I was going to write a proper review of the Constant Dullaart show at Carroll / Fletcher , but I’m halfhearted about it for a few reasons. His work is so multifarious, accessible and readily available online that you could have your own voyage of discovery. It’s also fairly straightforward in its themes and strategies - once you understand his tactics you’re in. But it got me thinking, so I’ll add my thoughts to everyone else's.
So, he makes work about the internet and software. I’m reading Lev Manovich’s Software Takes Command and beginning to see how my specific interest in CGI and post-production software connects to the interests of other artists and writers. Turns out I there's quite a few of us.
The idea reinforced by Dullaart’s work is that software has a huge impact on how we understand and interpret the world. On a very literal level it structures action through operating systems and interfaces, option boxes, settings, drop-downs, plugins and filters. The appeal and value of this artist’s work, however, is in the explicit connections he makes between software ideology and the forces of net territorialism. He’s does this by employing opacity/transparency as a metaphor and is overflowing with catchy riffs on the same theme, like the Jack White of software art.
For example, some of the wall pieces he’s presented at Carroll Fletcher (the Thomas Knoll series) have a Perspex sheet mounted over them. The Perspex has been heat molded (I think) with what look like rudimentary machine recognition marks that bear some resemblance to the images underneath.
The symbolism is fairly clear: you’re looking at the images, but you’re looking through a veil – a filter that almost disappears but also is very much there and which corrupts the image somewhat. The themes of transparency, mediation and obstruction run throughout the show, and are very loudly demonstrated by a video of the Google homepage animated as a face affably listing terms of service. I’m not sure if it was meant to be quite as loud as it was, but it certainly felt intrusive.
Through these, and other works, he’s prompting questions about the layer of terms and conditions that purports to protect our security, as well as about how the choices and filters that enhance our freedom of expression online can do the very opposite. The works are nostalgic, but for something we never quite realised we had. Early experiments with the internet, art and software (Photoshop’s marching ants, the Utah 3D teapot, JODI) are treated with the reverence you’d reserve for a family photo of a lost relative. And there’s a few family photos in the show, too, signed by Apple’s Steve Wozniak. From 1984.
See why I’m hesitant to explain it? Because it’s sort of ready to go as soon as you pour hot water on it. Still, this is not a bad thing. I’m sure I’m missing lots of nuance that I’d find the second time around.
There’s a strong sentiment here that the transition into the internet age was (and is still becoming) a site of cultural trauma. Dullaart has made work about the semantics and connotations of the ‘heal’ tool in Photoshop before. This is a key piece for understanding a wider point about editing. The creation of the internet is like a massive cultural edit - platforms, plugins and filters facilitate certain types of behaviour and content at the expense of others. With this in mind, Dullaart points back to the early years of the internet and computer graphics when people like John Knoll or Steve Wozniak or any number of CalArts or MIT students started inventing, naming and structuring things without realising they were laying the foundations for a new frontier. Here’s where I see a lot of crossover some of my interests.
My film Z was about historical myopia. I also made another piece a long time ago about how Renaissance astronomers took to their telescopes in swathes to start naming the constellations. I used the example of a guy called Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, who gave a constellation the rather myopic name Telescopium. The point was that we often rather short-sightedly commemorate the values of our age as we enter new ones, unaware that we’re creating a legacy far beyond those decisions.
Dullaart steps out of the crushing present moment and looks at the last 20 years critically. He denaturalises the internet with his talent for conceptual inversions, often consisting of very simple but revealing feedback loops. For example, the following videos (not in the Carroll / Fletcher show) take early net.art and feed it through Fiverr, a web service that reviews websites for their effectiveness.
Such fantastic work! We’re seeing how the colonised internet of today sees the free internet of the early 90s. They make you think about the ideologies we’ve adopted without realising. Is the internet a tool or a utility? Should platform be a more politicised term? Is the net commercial or residential? Should it be usable, democratic, functional? Who decided what it should be and how? These sorts of questions have arisen repeatedly in certain circles since the inception of the internet and come to the absolute forefront of society in the last couple of years, but rarely have they been encoded so humorously and elegantly into an artwork.
There’s a rare economy and precision in these pieces. It's almost muscular. I wish I could write as expertly on the topic of conceptual art strategies as Owen Pallett does on musical theory in pop but I think it’s clear that Constant Dullaart is a master of a certain type of inversion. Sometimes this technique has the potential to be simply illustrative (or at least conceptually simplistic as with the case of the Georg Baselitz piece), but sometimes he takes images, and concepts on round trips through software where they start to accumulate more complex ideas. With Jennifer in Paradise, he feeds a rich, rare and totemic analog image from the early days of computer graphics back through the Photoshop of now and onto the gallery walls as a love letter to the past. It’s like conceptual time travel.
There was one point during my visit when I started to question whether the volume and range of work represented a polymath responding excitedly to an under investigated and critical stage in history, or a scattergun approach that capitalises on an emerging awareness of - and market for – digital work. I think some of the work starts to feel like a dust jacket for ideas that live elsewhere. This is art though, so that’s hardly a complaint.