Text: Breaking Point Josephine Skinner
Keeping up to speed used to be pricey. The first upgradable computer, the IBM System/360, cost half as much to develop as the atomic bomb. How exciting and terrifying those computers must have been when installed in cutting-edge offices back in 1965. Filling entire rooms like giant cyborgian aliens they imposed themselves physically on the existing world order, not to mention on white-collar life. In an episode of Mad Men, the IBM System/360 didn’t just displace the creative agency’s creative team from their workroom, but its relentless hum drove one of them to breaking point. He cut off his own nipple to let his feelings “flow”.
Lucas Davidson’s exhibition Untitled (Flat Screens) evokes a comparably visceral relationship to the objecthood of digital technology. On the walls, strikingly large monochromatic prints hang alongside wall-mounted assemblages of repurposed digital hardware, while the center space is dominated by a freestanding formation of protruding monitor brackets that display a panopticon of flickering screens. Static-filled LED screens and blackened-out circuit boards reappear throughout, along with excesses of exposed wiring, media players and dangling speaker drums—machinations that comprise the compositions and also play their audiovisual content. The speakers emit a subdued but immersive drone of white noise that reverberates around the gallery like a meditative “Ohm”, or else, the murmur of impending doom. This subtle sense of alarm is fitting for a show in which, navigating around the centerpiece, you might lose an eye, if not a nipple.
Unlike an early encounter with the IBM System/360 computer, however, the technology in Davidson’s show is usually so familiar that it is near invisible in our daily lives—physically streamlined to the point of camouflage and psychically inseparable from how we think and feel. Untitled (Flat Screens) instead intervenes in this invisibility, asking us to experience technology again, as alien and new.
But what does it mean to be alien when the upgrading of technology is in a state of acceleration, when the novelty of the new is overturned on almost a daily basis? The latest models and brand designs of computers, TVs and mobile devices are released with such speed and relative affordability that the last real limitation is a human one: our capacity to reinvent and rebrand ourselves. A rather sinister form of ‘emotional intelligence’—the data-mined modulations of our digitally-shared affect—informs wily marketing strategists the rate with which our desires can be fuelled, satisfied and reignited without creating complete consumer exhaustion. Economic and emotional burnout.
This is no more evident than in the digital TVs that litter pavements alongside their clunky cathode ray predecessors. Born of this curbside digital dystopia, Davidson’s exhibition reflects not on the obsolescence of analogue technologies but on the immanent obsolescence of the latest ones. Comprising the raw material in his artworks, digital discards become symbolic of the acceleration intrinsic to late capitalism; its effects amplified not just in mass consumption, but also in social life and private pathologies.
After all, what is so promising about a shiny new screen, so satisfying about pulling off its protective plastic, is so quickly tainted with every scratch and greasy smudge—the irksome process of technological humanization. Irritating imperfections, such as iOS bugs, for instance, are like the flawed personality traits of loved ones that we begrudgingly endure. But the ultimate disillusionment with techno-novelty takes place when its inner workings are revealed and the fallibility of its forms exposed.
Cracked smartphone screens destroy our effortless slipping into the social media imagination, just as Modernist paintings foregrounded flatness, doing away with illusions of infinite perspective and otherworldly escape. Even worse, when unsightly parts spill out from inside the sleek, sealed shells of electronics, they offer a sordid reminder that even high-tech hardware cannot escape mortality—the embarrassing taboo of digital embodiment.
But for Davidson, technological dysfunction and destruction aren’t to be avoided but amplified, to be pushed to their extremes. This strategy aligns with current ideas about accelerationism, a term that first emerged in political theory and is now gaining traction in the realm of aesthetics. Central to accelerationism is the premise that we need to look to the future for realistic solutions, rather than find them in a pre-capitalist past. As the effects of capitalism suffuse every aspect of economic, social and psychic life, its theorists argue, there is no utopia “outside” our new reality of global homogenization, climate change, big data and the endless excesses of consumption.
