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WELCOME TO THE SURFACECOLLIDER BLOG, AN ARCHIVE OF IMAGES, AUDIO, TEXTS AND AFK RESEARCH AROUND THE POINT AT WHICH CODE BECOMES IMAGE.
NAVIGATE THROUGH THESE DIFFERENT CATEGORIES OF RESEARCH USING THE ‘CONTEXT +’ DROP-DOWN MENU ABOVE.
Screen as Threshold: The production of (dis)embodied experiences through the interplay of the inside and outside of the screen.
There is a lack of the human within the digitally rendered image. The hyper digital is often described as cold. Could it be that the experience of both making and looking at digital images is possessed, or haunted, by a certain failure of presence? In a chapter of his 2008 book Art Power, titled From Image to Image File – and Back: Art in the Age of Digitalization, Boris Groys speaks of the visualisation of digital data as sacrilege.
If a traditional “analog” original is moved from one place to another it remains a part of the same space, the same topography—the same visible world. By contrast, the digital original—the file of digital data—is moved by its visualization from the space of invisibility, from the status of “non-image” to the space of visibility, to the status of “image.” Accordingly, we have here a truly massive loss of aura—because nothing has more aura than the Invisible. The visualization of the Invisible is the most radical form of its profanation (Groys, 2008).
If digital images – through the esoteric, untethered, multifarious (black box) nature of their means of production – fail to present certain qualities which we as humans can intrinsically relate to as having what Walter Benjamin famously referred to as ‘aura’, then what entities are working to bring about such an absence, and how do they function? In the same text Groys puts some critical distance between the digital image and Benjamin’s ideas outlined in The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction:
There is no such thing as a copy. In the world of digitalized images, we are dealing only with originals—only with original presentations of the absent, invisible digital original. The exhibition makes copying reversible: It transforms a copy into an original. But this original remains partially invisible and non-identical (Groys, 2008).
The role of the viewer then, is to complete the production of these partially invisible, non-identical images through the act of consumption. The production and dissemination of digital images has become synonymous with the production of identity. Who we are is, in part, determined by what we look at online. We become profiled through the data we create, which continues to shape our online avatars as they bounce around cyberspace. We lose control over who and where we are in this way by handing agency over to the Algorithm. Through Contemporary Art practice, how do we excavate the threshold of the screen to cast some light on a medium (the digital image) which threatens to produce detached or dissociative forms of subjectivity?
These questions have evolved out of my day-to-day studio practice, a large part of which involves digital image making. One morning recently I arrived at my studio. As I opened the door I was able to see the work I was making with fresh eyes.
The pieces in the studio were sitting in their ‘off’ state. When ‘on’, the works consist of screen-based images, prints of similar digital images, and live sound recorded and played through various pieces of audio hardware. When I arrived in the studio that morning, the prints and equipment comprising the works were set out in different configurations on brightly coloured sheets of plastic propped up by trestles. The digital screens within these installations were blank, turned off at the wall, and lifeless. The prints – laid out flat on the trestle tables in front of the screens – were the only images present. These hyper-glossy images of digitally rendered fragments appeared to taunt the deadened screens with their state of physical permanence; unencumbered by the material state of their surfaces, the prints didn’t rely on the electrically charged application of code to be brought into being. And yet aside from the lack of electronic screen-based imagery and sound resonating from these, supposedly, audio-visual works, something else was missing. The works appeared to be actively lacking a human agent. As their maker, I was in a strange position of being simultaneously there, looking at the works, but also somehow missing. The objects were sitting in a dead state that perhaps couldn’t be fully resuscitated by the simple act of turning them ‘on’.
