EMBODYING THE DIGITAL
EXTENSIONS VOL I
Amalie Smith, Andreas Refsgaard, Diana Velasco, Ida Kvetny,
Helene Nymann, Kristoffer Ørum, Louise Alenius, Uffe Isolotto.
Curated by Radar Contemporary
By cand.mag in art history Ida Schyum
Through an online group exhibition the new artist-driven platform Radar Contemporary puts the Danish digital art scene under the microscope. Made even more relevant by the corona lockdown, the exhibition Extensions vol. 1 takes the measure of what happens when our lives and art get extended into the digital field. And precisely by focusing on technologies as extensions of ourselves, the artworks stage the ways we embody the digital.
The corona crisis has radically extended our bodies. As a point of no return, we now conceive ourselves as intertwined in an enormous microbic network constantly exchanging microorganisms. Since a stranger under two meters away from us these days seems like a risk of contagious connection, the embodied sense of a relation to the world’s larger goings-on, will always be prevalent. But while the analog body is in quarantine, we extend ourselves digitally more than ever searching for intimacy through Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or Skype. As these meetings for most of us has turned out somehow unfulfilling in the end, it is even more clear that art is crucial to investigate, expand, and critically question our digital platforms and interfaces.
While meeting up for the after-work beer on Teams felt like drowning in a sea of pixels breathing desperately for intimacy, Amalie Smith’s work Michanikos mediates the history of how Greek divers lost the control of their bodies due to new technology. Michanikos literally means ‘mechanical’, and is the name of a Greek folk dance, also called ‘The Sponge Diver Dance’. The dancer shakes as if he is suffering from decompression sickness, which sponge divers experienced when they were the first to use industrial diving suits in the mid-19th century. Smith’s artwork consists of a double projection with one video showing the contemporary dancer Sophia Mage interpreting ‘The Sponge Diver Dance.’ A motion capture suit tracks her movements and tranfers them to an animated diver standing on a virtual seabed on another screen. While the diver suit symbolizes the industrial revolution, the motion capture suit questions what sequelae will follow our next digital paradigm. Maybe it was digital decompression sickness I felt chatting with my co-workers during the quarantine?
The word digital derives from the Latin digitus meaning finger. Much like the corporeal and analog hand being embedded in the digital etymologically, the exhibited artworks respond to our digital condition entangling our bodies within it. While Smith collides the movements of the dancer with animations on the screen, Kristoffer Ørum's work Vladimir’s Tongue breathes independent digital life into world-famous flesh. More specifically, Ørum distributes Putin’s face online by adding it onto the viewers’ bodies through their own webcam. However, as a digital rendering of Putin’s body part, the face no longer seems like an extension of him. Instead, the face acts like an isolated entity similar to the function of orthodox religious icons. As Putin’s face speaks of Russian identity in the viewer’s place, the work gives a visual impression of how digital images today do not just document reality but instead form identity and power relations. Like index fingers, binary digits do not only point at the world as it is. Instead, they are abstract mathematical imaginaries materializing the world around us.
In his video work The Drift, Uffe Isolotto compares the encounter of these abstract digits with the experience of a psychedelic trip. Recorded with a motion capture suit and transmitted into a virtual universe, we follow a day-long mescaline trip from the ingestion of the juice through the various conditions of altered awareness it brings along. At first, we meet a naked écorché-like man, but as we sink deeper into the trip, characters with lesser skin and muscles appear until we are left with a meditating skeleton. The body plays the main character but is slowly losing itself into both the spiritual and virtual world. In motion capture technology lingo, the term drifting refers to when the limbs or the whole corpus is moving out of place, somewhat akin to the idea of tripping. Such glitches are included in the video as a playful working with and through the digital, hoping for possible worlds to slip through the cracks.
