Blue skies moody blues
By Sebastian Goldspink
for the exhibition Living with Uncertainty
‘These are uncertain times’ is a common refrain in moments of chaos and upheaval. In the recent and continuing bushfire disaster that has gripped Australia, the idea of uncertainty has come to the fore. An uneasy uncertainty based on the very real possibility that we are seeing a fundamental change in our planet. That this is not an isolated incident like Cyclone Tracey, the weather event that decimated Darwin in 1974, but rather that this uncertainty has morphed into the constant. That our future will be beset by these changes, defined.
Personal uncertainty is a strange phenomenon - it comes in waves in life and hopefully abates but always returns. We as humans, as thinkers oscillate between this state and states of carefree abandonment. Our lives have been defined by these movements yet our memories have the ability to seemingly, partially wipe the slate clean only to have the pangs of anxiety flow back to us in crisis.
This exhibition seeks to find a state of calm amidst this chaos and static of contemporary life. Artist Lucas Davidson draws on his memories of childhood, growing up on the Central Coast of NSW and visits to Newcastle and his early memories of this site serving a seemingly oppositional purpose to its current use as a place of beauty and creativity.
He recalls a simple life revolving around the lakes and beaches of his home and the ever-present blue sky. An Australian sky, stark and stretching across the seemingly endless vista of the land. He remembers the simplicity, he remembers the Lock Up space in its former guise. But above all, literally above all, he remembers the sky.
This exhibition features three key works that cross over each other in subject and form. They could be read as one or as three distinct changing meditations on a theme. The work Living with Uncertainty, which shares its name with the title of the exhibition, reflects concerns and areas of interest common to all three installations. A series of blue acrylic panels hang from the ceiling. They are in the shade of Translucent Blue Number 300 a type of acrylic colouring that resembles the soft blue tones of the sky. They are reflective of the environment but also the viewer. They challenge the viewer to look around their surroundings but also look inward. The blue is not a dark blue, a moody blue, it is the blue of the limitless expanse of the sky and the soul. It is that point that the blue of water merges into the blue of the sky, seamlessly blending across a hazy threshold.
A small video work As Time Parts occupies an altogether different threshold that is immediately identifiable as a space concurrent with the galleries former use. The work was created by filming a white wall soaked with the blue ‘dead screen’ light of a video projector projecting no content, through the suspended shards of the kinetic work Living with Uncertainty. The footage is flipped, moving the flowing panels of the installation from vertical to horizontal. Moving its aspect into the orientation of landscape, technically and figuratively.
The final work, In Search of Solitude rekindles elements of both the aforementioned works. The acrylic reappears but is layered on top of itself at points creating a change in the blue, a blue that at times approaches the dark and the moody but then gives way to clear skies. Analogous to the initial idea of these notes around the pulsating return of uncertainty in everyday lives. It reaches back to the video and its bars and reflects the built environment on which it sits. Above it bars or lines that appear horizontal and vertical depending on your viewing point. Above those, a sky. This work leads the viewer along a path to an end point that could resemble a diving board or a plank. A point where the floor gives way to suspension. To the unknown. The work functioning as a linear proto-graph for a life coloured by changes in tone that leads to a point that unites us all. A point of closure that for all of us in undefined.
The only certainty that we as people share is that of uncertainty. How we react to this most fundamental of human conditions defines us. Our ability to see beauty beyond it is what ultimately sustains us.
way(s) in & way(s) out
By Naomi Riddle
for the exhibition A way in a way out
‘No one can own it; no one can own its meaning.’ Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty (2011), p. 46
I write this essay the way Lucas Davidson creates in his studio: beginning with no particular idea in mind, other than, simply, to begin. For Davidson, it is more about the playing, working, waiting, returning, stumbling and discovering, than the mapping out of a particular track. Taking his lead, I want the ideas in this text to spill over and into one another, with haste. I want to them to resist steady direction, or a firm hand seeking to push them into alignment.
