Ed Atkins has been one of the most visible practitioners of CGI in contemporary art for a few years now. His website is here and his Tumblr here. Also, an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist here if you want a bit more background. I’m not a critic, but I’m interested in critical approaches to art, and Ed Atkins ticks a whole lot of boxes for this blog.

His new show at The Serpentine Sackler Gallery is representative not only of his acceptance by the institution but also of the wider acceptance and interest in digital image making beyond glitches, Tumblrs and gifs. This is a great thing! The novelty factor of the first wave of digital work is starting to wear off, and together with recent shows at The ChisenhaleAuto Italia and Matt’s Gallery, the new Constant Dullaart show and the digital season at the Barbican, it’s looking like 2014 might be the year digital art grows up. This might be a difficult adolescence, however - certainly if press and critical reception is anything to go by. Although the gallery have done a good job of contextualizing the work, reviewers find it hard to get a handle on it. Atkins is often described as an ‘HD artist’, whatever that is. There’s also a short write-up in W magazine that somehow manages to position his work as being about social networking. This says so much about the popular need to conflate all things digital into some comment on social networking and its discontents. Another way into the piece – and one that is reproduced quite widely - is that the computer generated avatar ‘reminds viewers of their own physicality’. Again, not the best representation of the work. I for one was not particularly aware of my own body when viewing the work (at least no more than usual).

I had lots of hopes for the show, though after catching an interesting interview with Ed Atkins on Resonance FM, I was right to expect the level of academic and literary comment to pass me by. I was expecting this part of the work to be foregrounded, but in actual fact I found it to be the least interesting aspect. Ed Atkins reads a lot, and chances are you probably haven’t read the books he has. Don’t worry, you don’t have to.

The show consists predominantly of one film split over multiple screens, (even more if you consider that the same film/different edit is showing concurrently at Palais de Tokyo in Paris). It’s great to see computer animation technology being used so confidently as part of a considered and complex practice, even if the press don’t know what to make of it. So, how to describe this show that even the Guardian’s Adrian Searle seemed faintly bemused by ? 

There are six screens in total, spread around this airy pavilion in Hyde Park. The core of the work, shown on the two biggest screens, features a 3D computer animated hooligan (of sorts), lounging naked in a variety of minimalist scenes. Scrawled over his skin are abusive terms. He’s been defaced like a barmat or an old textbook or like the groom who wakes up the morning after his stag night. He drinks, smokes, sings, sighs, pisses, flashes, and confesses his thoughts to camera. He’s like that guy at the end of the bar you don’t want to talk to, the loony local who no-one looks in the eye for fear of a long rambling diatribe. Except this hooligan is almost eloquent; academic, poetic, literary and mystical. He slams a drink down and lights up a cigarette and starts talking, but quickly the sense dissolves into a kind of spiteful beat poetry and all of a sudden he’s talking about something else entirely or we’ve simply cut to another scene. The viewer might attempt to anchor sense through the frequent subtitles or the shiny graphics that fly in and out like a news show, but they’d be frustrated at any attempts to locate meaning in this piece. All interpretive exits are blocked. Much like this character, who may be captor or captive, we’ve no idea how we can get in and out of this experience. It’s indecipherable, impenetrable.

The few things that seem to break through this layer of impenetrability are the most base or scatological. A comedy fart sound escapes from a speaker, a metre-high image of a cock pops cartoonishly through a glory hole, the guy pisses in a glass. The doodles on the character’s skin seem colloquial as well. It’s the most puerile or sensational aspects of the show that connect with the audience, who are clearly eager for that connection amongst all the strange imagery. Sitting as it does next to The Serpentine lake in summer, the exhibition almost feels like a carnival sideshow, like a bearded lady in a darkened room, the perfectly freaky foil for sunshine, pedallos and cornettos.