A similar hallucinogenic vibe is imminent in Ida Kvetny's Virtual Reality (VR) work Lithodendrum. Dancing figurines and deep techno grottoes make up for all the closed adventure parks and shopping malls during the quarantine. The viewer is delegated to experience this grotesque multi-sensory inferno with corona edition DIY VR-glasses. Kvetny’s work is the party we need to immerse ourselves into these times. Definitely, you could party in here for days, drifting away into a subconscious cosmography of Medusa-like avatars on saturated coral red cliffs with deep blue trees swaying in the wind. Like Neverland, it only exists if you believe in it, but is it the future? Kvetny’s reckless visual language and color fetichism makes this escapist experience close to an overdose, and thus, the work ends up questioning the very nature of VR: What kind of Disneyland are we immersing ourselves into, when the body’s capability of new sensations has become a crucial resource for contemporary forms of capitalism in digital creative industries?
And how does this digital Disneyland impact us? Research has shown that access to endless information through the diffusion of technology in our everyday lives is changing how our memory works. We forget information when it is too easily accessible on Internet search engines. In Selva of Selves (S.O.S), Helene Nymann presents other ways of remembering by introducing us to the sea-slug Aplysia Californica creating and storing memories through its nervous system. In fact, it’s neurons are the largest found in any species, which is why it has been a test-subject in neuro-scientific experiments proving the possibility of memory-transfer. As if the video was a digital wormhole, we travel through colors similar to a chemical liquid the slug uses for self-defense. Arriving deep inside its pulsating nervous system, the video opens our minds towards the notion of the slug’s embodied knowledge. By turning towards the nonhuman body in the age of rapid technological change, potentially sustainable and alternative methods of how to remember are imagined.
While the digital impacts our mnemonic capacities, historical archives are also digitized affecting how we collectively remember the past. Together with a StyleGAN model, Andreas Refsgaard re-writes our history in the video work Aagaards Glasplader. A generative adversarial network (GAN) is a machine-learning system that can produce an image from a preexisting visual database. From this database, it intercepts patterns and information, after which it can demonstrate its own reverie of the world. Refsgaard has run portrait photos from the mid-19th century through the model, generating new portraits of a non-existing past accompanied by likewise generated historical biographies. It is just plain math, and yet this maneuver can be described as a symbiotic creative process between machine and human.
Refsgaard’s work imitates how machine-vision, such as intelligent surveillance cameras and image recognition on social media, detects and analyzes objects, faces, and actions in our everyday surroundings. A similar machine learning technology is implied in music streaming platforms, using billions of people’s inputs to create stereotypical categorizations of music to be mass consumed. In response to this development, composer Louise Alenius has created a scenography for ten études improvised by her. Taking back control of the musical experience, she has 3D scanned her own head and reproduced it into a tall wooden sculpture. As the inside of the head functions as a miniature concert hall for the études, the work brings about a radical imagination of alternative interfaces and music platforms. In the exhibition, we see a video with Alenius moving around the wooden head performing an étude for a listener, allowing both him and us to devote our undivided attention to the musical idea as it’s blossoming inside the artist’s head.
Like Alenius, Diana Velasco has 3D-scanned her face underlining the inside. But this time by displaying the scans inside out. Thereby, they become distorted and deliberately incomplete, turning the portrait upside down in a time when selfie filters flourish alongside perfected botox ideals on social media. The two 3D scans are printed on textiles, referring to how algorithms were developed from the punched card technique in weaving. Thus, the work insists that the digital is material and related to the history of women in opposition to the typical descriptions of the digital consisting of immaterial "clouds" programmed by men.
Nevertheless, the materiality of the digital is not just reducible to software and hardware, but is a massively distributed reality, conditioning our perceptual and bodily realities. When we move, think, and feel, we are a body. A dynamic bag of bones full of potential, continuously developing through its relations to the world. The exhibited works intervene in the processes of how we perform ourselves with different media. As situations, the works enhance, enact, and bend our experiences and actions in relation to the digital constituting new realities. Nevertheless, the works do not just look critically at these new realities, but bring along new imaginaries, adding a potential post- to the digital. In any case, it is clear how the digital rests at our fingertips…