In her essay ‘Without End’, Hélène Cixous links the processes of writing and drawing (and, I would add, photographing) together, suggesting that they are connected because of their responsiveness to failure and chance—a ‘seek[ing] in the dark.’ For Cixous, such processes of creation are undertaken by those who ‘do not find, do not find, and as a result of not finding and not understanding, (draw) help the secret beneath their steps to shoot forth.’ It is a way of being open to the possibility of knowing in the not-knowing—not foreclosing or demarcating, but still, flying with eyes closed.
‘I am, following, the error’, writes Cixous, ‘without fear but with respect.’
We perceive (falsely) that the eye of the camera is static because of its ability to freeze the image: whatever motion is being photographed is held still, for time immemorial. The digital image goes one step further, removing the natural corruptibility of a photograph (decay and colour degradation) by saving it as a collection of pixels. Even the images that we post & delete, or share & delete, or message & delete, are being stored and filed somewhere. Clearing the trash can on your desktop is only a simulation of emptying an actual trash can, and it is only sometimes an act of complete erasure.
But Davidson not only takes the digital image and makes it material again—printing it and altering it—but also makes an image that moves. There is no time-freeze in Davidson’s image, instead an original photograph is toyed with over such a length of time that it becomes impossible to decide where a single frame begins and ends. (What you are looking at in the following pages is only one book end, a final marker of the work, an image that is a result of a previous image. The chronology of each particular work exists on a continuum, with no demarcated lines.)
What is it, exactly, that happens to Davidson’s images?
The digital photograph is taken/ printed/ immersed in liquid emulsion/ dried/ ripped/ torn/ twisted or pulled/ disintegrated and remade/ (re)photographed and (re)printed.
Flatness becomes three-dimensional (once immersed for an extended period, Davidson can literally pick up the surface of an entire photograph just as we pick up a dropped cloth) and then returns to flatness. As such, the coordinates we take for granted when parsing the act of making, and the act of looking, begin to slip.
The hypervisibility of images means that we read images fast: scrolling down at the rate of seconds, we apprehend the image and its content at mere surface level, perhaps liking, perhaps not, perhaps saving to look at again later (and never doing so), but, nevertheless, hurrying down our bottomless feeds. Davidson’s images demand the opposite. They ask for slowness instead of speed; they require you to stay still in the present moment in an almost meditative state (your project is to intuit, and attend to, the feelings or markers of thought, not to decipher them clearly and rationally).
In making a daily practice of returning to look at Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (1648), the writer T. J. Clark finds that slow looking and slow thinking uncovers a different way of being with, and inside of, the work:
Astonishing things happen if one gives oneself over to the process of seeing again and again: aspect after aspect of the picture seems to surface, what is salient and what is incidental alter bewilderingly from day to day, the larger order of the depiction breaks up, recrystallises, fragments again, persists like an afterimage.
Each of Davidson’s works are already an afterimage of an image that has been crystallised, then split, then recrystalised again. And the rapidity with which we can see them differently, over and over again, occurs in a single viewing. It is the immediate question of ‘what is it that I am looking at’ that punctuates this arrestment. And, what is it that you are looking at? Gossamer fabric/ a network of rivers/ the wash of steady rain/ pinched flesh/ bruised skin/ the life line on the inside of a palm/ an upright hair follicle/ peaks & troughs/ peaks & troughs/ curtains/ or the webby cells of plants.
There is no narrative or clear map—and the answer to our answer, from Davidson, would be that you are looking at all of these things and none of these things at the same time.
(There is something else I want to say here, though, because it sounds as if I’m saying that Davidson is solely preoccupied with an extended temporal frame, whereas really I think that he is also preoccupied with the experience of the moment-to-moment: whether it is possible to pin down all that occurs in the instant; whether it can be pried open and retaken and rethought. It is, as Cixous suggests, the instant that always escapes us, which then makes us want to return to it all the more: ‘that instant which strikes between two instants, that instant which flies into bits under its own blow, which has neither length, nor duration, only its own shattering brilliance, the shock of the passage from night to light.’ In removing the potential for fixed meaning, Davidson is giving us something that has no explicit length or duration, but rather multiple perspectives, experienced simultaneously.)