In his review of Mark Fisher’s 2016 book The Weird and the Eerie, Eugene Thacker expands on Fisher’s definition of the latter:
“The eerie … is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. There is something where there should be nothing, or there is nothing where there should be something.” Here we encounter disembodied voices, lapses in memory, selves that are others, revelations of the alien within, and nefarious motives buried in the unconscious, inorganic world in which we are embedded. (Thacker, 2017)
The means of digital image production are such that we do not expect to see signs of the human hand, and, by extension, imprecision within the digital image. The software tools through which we make digital images are designed to help us eradicate life’s imperfections. Whilst lossy, compressed JPGs might fall into the bracket of what Hito Steyerl calls “poor images” (Steyerl, 2009), any perceived losses in quality here are a record of an images lifecycle and economy, resampled and recompressed through endless buffers on their route around the internet. At the point of production, digital images reflect the software and hardware through which they are made and reproduced independent of their relationship to the world outside of the screen. It is useful to return to Groys here as he effectively makes an argument for Contemporary Art as a site through which the subject of the digital image must be seen to be critically understood.
(E)ach presentation of a digitalized image becomes a re-creation of this image. Only the traditional exhibition space opens up the possibility for us to reflect not only on the software but also on the hardware, on the material side of the image data. (Groys, 2008).
Glitch Art serves as a fitting example of how digital processes create a world of aesthetics all of their own. In his 2015 hypermedia essay Thoughts On Glitch [Art] v2.0, internet artist, organizer, and educator Nick Briz defines the glitch as “an unexpected moment in a system that calls attention to that system” (Briz, 2015). The focus on the ‘unexpected’ here is a means of distancing the glitch from its regular definition of computational error. He goes on to establish the difference between glitches and Glitch Art, which he labels as art made by intentionally leveraging the moment a system draws attention to itself by either recontextualizing or provoking glitches. Briz classifies Glitch Art as an ethic, motivated by an openness to discovering what happens when we intentionally use technologies in the wrong way to gain new perspectives. In the same essay, Briz also distinguishes Glitch Art from glitch effects available in software such as After Effects or smartphone apps. When we change the way an image looks using filters, we are using the software as it is designed to be used. Glitch effects and filters fetishize glitch aesthetics on a fully functioning surface level. Conversely, by magnifying the compression artefacts created through the digital production process, American artist Rosa Menkman lifts the lid on the glitch as being indicative of a breakdown in communication between humans and machines. Far from being a result of computational error, the glitch reveals this slippage by reminding us that the computer can only carry out the orders it is given. Her video work Dear Mr Compression, (2010), uses highly saturated video compression artifacts to obfuscate narrative text and representational imagery and cast the work within a wholly digital space determined by the protocols and standards of digital image production gone wrong. Meaning here is produced entirely through how these standards are leveraged on logical, practical and conceptual levels. Alongside other works from her 2010 exhibition Order and Progress, at Fabio Paris Gallery, Brescia, Italy, Dear Mr Compression shines a light on the point during which images are translated into data, and the effect this has on any subsequent writing of images brought about by what Groys refers to as digitalization.
Away from the glitch, and to help us irradiate any perceived glitches, software features such as Photoshop’s ‘healing brush’ tool enable us to smooth over the tiny individual nuances in images. In doing so these features begin to erase the analogue relationship we as humans have with representational images. We exist in an imperfect world. Digital images can reflect that space void of the imperfections. And so digital images can, I would argue, become somewhat eerie. In The Weird and the Eerie, Fisher clarifies his two modes of the eerie with examples. The first mode, the ‘failure of absence’, is what we experience when we witness an eerie cry.
