artist who put it there.
Part 3: The World Wide Web Turns 30
i18n (short for internationalisation), oil on panel, 36” x 38”
It is hard to believe that the World Wide Web (A term coined by Sir Tim Bremers Lee) is just 30 years old. It is still a baby, and we have yet to experience its full implications. The internet used to be seen as a sort of global unifying force. When it was first being conceived and created, it was likened to some sort of world religion. The prefix which we all know so well, WWW (World Wide Web), points to this. The dreams for it were quite utopian. Interestingly enough, a few of the books I have gravitated towards were written in the 90’s, during a time when people were more optimistic about how the technology would enhance their lives. In the book by Steven Levy, called Artificial Life, he speaks about how in the 50’s, at the dawn of the computing age, many computer scientists talked about how computers were going to become sentient within a few years (Levy, 1992: 58). Who knows what “becoming sentient” would even mean to them if they could hear the conversations people are having with Alexa and Siri. Perhaps their dreams of what a sentient computer looks and sounds like have already been surpassed.
On the other end of the spectrum we had the “cyberpunks.” Dispossessed of the utopian dreams which were often touted by the corporate world, they feared that The Network could be used by a handful of corporations and banks to control humanity.
Moebius Illustration for Gibson’s Zero History
One of the main proponents of this burgeoning aesthetic was William Gibson. In his novel Zero History, he puts forth the idea that artists should be creating artifacts which possess a quality of “pre-distressed antique futurity.” (Sterling, 2010) Basically, he was saying that if you have a new idea, one which you think is truly unique, you should go about approaching the idea as someone from the future looking back at the past. You do not want things to be shiny and new, but rather aged and distressed. Your creation should immediately be seen as a sort of antique, and this will (in his view) help strip away the superficiality of technological wonder and advancements. One should avoid being transfixed in the future as being bright and shiny, and hypnotizing, and one should not look at the past with any sort of reverence.
Part 4: Everything at once
One of the key characteristics of our age is an inability to agree on a set of values. Even post-modernists and modernists accessed most of their history through books. Books generally move in a linear fashion and have beginnings and ends. They contain the ideas of either one person or a handful of them. In the last few decades the book has faced a formidable challenger, The Network. The Network did not care about history, or standards, or even truth in some cases. It was based on an algorithm and a computer which decided what content was important, and what was not. Instantaneously, one can research a topic, and then delve further into the qualifications of an author, and of course also comment on the article, and give their own opinion as well. This breakdown of gatekeeping was feared by many, including Andrew Keene, who wrote a book called The Cult of the Amateur in which he posited that the internet was not good for promoting knowledge and “truth” but rather an invention which would promote arguments that could be very well polished and convincing, but also wrong (Keene, 23: 2007).
Our bodies are increasingly subject to regulation from technological advancements, from stents put into our hearts to keep the blood pumping, to glasses which help many to see the world in focus. There is little doubt that our bodies are being infused with technology at a rapid pace, and it would be hard to argue that advancements in medical science are a detriment.
However, one aspect of becoming a cyborg does not involve upgrades to the physical “hardware” so to speak (our flesh, guts and bones) but rather changes to our digital selves.
Our digital selves have a tendency to be more inward focused, and it is becoming more difficult to understand what is going on with them without some sort of specialized knowledge. For example, we can understand that a diamond tip on a record player stylus fits into a groove on a piece of vinyl that corresponds to vibrations made during a recording, and that this same sound can be reproduced through the use of speakers. Now, if we compare this to playing a song on Spotify, on our phone, through Bluetooth speakers, we get a very different interaction with the song itself because there is no record we can hold in our hands; there is no needle which scrapes along the surface of a circular piece of vinyl. It is all in the air, like magic. Even when the song is over, the data is being gathered by Spotify about how long we listened to the song, and whether we liked it or not; and then that algorithm tries to find other music that we like so we continue to listen. Can you imagine telling someone in the 1970’s that in the future a small device you carried around in your pocket would not only play music through speakers without wires, but could actually recommend other artists you would like? It would be the stuff of science fiction, but here we are today.
Shannon, oil on canvas, 18” x 24”
Artificial intelligence and computers have caused people to become more inward looking, and more focused on their own thoughts and feelings. Shanyang Zhao studied the online communications of teenagers, and he saw this manifested in the creation of what he termed “the digital self”: “The digital self is . . . more oriented toward one’s inner world, focusing on thoughts, feelings and personalities rather than one’s outer world, focusing on height, weight, and looks.” (Analog/Digital Transition. (n.d.))