There is something that stays. The body (as skin, as cartilage, as clenched hand, as flesh and bone) always reasserts itself. Yet this is not a figurative impression of the body, but a moment where the body becomes so abstracted that its presence takes us by surprise—the subject (Davidson’s own body) becomes an object, a surface on which we can work. That is to say, Davidson breaks open the coherent body and leaves us with its excised form: a closeup taken so close that it becomes a landscape instead of a portrait.
There is some pain to these excisions (like the image itself, the body is similarly pinched, torn, lifted, pulled and twisted). And, in the particularities of the tearing, we can liken Davidson’s process to what Simone Weil termed ‘decreation’ (‘to undo the creature in us’): an emptying of the self, an unburdening of the self, a puncturing of the self in order to transcend this self. For Weil, ‘time in its course tears appearance from being and being from appearance by violence’, and Davidson is also separating (tearing) the appearance of the body from being in the body (by violence).
Weil’s process of decreation is a paradoxical bind, a set of contradictory ideas existing all-at-once: we must withdraw so as to love; we must evacuate to fill; we must decreate to create. The contents of Davidson’s work, and the process of making it, reveals a similar set of paradoxical overlaps: there is the longue durée and the instant; the positive and negative light, inverted; the legible and the opaque. If, as the poet Anne Carson writes of Weil’s paradox, ‘to catch sight of this fact brings a wrench in perception, forces the perceiver to a point where she has to disappear from herself in order to look’, then the same can be said for Davidson’s series of images.
‘Look’, is really what I am saying, and then, ‘look again’. And rest easy (as Davidson does in the making, or I do in the writing) in the not knowing and the knowing.
 Hélène Cixous, ‘Without end, no, state of drawingness, no, rather: the executioner’s taking off’ (1993) in Stigmata (New York: Routledge, 2005 ), p. 26
 Cixous, p. 26-7
 Cixous, p. 28
 T. J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 5
 Cixous, p. 38
 Simone Weil, as quoted in Anne Carson, ‘Decreation: How women like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil tell God’, in Decreation, (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), p. 167
 Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. Emma Crawford; Mario von der Ruhr, (London and New York: Routledge, 2004 ), p. 39
 Anne Carson, ‘Decreation: How women like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil tell God’, in Decreation, (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), p. 169
A way in a way out
In conversation with Mariam Arcilla
for the exhibition A way in a way out
Our conversation takes place in the artist’s Sydney studio, in the lead-up to Davidson’s 2019 exhibition ‘A Way In, A Way Out’ at Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney.
MA: Let’s start with the title ‘A Way In, A Way Out.’ It evokes a directional yet dualistic tone, a feeling of being in limbo and in free flow. How does this title speak to your arts making process?
LD: I initially connected with the title ‘A Way In, A Way Out’ because it spoke about the way I work in the studio. There is often a cyclical process that occurs within the making, where I return to certain ideas and images over and over again in the lead up to a final work. I have this quote in my notes by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: who said ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards’ and this for me is something that makes a lot of sense in relation to my studio practice. I often don’t set out to make something that has a particular outcome. I work in a way that is experimental, attempting to tease out ideas, which lead to mistakes. After a period of time these mistakes or failures start to form their own language, and that's when the understanding and narrative of the work begins to form. For this exhibition, I wanted to include some of those earlier decisions as part of a broader dialogue that informs the final works. So publishing an artist book to accompany the show seemed like the most appropriate way to demonstrate the process.
MA: What drives your art making and why photography as a medium?
LD: I have always had a compulsion to make. When working in the studio I like to work on multiple things at the same time, experimenting with different mediums and processes while looking for things that draw me in. When you find one thing that requires your full attention, everything else begins to recede and you become focused. This is a sweet spot in my practice that I’m continually working towards. With photography I was initially drawn to its immediacy. Photography is a medium that I grew up with and experimented with, and the more I tested the medium the more I was drawn to the point where the photograph or the material no longer operated in the way it should. I’ve been working with photographic emulsion for over a decade now. So when I found that I could transform a still image into a moving image by separating the print away from paper, this became something that captured my attention. It is essentially a photograph yet it doesn’t have the qualities of a photograph because the still image is changeable. [Davidson motions me over to his studio table. Here, he demonstrates an experiment in a perspex dish that is pooled with water. He nudges the photographic paper, causing the top layer to dance like seaweed as it peels away from the paper.]