Instead, hoping that capitalism will eventually burn out, reach breaking point, accelerate itself into oblivion, optimistic propagators anticipate an inevitable post-capitalist moment, on the other side of our status quo. Like fast-forwarding VHS tape, they propose that perhaps we can speed-up this process, in what Mark Fisher calls a “…cheerleading for the intensification of any capitalist process whatsoever, particularly the “worst,” in the hope that this will bring the system to a point of terminal crisis.”[i]
The point of terminal crisis is paramount in Untitled (Flat Screens). Consumer goods are literally torn apart in order to be resurrected and photographic emulsion is, as Davidson puts it, “stretched to breaking point”, before its return, fractured and warped, to photographic paper. But, these acts of artistic regeneration equally reflect criticisms of the accelerationist call for crisis. Steven Shapiro argues, for instance, that crises will never spell the end of capitalism, when they prove time and time again (as the 2008 GFC demonstrated) to be integral to its life force. “…[T]hey are occasions for the dramas of “creative destruction” by means of which, phoenix-like, capitalism repeatedly renews itself”, he writes. “We are all caught within this loop.”[ii]
Davidson is acutely aware, on a personal level, of being caught in a loop—of the sense that, despite his critical reservations, he quite easily slips into screen-time seductions. It is “inescapable”, he says, not only because it surrounds and surveils us, but there is also a compulsion to consume it, use it and lose yourself within it. The aesthetics of flaw and failure take on a whole new meaning when brought to bear on the digitization of our personal lives. Are our closest relationships dysfunctioning, our thoughts glitching, our emotions corrupted? Is the comforting, deadening drone of white noise now hardwired within our brains?
Teasing out the implications of our present-day digital addiction, Davidson’s work evokes a type of nostalgia—not as a yearning for a pre-digital past so much as for a digital utopian future. The birth of the Internet in the early 90s had promised a personal and social revival from the so-called “psychic genocide” inflicted by the despotic media industries of the broadcast era.[iii] In the decades leading-up, the hippy influence of US West Coast counterculturalists on Silicon Valley entrepreneurs meant that the digital “revolution” promised to be spiritual, as much as technological; mediated through our inner worlds and social relationships as much as 1s and 0s.
While undoubtedly enabling us to be less passive and more productive, less alone and infinitely more connected—it seems the liberating effects of digital technology have gone so far they’ve come full circle. According to critics, in contrast to our earlier, couch-potato passivity, we’re now psychically afflicted, en masse, by Internet-based hyperactivity. We suffer from a “psychopathology of information overload”, writes Geert Lovink, and an intellectual dumbing-down from “shallow” online reading, argues Nicholas Carr.[iv]
But Davidson’s outlook on the effects of digital technology is more ambiguous, not all doom and gloom. Rather than cautioning the perils of online life, he explores how, for better or for worse, digitisation permeates our IRL [In Real Life] existence. Reflected in his artworks, the frameworks that previously distanced the real and the digital have, in contemporary society, been disassembled, their boundaries reconfigured. The flickering, digitally recorded analogue static that gives his screens a sense of sentience is just one example where the flows of data and consciousness appear in Davidson’s work as one in the same thing.
An effect of this new reality that does concern Davidson is that our reliance on screens means we’re often disconnected from our bodies. In Untitled (Flat Screens) he upturns this scenario, repurposing digital hardware to conversely bring us back into our bodies and generate a sensed awareness for our surroundings.
In the prints Fuzzy Trace Theory and Bottom Up Perception, for example, Davidson utilizes both scale and subject to converge digital aesthetics with our human physiology. Photographs of switched-off black screens have been transformed beyond recognition during a process in which the artist dislodges the emulsion in fluid and then teases, stretches and strains it beyond its limits. New, abstract images are created from these delicately destroyed screens. The rectangle of black emulsion when broken apart improbably resembles human cells, fissures in skin and electrical synapses. This imagined human microbiology when viewed in the dramatically enlarged exhibition prints becomes akin, not least in size, to patterned animal skins: they are bodily, beautiful and tragic. In this sense, the daubs and flecks of black emulsion act like a Rorschach; speaking truths beyond their material by eliciting our impulse to see ourselves—even our strange physiology—within the most abstract of image. Turning viewers into the object of their own psychoanalyses, these prints, as with other works in the show, engage the screen’s black void as a space that invites self-reflexivity.