A bird’s cry is eerie if there is a feeling that there is something more in (or behind) the cry than a mere animal reflex or biological mechanism — that there is some kind of intent at work, a form of intent that we do not usually associate with a bird… Is there something anomalous about this bird’s cry? What exactly is strange about it? Is, perhaps, the bird possessed — and if it is, by what kind of entity? (Fisher, 2016), p. 53)
Gargantuan efforts have been made to create the illusion that the digital image exists despite it’s means of production. As image processing speeds become faster, digital hardware becomes smaller. A paradox exists here. It is precisely through the production process that digital images come to project images of their reality on our retinas in place of lesser mediated forms of human subjectivity. As we come to see things through the eyes of the computer, it’s body becomes hidden from us. Think of the hyperreality of the architectural simulation. These models blur with the physical landscape as they are built, find form, and become real. Much modern day sculpture is made in this way. Rendered in pixel perfect definition and sent to a fabricator to be made and finished. Software based images arrive on the surface level of the screen almost as if by magic and without any visible echo of the hardware which brings them into being. Hardware technologies are hidden from us and are getting smaller; the drive to perpetually advance computational processing speeds could be seen as synonymous with attempts to erase the space between us and the digital simulacrum. It is almost as if, when computers become fast enough the laws which govern space and time will melt away and our subjectivity will miraculously merge the atom with the bit and digital reality will wholly augment with non-digital forms of experience. Reduction in latency brought about not only by the increased processing power of computers, but also by superfast internet and 5G connections, have led to the expectation that screen-based digital images should simply ‘appear’. There is an illusion at play, which, beyond the screen, presents the digital image void of any form of mediation. This illusion, in its current state, tragically comes up short precisely because of the existence of the screen as a physical threshold between us and the metaverse. In its current state Augmented Reality (AR) depends entirely on the screen as a canvas upon which to merge images of our physical world with digital data. Without the substrate of the screen (propped up by our propensity to suspend our disbelief when faced with digital technologies) the illusion created by AR would dissolve and collapse. We can draw the conclusion that if there is an eerie quality to the digital image, then it cannot be attributed to a ‘failure of absence’. The absence produced by the failure of digital tech to present it’s inner workings has been nothing but a success and is only getting better. This points to a ‘failure of presence’ at play within the digital image. The example Fisher (2016) uses to draw out an understanding of this, the second mode of the eerie, is that feeling of eeriness which ‘pertains to ruins or to other abandoned structures’.
Confronted with Easter Island or Stonehenge, it is hard not to speculate about what the relics of our culture will look like when the semiotic systems in which they are currently embedded have fallen away. We are compelled to imagine our own world as a set of eerie traces. Such speculations no doubt account for the eeriness that attaches to the justly famous final image of the original 1968 version of Planet of the Apes: the remains of the Statue of Liberty, which are as illegible from the perspective of the film’s post-apocalyptic and indeed post-human far future as Stonehenge is to us now. The examples of Stonehenge and Easter Island make us realise that there is an irreducibly eerie dimension to certain archaeological and historical practices. Particularly when dealing with the remote past, archaeologists and historians form hypotheses, but the culture to which they refer and which would vindicate their speculations can never (again) be present. (Fisher, 2016), p. 54)
Through processes of detachment (such as spot healing in Photoshop to cover imperfections of the non-digital), digital images retract from the laws which govern the world of tangible things that surround us. They create a space all of their own, where signs of human physical involvement remain barely legible. The experience of looking at digital images is perhaps more commonly thought of as cold than eerie. Digital images lack the tangible warmth of human touch. They don’t register with us like paintings do. Take Abstract Expressionist painting, for example, where the mark of the author becomes a direct signifier of human emotion embedded within the art object forever. The eerie feeling I experienced when faced with my work that morning in the studio is perhaps indicative of a realisation that in the not-too-distant future (with advancements in autonomous AI) there may be no place for me within my work. Could it be that the eerie feeling of disembodiment I felt when confronted with those two artworks that morning in the studio was actually the ghostly echo of digital appendages haunting me from their dormant state beyond the screen? An outside agent, digital hardware hidden from view, and in its ‘off’ state. Did the inactive state of the code within the work nullify my role as an active agent within it? The works became void of me, their maker. The implication here is that processes I have no bodily understanding of, and therefore no direct empathic connection with, reveal certain qualities only when they are missing. When turned off, like a glitch in the machine, I become detached from me in my work so that I am no longer present within it. My subjectivity becomes fractured and dispersed, waiting for the unifying force of electrical currents to be made whole again. In their ‘off’ state all that remained of the works was a collection of inert objects and dead images cut off from their source, the illuminated screen. And yet the works were still haunted by an aura.
In Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash, the threshold between virtual reality – Stephenson’s ‘Metaverse’ – and physical reality – populated by the biomass of human flesh and organic materials – is breached by a software contagion capable of infecting human beings well versed in reading and writing computer code. The book imagines virtual reality it is possible to enter through VR systems such as Oculus Rift headsets today as a social space where space folds in on itself. The data-based virus infects hackers as they look directly at bitmap images when ‘goggled in’ to the Metaverse, a virtual reality cyberspace inhabited by avatars, causing their computer systems, and human biological brains, to crash entirely.
The Brandy’s scroll wasn’t just showing random static. It was flashing up a large amount of digital information, in binary form. That digital information was going straight into Da5id’s optic nerve. Which is part of the brain, incidentally – if you stare into a person’s pupil, you can see the terminal of the brain. (Stephenson, 1992, p. 186)
In the fictional reality of Stephenson’s novel outside of the Metaverse the virus spreads through a carrier known as Snowcrash: chemically processed blood serum taken from those infected with the metavirus and laced with cocaine to encourage the spread of infection. Those infected with the virus display symptoms of talking in tongues. The raw data of digital information becomes an entity capable of reducing human linguistic capabilities to the meaningless babel of low level machine code.
As Hiro is stepping into the hallway, Da5id speaks, “e ne em ma ni a gi a gi ni mu ma dem e ne em am an ki ga a gi a gi . . .”
Hiro turns around and looks. Da5id has gone limp in the restraints, seems relaxed, half asleep. He is looking at Hiro through half-closed eyes. “e ne em dam gal nun na a gi agi e ne em u mu un abzu ka a gi a agi . . .” (Stephenson, 1992, p. 176)
Through observational writing I have attempted to reconnect with the world on this side of the screen. Does writing as a technology maintain a directness – a connection to the human psyche – that somehow becomes untethered, handed over to the machine, when I work with computers to make images? This is a process that involves either writing from memory, or transcribing day-to-day events into words that paraphrase my surroundings. I write directly into the ‘Keep Notes’ app on my phone. I also write lists of the things I’m surrounded by. The writing is flat and somewhat void of emotion:
It’s quite big. The kitchen units fill all of one of the longer sides of the rectangle. They are covered in plastic coated faux walnut veneer. We didn’t like it at first, but have got used to it now. (sic) The right-hand side of the units is covered in the children’s drawings, which are arranged semi-regularly across the vertical surfaces. Some of the older drawings that we are really attached to are getting tatty. Bits of masking tape remain where others have fallen off.
The washing machine is on. A high spin cycle that shakes everything above it. The cupboard door, which normally hides it from view, is open. It’s got twenty-three minutes left of it’s cycle.
A STEEL FRAMED TABLE, A COFFEE CUP FROM ‘STARBUDS COFFEE’ IN AMSTERDAM, A PENCIL THAT’S BEEN SHARPENED WITH A KNIFE, A SET OF KEYS, A SMARTPHONE BRACKET, A REMOTE CONTROL, A LAPTOP, TWO SPEAKERS SITTING ON FOAM BLOCKS, A MOUSE, A POWER ADAPTER, A HDMI CABLE, A 3.5MM AUDIO JACK, A USB CABLE, A PLASTIC PART FROM THE LEG OF A TRIPOD.
It gets cold. The ceiling and floor are made of concrete. The two longer walls are covered with chipboard. The kind with large wooden fibres laminated within it; the stuff that people sometimes use to make furniture in cafes. I painted the boards white when I moved in to make them more neutral, but you can still see the texture. Behind the music that’s playing through my laptop, I can hear the faint noise of it’s fan. It whirrs in and out of time with the sound of the fan heater in the room.
It’s warm in the room now. The heater’s been on for a while. It will turn off when the thermostat kicks in.