LD: I’m interested in how the temporality of an image can immediately change the reading of a work. When we look at photography there is a preconceived notion that there is a sense of truth and authenticity to the image, but as soon as the image or medium is altered we begin to question its authority. With these photographic works, I use water to breakdown the medium, to disrupt this inherent authority, once the material has separated from the paper I then stretch the material to its breaking point. The fragility of the medium is a theme that I continue to return to, a point where all things arrive at sooner or later.
MA: You also make site-specific installations. Tell me more about your work with mirrors.
LD: The installations go a step further than the photographs by incorporating the viewer’s body. When viewing these works, it is difficult to see your own self-image as a whole image. The stacked mirrors boxes create a myriad of reflections that highlight how fluid the boundaries of perception can be. This ability to change how we read our reflection requires us to slow down and look more carefully at the how we perceive information. Like the photographs, there is a questioning of boundaries: where does the thing I’m viewing begin and end, and how much of what I’m perceiving is filled in by my own assumptions? [I follow Davidson to the edge of the room, where multi-layered mirror boxes are spread across the timber floor. Through their fractured portions, I make out reflections of shoes and legs (his and mine), rising floor crevices, and the skinny bounce of fluorescent roof lights. Davidson moves a mirror piece from the series and places it atop of another block.
MA: How many mirrors are in this conglomeration?
LD: There must be close to a hundred pieces. Although, when stacked on top of one another, they don’t look like a hundred pieces, do they?
MA: Honestly, from where I stand, they look like a thousand pieces. Actually, this kaleidoscopic view feels similar to how we present our online personas, through these mirrored fragments. We engage in a visual cacophony of selfies, superlikes, scrolls and swipes—an endless stacking of thoughts and reactions.
LD: We're obviously spending more time online, and this fragmented way of viewing and scrolling through masses of images and information is changing how we think. There is a tendency to scan over most things these days and to move on to the next thing. With my works, and especially the installations, I’m attempting to slow down the process of looking and thinking, these works require time. I’m interested in creating conversations around the importance of being present in contemporary life, even if it is just for a moment. This type of introspective or contemplative thinking is less practiced today, but for me it adds an incredible amount of value to the way I engage with the world.
MA: How did you arrive at this state of presentness and self-reflection?
LD: There are moments in the studio where I become completely consumed by what I’m doing when making work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this state as ‘flow’, and whenever I find myself in this state I just go with it. I have been practicing yoga and meditation since my 20’s, and both of these disciplines aim to focus and quieten the mind. This self-reflective approach is something that I attempt to foster in the studio. When I’m fully engaged with what I’m making, things begin to happen automatically, my thought processes quieten and I become lost in the work. The narrative and rational explanation of the work always comes much later for me, either through conversations - like the one we’re having now - or through research and writing about the work.
MA: Looking at the bodily terrains of your photographs—fields of hair, roadmap veins, and bulbous skin— I’m reminded of the close-up scan montages in the Nine Inch Nails music video for ‘Into The Void,’ which turned body parts into this familiar-yet-alien constellation.
LD: I haven’t seen that video, but it sounds like I’m doing something similar in that I'm presenting images that most people recognise as bodily or human. At the same time, these images don't provide easy references as to where they're located on the body. I'm trying to present a framework that sits between representation and abstraction. My body is the most familiar thing I know, but there is also a huge disconnect with my own body. I’m not aware of the daily inner workings of my own anatomy, as it's always in a continual state of change.
MA: On that, you fell ill last year. You went through an arduous journey of recuperation, and I’m wondering if the act of documenting your body as you went through these changes elicited a cathartic experience for you?
LD: That’s an interesting observation, I hadn’t thought about it in that way before. My photographic works have always explored the body through themes of temporality and impermanence, there is definitely an element of regeneration within the works.[Davidson points to a band of five coloured photographs pinned to a wall. Coated in a glossy gradient swirl of peach and amethyst, their bodily scans carry an emulsive aftermath of bubbles, ripples and fractures.]
MA: There seems to be a gravity of transcendence to these works; a healing-like nourishment that comes from its luminous palette and texture. Knowing your tendency for the monochromatic, I’m assuming this venture into colour is symbolic of a new exploration for you?