In the wall-mounted assemblage, Slow Drifting Hunch, for instance, viewers see themselves reflected where black acrylic substitutes the glass of disabled screens. In these dark mirrors faces become partially cyborg, as cheeks are replaced by circuitry and eyes are interlaced with cabling. This apocalyptic-sounding scenario heightens our awareness for the blurring human-machine interface—computers are shifting ever closer to human consciousness at the same time as we engineer our bodies to become closer to machine. But, by engaging the apparatus of our everyday to do so, Davidson reminds us that this already takes form in the familiar, such as the breathing lights of laptops and the reassuring whispers from our iPhones.
Reward Pathways is another assemblage that presents the flattened-out insides of electronic hardware. As future digital relics, both works expose a bird’s-eye view into the architecture of our science-fictional present; the miniature high-rises and transport lines of blackened circuit boards prophesize a burnt-out 21st Century civilization. Rorschach-like again, but here in sculptural form, these dark assemblages appear to reveal how, as Mark Fisher notes, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”[v] Evoking this sense of melodrama, the works draw a somewhat paradoxical parallel between the dramatic aesthetics of 80s Future Noir films and the black canvases of 20th Century monochrome painting, which rejected symbolism and storytelling. The black screens that await activation in our pockets and living rooms, Davidson’s works suggest, might sit somewhere in between: they are objects temporarily void of narrative, but offer infinite depths of emotion.
For Shaviro, such is the nature of aesthetic experience that it is the one thing capitalism can’t claim.[vi] It has also been suggested, as Fisher explains, that it is not only by accelerating the “worst” of capitalism that we might instigate its end, but the “…desires and processes which capitalism gives rise to and feeds upon, but which it cannot contain”.[vii]
Both notions converge in Untitled (Flat Screens) where Davidson seeks to “shatter the idea of the frame”, refusing the standardized limitations that contain imagery—the 16:9 digital screen format and the finite edges and expectations of photographic paper. But the frames he disassembles are also philosophical. As digital technologies and global homogenization permeate contemporary life, we don’t often have the opportunity to reflect on where digital ends and we begin. Davidson’s desire to break from format, therefore, is fuelled by creating an IRL space for digital contemplation. Teetering on the edge of matter and of media, between the calculable nature of technology and the unknowns of our psychology, his exhibition brings us into an aesthetic encounter with the digital-physical boundary.
Here we find that “creative destruction” could equally apply to us, the subjective products of capitalism, as it does the consumer products Davidson reconfigures. Seeing ourselves within the reflective black of fragmented screens we might imagine a new future; one in which contemporary life is continually teased apart in order to be repurposed and renewed.
Josephine Skinner is an artist, curator and PhD candidate in Media Arts at UNSW.[i] Mark Fisher, ‘“A social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude”: Popular Culture’s Interrupted Accelerationist Dreams’, e-flux Journal #46, June 2013, www.e-flux.com.
[ii] Steven Shaviro, ‘Accelerationist Aesthetics: Necessary Inefficiency in Times of Real Subsumption’, e-flux Journal #46, June 2013, www.e-flux.com.
[iii] Michael Shamberg quoted in William Merrin, ‘Still Fighting “the Beast”: Guerrilla Television and the Limits of YouTube’, Cultural Politics #8, March 2012.
[iv] Geert Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011; Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to Our Brains, New York & London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010.
[v] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, London: Zero Books, 2009.
[vi] Steven Shaviro, ‘Accelerationist Aesthetics: Necessary Inefficiency in Times of Real Subsumption’, e-flux Journal #46, June 2013, www.e-flux.com.
[vii] Mark Fisher, ‘“A social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude”: Popular Culture’s Interrupted Accelerationist Dreams’, e-flux Journal #46, June 2013, www.e-flux.com