Last week I attended Penetrating Surfaces, Robert Seidel’s curated screening at the Austrian Film Museum as part of Vienna Independent Shorts. Robert’s latest work is documented in the clip above. The screening came in two parts, spread over two days. Both screenings were well-attended, and the Q&A after the first session generated lots of audience engagement and food for thought. I’ll save some of the issues for another post, but it was clear that the event pushed the discourse around digital works to really new and exciting places. There’s no-one writing meaningfully around these issues so the screening felt vital in a way that something on the verge of articulation often does.
The works were challenging, especially shown in sequence on the big screen. Some of the audience would have had a hard time sorting the experimental from the engineered and the accidental from the deliberate. This was compounded by the range of works presented; animations that looked like event visuals, digitally-altered live action models, neo-structuralist film, data visualisation installations, motion graphics experiments and animated modernist painting. Despite the range, the selection felt cohesive.
Robert’s selection was an historical survey of sorts, spanning around 15 years. Some of the work felt primitive, and not always the older pieces. The attenuation we all have (regardless of technical expertise) towards digital techniques was problematized. One of the challenges was sorting an experimental use of cutting edge software from a cutting edge use of older software. The software problem loomed large here: as much as it pains many artists to admit, the role of software has become an intrinsic part of the discourse around digital art. Since returning from Vienna, I’ve dipped more deeply into Lev Manovich's Software Takes Command, and it is his theoretical investigation of software (as ‘software studies’) that seems especially relevant. Again, something very fresh and barely articulated in wider discourse.
My film, Spherical Harmonics , looked better than ever on the big screen. Similarly, seeing cinema-scaled works by Ian Cheng, Yves Netzhammer and Haluk Akakçe felt like a treat. You can see the full list of films here, along with a piece written by Robert, but for now, here are four of my highlights.
Takeshi Murata and Billy Grant, Night Moves, 2012, USA, 6:02min (Courtesy of Salon 94, New York)
Art or animation? A question that came up a lot. Takeshi Murata is firmly established in the art camp, and with this piece you can see why. Not only does he depict an artist’s studio (a rather easy way into reflexivity) the piece retains an ambiguity that few commercially-trained animators would allow. Instead of animation, here we have a kind of animism – a demonstration of how dextrous and wireless the ghost in the machine has become. Much like Ian Cheng’s piece the piece feels truly alive with something we don’t quite understand.
Alex McLeod, Prismatic Planes, 2011, Canada, 3:20min
oftware and plugins are often designed stealthily to accomplish certain commercial goals – to depict certain things perfectly (shiny surfaces, natural phenomena, studio lighting). Alex McLeod is purposefully backfiring these weapons, obscuring traces and revealing them in unusual places. I often look for CG work to show the seams in the name of art. Here, the artist has added seams, taken them away and re-stitched them together unexpectedly. The traces of software have become problematized whilst retaining the seduction of the medium. This artist understands where and how digital slippage can occur.
Kijek / Adamski, in statu nascendi, 2011, Poland, 3:08min
Creating digital images is always a collaboration between the artist and the computer. The power dynamics of this relationship are explored in myriad ways by contemporary digital artists. With certain works by Jon Rafman, Katie Torn or Claudia Hart, we’re almost seeing software winning (with the benediction of the artist). They make images that feel out of grasp: distant, clumsy, messy almost. This can lead to a view of technology as something cryptic, remote and alien which (in curator speak) 'redefines’ us, somehow absolving us of the complicated fact that we create it, employ it and define it. Conversely, some artists work with more dexterity and control, harnessing the data-shifting, weight-lifting power of the computer to produce seamless, detailed, polished, complex images - Quayola or Jonathan Monaghan for example. This erases the process of production, making the computer’s work invisible and reifying the artist as an all powerful magician.
The human/machine dynamic is so often a power-struggle - either let the computer do its thing and relinquish control or keep it on a tight leash and make it seem like a magic trick. Kijek and Adamski have struck a balance between these extremes with their film, which shows a render in progress ('rendering’ being the process that occurs when the 3D animation software calculates the lighting in a 3D scene). The collaboration here is not about struggle at all, it’s a human observing a computer as it parses our desires.
Zeitguised (Jamie Raap and Henrik Mauler), Unstill Life, 2014, USA/Germany, 2:40min
I’m a big fan of Zeitguised. Often what they do ends up feeling like fashion and perhaps that’s what it is: endlessly inventive, glossy, often abstracted and with little critical weight. With one of the most watchable portfolios in animation, it was a pleasure to catch the premiere of their latest work, which I felt was step forward for them, though I’m sure they don’t feel the need to step anywhere other than the sweet spot the currently occupy! It was kinda like Inception – it demonstrated the mutability of digital realism in a truly engaging way. Just a step shy of exploring the wider implications of the medium, it nevertheless entertained.
Hugo Arcier, Folded Nature, 2013, France, 2:09min
Folded Nature felt like it could have gone two ways: design/motion graphics or art. My feeling is that it’s weighted 70/30 towards motion graphics, mainly because the pairing of twinkly music-box soundtrack with miniaturised set makes it feel fairly straightforward. What isn’t straightforward is the experimentation with depth of field, camera movement, photographic imagery and negative spaces. Entrancing, with a nugget of thought.
So, that’s a little selection of work that I enjoyed. All of them are fairly well-executed, but I feel this relates to my point about a balanced approached to the power dynamics of human/computer collaboration: all of these works examine digital tools in an articulated way, dissecting them and reappropriating plugins and software workflows. They all display a level of digital nativism that moves past the lazy curatorial rubric of digital work that 'reflects’ on the preponderance of the digital ‘surface’ in popular culture. It’s not enough to simply re-present the digital in a critical context - we need to penetrate these surfaces and explore how and why they work. So - thanks to Robert Seidel, the Austrian Film Museum and Vienna Independent Shorts for giving us the opportunity.
Additional shout-outs to Vladislav Knezevic’s Binary Pitch and Josh Wedlake’s The North Sea Riviera - neither screened as part of Penetrating Surfaces, but both deserved to be approached in the same context.