LD: Yes, I’ve been restrained in my use of colour in the past. My previous black-and-white works use a reductive process that breaks down the photographic material. The earlier works present fragmented images that address the fragility of the human condition. With this new colour series, the cyan and magenta hues offer a more emotive, optimistic outlook. When you look closely at the surface of these works you can see intricate lines that appear like tidal marks throughout the work. There is still an element of fluidity and change within the work but colour comes with its own luminosity and presence. The new colour works add to the ongoing dialogue, that all things are in cyclical process of change. Either they are in a process of being destroyed or rebuilt, and for me, this series feels like I’m rebuilding. I am enjoying this new direction, so maybe this is the beginning of a new path for me.
I am a strange loop
By Chloe Wolifson
for the exhibition I am a strange loop
Lucas Davidson’s features rumple, stretch and overlap, his eye occasionally catching ours through the contorting flow. In a strange loop of permanent impermanence, Davidson has disrupted the notion of ‘fixing’ a photographic image. Once it is printed the artist floats the photograph’s skin away from the surface of the paper, allowing it to drift freely in liquid, and filming the self-portrait it in this constant state of flux. This method can be seen in the video work Under Continual Revision, the printed membrane twisting on the screen like a spectre.
I am a Strange Loop sees Davidson interrogate the photographic self-portrait through a series of different but related techniques. In the pigment print A Solely Internal Affair fingers have pushed and scraped at the near illegible photograph’s tissue-like skin, clawing to reach beneath the surface. In the work Death as a Companion to Living from the same suite, black tears in the tissue’s topographic folds appear like creatures migrating across a landscape. In Advance of Not Knowing finds the skin of Davidson himself more visible however it is scratched and smudged with random and violent marks, which appear simultaneously on the image’s surface and on the skin itself.
Davidson is testing the waters of abstraction, using self-portraiture as his launch point. The photographs Unavoidable Matter and Incompleteness Theorem are both formed from black, blank images that were taken of the artist. Davidson’s image, while present in the taking of the image, has not been impressed upon the camera’s lens. In its place, the skin of the original photos have been manipulated to create effects of craquelure, striations and waves which give way to gaping black holes. They are simultaneously cellular and astronomical, a lake beyond a cave and the pupil of an eye.
The exhibition takes its title from Douglas Hofstadter’s exploration of how animate selfhood can emerge from inanimate matter. The mirror is an apt symbol of this ‘strange loop’, an artificial medium reflecting the self we have invented, defined and come to believe as true. The mirror sculptures Association Organ and Anticipation Machine reflect disrupted images of the viewer within forms based on the scale of the artist’s own body. The ascending hexagons of Anticipation Machine recall the spiral shape of DNA – an arguably truer form of self-portrait than our own reflection. Segmenting the viewer’s body into parts it forces us to consider ourselves not as an uninterrupted whole, but as pieces within the broader context of our surroundings: in this case Davidson’s installation. We are now consciously amongst the artist’s self-portraits, whose abstractness, fluidity and voids provide space in which to place ourselves and consider our own sense of perception in place of Davidson’s body.
“In the end, we are self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages that are little miracles of self-reference,” Hofstadter wrote in 2007. A decade on, in a world where the camera’s lens is turned inward as often as outward; an era of selfie-specific cosmetics; where the way we view ourselves is moderated, filtered, dictated and defined by digital images, Davidson is undertaking an experiment in stripping back all image, colour and form extraneous to the viewing experience in order to activate a deeper consideration of self-perception. “I don’t know how to create something that’s not me,” the artist says. “The work is a truer self-portrait than the way I speak, or dress.” However, in creating these essential self-portraits, Davidson allows the works to hold far-reaching subject-hood, questioning photography, perception, and identity.
Frame of mind
By Conseulo Cavaniglia
for the exhibition Frame of mind
Framing, as a device, from cinema to photography, theatre to architecture, works to position you physically, visually, conceptually (and ideologically) in relation to a site of focus. The frame isolates a scene or a detail and suggests what perspective to take in relation to it.