Feature swap, Donald Jong Un Found photograph , Holly Riordan
The advent of digital photography has allowed everyone to document their life endlessly. One only needs an internet connection. There is not even a need to increase the physical memory required to store the photos. They can be uploaded directly to The Cloud. In this regard the medium itself is never touched. There is no film that needs to be developed. This has changed the way that photographs are taken, and the importance of the events at which they are taken, but also the way in which they shape one’s experience with the world. Bernard Stiegler addresses how these changes take place in his essay “The Discrete Image.” Stiegler argues that with analog there was a certain faith people had when looking at a photograph, that the events there actually happened (Stiegler, 2015). In the digital age this faith has completely eroded, and people look at every photo skeptically, questioning whether what is present is actually real.
Artists play a unique role in navigating the digital landscape which we find ourselves situated in today. The creation of a digital self is often an unconscious act. It is an externalization of an inner world. In my paintings I am focused on people. I see them as being broken up into bits and pieces, and in the process of constantly being reassembled. Portraiture holds a unique position since the artist is a filter through which someone else’s features and character are being interpreted. In the portrait below of Isabel Rawsthorne, painted by Francis Bacon, we arguably see more of Bacon than we do of Isabel. And I am ok with this. A painted portrait is often perceived as an attempt to achieve a likeness of a person, and this is often the case in portraits which are commissioned by corporations or governments.
Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, Francis Bacon
However,oftentimes portraits also strive to reveal the inner workings of their subject, and present them in a manner which makes them manifest. Historically, paintings have been a sort of beautification filter, through which a subject would be presented in a manner that idealized certain aspects of their personality and likeness. The skin would be smoothed out, imperfections would be removed, and a subject would be made to look stronger, or more beautiful. These portraits would also serve as a familial record in a time which lacked photography.
My paintings question the idea of who the sitter is since the likeness is nearly completely obliterated. The focus is not that, “Oh, this looks just like so and so” but rather communicates a certain way of looking at people. The term “cyberdelic” is a contraction of psychedelic and cyberspace. It was first coined by Timothy Leary. (cyberdelic, 2020) Many of the hippies of the 60’s and 70’s subculture shunned technology and preferred an approach to life which was more organic and based on a reverence for nature and the earth.
Leary and other visionaries in the 80’s saw technological progress and the rise of personal computing as a form of personal empowerment. When the term “psychedelic” is used, we immediately think of a psychedelic aesthetic which is highly influenced by the use of drugs and the visuals associated with them. However, psychedelia is also about unity, empathy, breaking down boundaries, a destruction of hierarchies, and a questioning of the framework in which life is operating.
The following painting is titled “Biological Bootloader,” and it is a reference to the possibility that AI will use some sort of a human body in order to achieve its goals. Will there come a point at which AI will feel the need to purge the more human elements of these bodies in a quest to survive? If we are to give birth to a new type of digital child, do we simply wish to control them, and effectively make them robots? If they are truly a new form of intelligent life, then how do we depict them, with eyes and ears as humans have, or as something explosive and malleable?
Biological Bootloader, 18 x 24” Mixed Media on Panel
I think there is little doubt that juggling multiple online personas in conjunction with one’s physical self is a defining characteristic of our age. I seek to illustrate these people and the worlds in which they inhabit through painting. Computing devices have changed my perception and interaction with the world, and also changed the way I converse with painting. I feel that painting is a vehicle for ideas, and at the end of the day, I simply want to paint humans. The subjects remain quite similar to portrait paintings in the past. Portraits place a person in a landscape, or in a room. The landscapes and rooms which we inhabit have all changed drastically since the invention of the internet, and the rise of the digital self. I seek to paint these new entities and their worlds.
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“STOP REPORTING MY INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT”, Taylor Jessy, Youtube, 4 Apr. 2019
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“Analog/Digital Transition.” Analog/Digital Transition — Dead Media Archive, cultureandcommunication.org/deadmedia/index.php/Analog/Digital_Transition. NYU Department of Media and Communication
“The Discrete Image | Bernard Stiegler”YouTube, Jun 2, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxLbyathg1k
En.wikipedia.org. 2020. Cyberdelic. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberdelic> [Accessed 1 May 2020].