A STAINLESS STEEL KETTLE, A DISPOSABLE FACE MASK, A SET OF HEADPHONES, AN ARDUINO MICROCONTROLLER, A BLUE USB CABLE, A MOUSE ON A MOUSE MAT, A DELL COMPUTER MONITOR, TWO EXTERNAL HARD DRIVES, A MAC PRO COMPUTER, A PILE OF DIFFERENT TYPES OF STICKY TAPES, TWO EMPTY BOXES OF CHARBONNEL ET WALKER TRUFFLES, A BOTTLE OF HAND SANITISER, A PURSE.
There is an eeriness to the text above that I attribute to the antidepressant tablets that I take to treat generalised anxiety disorder. The medication, through the act of digestion, works from an unknowable and unseeable inside. It plays a role as an active agent alongside me, separating one version of events from another so that the truth becomes unknowable, like a digital filter applied to a Kardashian face. Would this flatness (of tone) exist in spite of the 50mg of Sertraline that I take every day? Through medication, my subjectivity is distributed across outside entities – the tablets. Through daily rituals – swallowing one tablet every day after breakfast – these entities become inner and gain psychological agency. In Jeff Vandermeer’s short novel Annihilation, the narrator, who we only know as ‘the biologist’, undergoes a similar shift in bio-chemically distributed subjectivity when she inhales the spores of a strange, unidentified mould or fungus. From this point on, the biologist cannot trust her perceptions with any certainty – the outside entity of the spores, subsumed within the biologist’s body, introduces a paranoia created by the very act of no longer simply being herself. She is now herself plus the spores. She credits the spores with her ability to see the world with added clarity, with the ability to maintain self awareness and nullify the efforts of her co-character, the psychologist, to hypnotise her as she otherwise succeeds in hypnotising the others. Because of the spores though, the biologist no longer has the benefit of human finitude. Within herself, she also exists outside of herself. Within my observational writing I have no way of knowing if my descriptions of the world around me would be any different without Sertraline. Do digital images play a similar role in inhabiting and obfuscating our perceptive abilities? Do they fracture and disperse our subjectivity so that we can no longer see the world without the digital image?
In the following chapter I will describe attempts within my practice based research to excavate the point at which we hand over control to our digital appendages at the threshold of the screen. Efforts here are somewhat medical – I try to delve below the surface of the screen and reveal computational processes for what they look and sound like. In doing so I hope to sidestep the sacrilegious crimes Groys’ pins on the visualisation of digital data. Beginning with an analysis of what happens when I turn the works described at the very start of this chapter ‘on’, I will borrow from Graham Harman’s idea relating to object oriented ontology and look into Artist Maggie Roberts attempts to circumvent finite human subjectivity within her Becoming Octopus Meditations.
Briz, N. (2015) Thoughts On Glitch [Art] v2.0. Available at: https://youtu.be/muzuq4YsRyI (Accessed: 30/04/2021).
Fisher, M. (2016) The weird and the eerie. London: Repeater.
Grojs, B. (2008) Art power. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.]: MIT Press.
Menkman, R. (2010) SOLO SHOW: Order and Progress (2010). Available at: https://beyondresolution.info/ORDER-AND-PROGRESS-1 (Accessed: 07/05/2021).
Stephenson, N. (1992) Snow crash. Paperback ed. edn. New York u.a: Bantam Books.
Steyerl, H. (2009) In Defense of the Poor Image. Available at: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/ (Accessed: 21/04/2021).
Thacker, E. (2017) Weird, Eerie, and Monstrous: A Review of “The Weird and the Eerie” by Mark Fisher. Available at: http://www.boundary2.org/2017/06/eugene-thacker-weird-eerie-and-monstrous-a-review-of-the-weird-and-the-eerie-by-mark-fisher/ (Accessed: 21/04/2021).
VanderMeer, J. (2015) Annihilation. London: Fourth Estate.
 I’m borrowing from Mark Fisher here, and how he – in part – defines the eerie in his 2016 book The Weird and the Eerie.