The idea that depending on where you stand changes how you see something, is enticing for its metaphoric extension into psychological states rather than the more limiting connection to optical trajectories. The frame is a device that communicates to the viewer, a directorial note, it is a structural device that provides an entry point, connecting the viewer to a situation.
In Lucas Davidson’s exhibition titled Frame of Mind, the viewer steps into a space where a series of frames float. The frames are screens but despite the fact that projectors are present, the screens don’t frame a cinematic encounter. There is no fictional space that the viewer has access to through film, and though mirror-like, the work also does not present mirror surfaces, that trade in fiction through the reflected image - spaces that can be entered through the sense of vision but never engaged with physically through touch.
The floating screens bring us to what Beatriz Colomina describes as ‘the original surprise of glass architecture ... the enigma that glass is not actually transparent’1. The screens simultaneously allow and block vision, they are transparent and reflective. Depending on where one stands, visual access is either allowed or negated and the constant switch between the two confounds our sense of vision and our sense of space.
The installation does not allow our relationship to the screen to be one based on predictable placements and fixed spatial interactions – where the viewer sits or stands in front of a screen and both are static – it entices the viewer to move through and around the work. The act of looking that these shifting frames establish though does not follow the trajectory of architectural investigation that Mies van der Rohe pursued. For Mies the building was a frame that foregrounded the very act of looking, he exposed the visual exchange between interior and exterior. In Frame of Mind, the choreography of shifting reflections, moving screens and circulating audience is one that surprisingly leads away from sight and back to an awareness of materiality.
The screens in this exhibition are simply sheets of double-sided reflective film. Davidson has worked extensively with monitors, that in past installations have countered the disembodiment associated with digital interfaces, reasserting the physicality of the hardware. Moving away from these, the screens in Frame of Mind are light and floating. Though almost ethereal they are not immaterial - suspended lightly from the ceiling they do not fall smoothly but reveal creases and folds. Through what could be termed ‘imperfections’ in the material, we are made aware of its physicality. The screens are like nervous skins that quiver at every movement of air, sending reflections and refractions shooting across the space.
The projectors interact with the screens casting what seems to be fields of light, white shapes, across their surface and those of the gallery walls. The interplay of light and the nature of the installation - with screens, lights and tripods - brings us to liken the work to a set, a certain theatricality is established, but we are not sure where the action is located, there is no clear stage. And perhaps what we are witnessing is a site of rehearsal rather than a final performance. Indeed, the nature of the installation, as an interplay of shifting elements in constant flux, means that the viewer will never see the work in the same way twice. The experience of the work is momentary.
If the act of framing is about connecting the viewer to a situation, then these floating frames direct the viewer to a situation centred on shifts, temporality and ephemerality. The focus is on the tentative nature of the point of connection - the skin, the interface - between two entities or the threshold between two spaces, real and imaginary, tangible and fictional. And in this instance the directorial note to the viewer is an open invitation to reframe and reposition the exchange.
- Beatriz Colomina, in Simpson, Bennett and Iles, Chrissie editors. DAN GRAHAM: BEYOND.
Cambridge; London: The MIT Press. The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, 2009, p195.
By Josephine Skinner
for the exhibition Flat screens
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 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. Flat screen 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 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 counter culturalists 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 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 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.
[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.
By Nic Tsoutas
for the exhibition Agitations
Lucas Davidson’s installation of videos and still images collectively and serially constitute a self-portrait. Together, the fragments provide an introspective experience of the whole body, his body, a human body, that irrational, illogical thing as a metaphor of the self in a state of constant transformation, motion and impermanence, caught between being and nothingness, in a meditation on time.
Immersed in liquid, water, the photograph, portrait of the self, sheds its skin, like a snake, the emulsion separates, peels away and floats transcending the photographic representation of the mortal, corporeal body into a state of formlessness. The liminal edge of the body, the skin, that veneer of the self that suggests the outer limit of the body. Skin is the boundary that divides and separates the internal from the external worlds, that provides the body with appearance, that contains the body is set adrift, released into a spaceless void beyond itself in search of self.