The impenetrability of the film reminded me a little of Tao Lin’s novel Eeeee Eee Eeee. All disembodied, indeterminate apathetic neuroses. Circular and feverish but somehow without enough impetus to complete a whole revolution. The same impenetrability is where the choice of medium – the CGI – starts to feel useful, like a conscious strategy. It is well-rendered, high end without being prohibitively expensive. There’s depth of field and sharp reflections, but not much sub-surface scatterglobal illumination or refraction (click those links why don’t you!). There’s a lot of post effects like particles and lens flares. It’s closer to the digital language of broadcast graphics than Hollywood film as there’s a lot of tricks and seduction but the underlying structure is basic, tinny and empty. The character is good quality and driven by motion capture, my guess provided by the artist himself.

It’s extremely well-realised and like my film, Spherical Harmonics, it goes for broke with the sheen because it needs to in order to address a specific issue: impenetrability. That’s right, the frustrating script, the obtuse structure, the indecipherable meaning, it all comes together in an interrogation of the digital surface. The too-perfect quality of computer generated reality is like a blockade. It’s (almost) unbroken, there’s no dirt, no death. There are hairline fractures, manifested most significantly by the recurring image of a peephole through which the character occasionally peers, pees or inserts himself. This is the most obvious site of what the artist seems very interested in - transgression. 

This is where we see - and how we are prompted to think - of crude things: farts, bodily fluids, tourettic impulses, swearing, (along with their cousin, the abhorrent – cancer, disease, death) as being very base, very fleshy and ‘corporeal’ (as the catalogue and the artist like to say). Yet Ed Atkins is relocating this corporeal quality in the everlasting, ever-present, immaterial medium of CGI. It could make you think of a lot of things: how the digital can preserve things, like in formaldehyde, archived in perfect working order forever. How that preservation is like death itself. How the digital erases the process of its own construction. How the internet might obscure the origins of transgression behind anonymous online platforms (OK, W article, I’ll forgive the social network interpretation for now). Even how future technologies might allow us to erase transgression altogether, creating a perfectly edited individual ‘brand’ that lives past us and that never shits or cries or lets anything loose. A living, talking digital tombstone. Or the opposite of that scenario - we might only be noted for how we transgress. These are the sorts of issues that really matter in a critical approach to digital mediums, because as sci-fi as they sound, they are very real and very pressing. Ed Atkins is taking his unique interest in humans, their desires, transgressions and demise and exploring how these corporeal experiences can rupture the immaterial and immortal digital surface.

Some additional notes:

The gallery blurb states that Atkins worked with a computer animation expert to realise the film. The artist does have a fairly sophisticated level of engagement with the toolset, but I wonder if, in not getting his hands ‘dirty’ so to speak, he’s sidelined some of the interesting avenues you discover if you work through making. Here are a couple of those interesting paths, dissected:

There are some additional exhibits – text on panels, mainly – that feel quite peripheral. They are of interest, however, and should you spend time looking at them you’ll notice what looks like a flayed human hide. This is what’s called a texture map and it is created by ‘UV mapping’ the character, which means mapping the 3D mesh so that a painted texture can seamlessly be applied to it without stretching or deforming. Almost all 3D characters and objects require this type of 2D pelt to be applied to them. It’s interesting how Ed Atkins has used this like the page of a notepad, inscribing and scrawling on it. Given the artist’s interest in postmodern literary theory, there’s plenty of scope in this interpretation and it might even yield a more fruitful examination than the one I’ve given in this piece.

The lineage of luxury in art - from lapis lazuli, to bronze casting, gold plating or diamond encrusting - extends now to graphics cards, ray-tracing, skin rendering, reflection mapping and to processor speeds, hyperthreading, render farms and the complex world of outsourcing, government subsidies or mineral extraction. It’s important and interesting! Curators take note!

The character is naked and hairless. The viewer would assume there is a conceptual reason behind this, but they might not realise that rendering hair and clothes is much more expensive and time consuming. I find this point quite interesting. Logistics are interesting. They lead us into conversations about technology and value. What is a ‘premium’ digital image? We wrongly assume that the long relationship between art and material value (or mineral value, really) terminates with the digital, but it’s simply not so. The lineage of luxury in art - from lapis lazuli, to bronze casting, gold plating or diamond encrusting - extends now to graphics cards, ray-tracing, skin rendering, reflection mapping and to processor speeds, hyperthreading, render farms and the complex world of outsourcing, government subsidies or mineral extraction. It’s important and interesting! Curators take note!