Visceral, transparent and tenuous the skin tissue, the emulsion performs endless permutations, dancing, folding, dissolving, fragmenting between intangible possibilities that exist between two different states of being, between memory and appearance, between logic and irrationality, and between the real and its eventual disappearance. Davidson’s subjects both the corporeal body and its representation to intense scrutiny, somehow almost with medical and analytical precision he abstracts the body from itself, as he strives to comprehend and explain the unexplainable of his being and his spiritual self to himself, whilst not reducing or redeeming that knowledge to predetermined meanings and interpretation, instead preferring transcendence of the unconscious, and the infinity of the unknown, and that that cannot be contained by the materiality of being or the everyday.
Davidson’s photomedia installation offers a poetic meditation on authorial erasure, as his body, his mortal body is dematerialised into cellular and electrical neuronry representations, and a compositional instability that suggests a disequilibrium, that shakes our very perceptions of everyday life, and point to a fragility of being and of human mortality where everything sooner or later is transformed or consigned to a certain past, to memory and to history and perhaps to total disappearance.
Strangely however, his dematerialised cellular skin forms slide into water, as if metaphorically given birth in water by the unfixed photographic image on paper. The image is separated from the photograph, and in this separation it disengages and assumes a life on its own beyond the stilling capacity of the photograph which fixes the image as a statement of permanent representation of the subject in this instance the artist himself. The water plays a vital part in assuming the liquid life the liberated image or skin. The use of water as an instrumental medium is intrinsic to Davidson's photomedia installation, as it is to the medium of moving image and video. In, Window, Water, Baby a 12 minute film, by Stan Brakhage (1959), water is presented as a holy place for the birth of life. While in Bill Viola's works, water is consistently symbolised as a vital means towards our understanding and experience of the cycle of life. In his extraordinary visceral video installation, The Messenger, Viola presents the viewer with the conscious perception of one's being, in a totalling engagement of the senses in a cosmos that comes close to allowing us to recognise the nature of ourselves. Davidson similarly uses water to evoke the unconscious mind from the conscious body.
In his essay The Return of the Real, Hal Foster, suggests that the abject is what I must get rid of in order to be an I, and in this way the abject touches on the fragility of our boundaries, the fragility of our spacial distinction between our insides and our outsides, and where both spatially and temporally abjection is a condition in which subjecthood is troubled, where meaning collapses. He goes on to question if the abject can be represented (in art) and if it is unconscious can it indeed be made conscious and remain abject. To Abject, he suggests, using Kristeva's definition is to separate, as opposed to be abject is to be stuck. The role of the artist, she suggests, is no longer to sublimate the abject, but to plumb the abject, to fathom the bottomless primacy constituted by primal repression. Davidson's work exploits the disruptive effects of its material and metaphorical reminders. By breaking the symbolic order implicit in the material body, by allowing the translucent skin to separate from the body and then to fragment, fracture, degenerate and eventually to disintegrate into cellular and subatomic particles whether they be skin tissue or blood cells, Davidson is suggesting new possibilities that can exist outside the limits and confines of the mortal body, possibilities that are not restricted or contained by the body but exceed its capacities and symbolic orders whether they be hope, infinite or spiritual.
Perhaps it is in these moments where Davidson presents a dissolution of the mortal body, albeit throughout the various compositional photomedia and video fragments included in the exhibition or through the continuous fracturing process of disintegration, in continuous discontinuities we experience critical moments of sustained ecstasy where we extend our capacities and reason beyond the formal and rational limits of the corporeal body into the possibilities inherent in the infinite luminescence, and a reality that exceeds both your breath and the photomedia/video installation itself. Gilles Deleuze, in the zone publication, Pure Immanence - Essays on Life (2001), suggests it is a plane of immanence, and that this intense, indefinite state of immanence is in fact what life is. A life, he argues, is everywhere, in all moments, that a given living subject grows through, moments that together form multi coloured patterns and non-totalizable fragments. In this sense Davidson's exhibition can represent how he sees and lives life, and how it manifestly materialises into constructed images that become abstract and seemingly impersonal, in a life constituted in a reality of images and video. In the process of revealing himself, he separates himself from himself and from his own story in order to abjectly release its possibilities and potential experiences to the world to be experienced by others.