"OVER/FLOW: Horror Vacui in an Age of 'Information' Abundance"
September 15 - November 5, 2009
The Cerritos College Art Gallery, Norwalk, CA
OVER/FLOW: Horror Vacui in an Age of 'Information' Abundance brings together works by contemporary artists exploring the desire for, as well as the limits of, totalization. Though coming from vastly divergent perspectives, the works in OVER/FLOW together hover in the fragile spaces between crescendo and cacophony, order and chaos, and control and submission. The end result is a collective probing of the paradoxical causes and effects of our current economic, environmental, and social conditions. These include the seductive dream and gross nightmare of unregulated mass consumption, the hopeful promise and subtle deceit of participatory culture, and the augmented experience and structures of control inherent in the exponential growth of data collection and storage.
Of course, horror vacui, literally a "fear of emptiness," has a long established place in artistic production: from Islamic arabesques to Baroque flourishes, from the dark fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch to the deconstructionist montages of Hannah Hoch. The practice, however, largely fell out of mainstream fashion in the wake of the mid-century modernist taste for minimal ornamentation. As the subtitle suggests, this exhibition focuses specifically on works that revisit the baroque aesthetic of horror vacui, while simultaneously confronting, overtly or tangentially, the utopian anticipations and dystopian anxieties surrounding an era of information production and consumption on a scale never before seen in human history.
Many scholars have argued that the ambiguities of this present moment are predicated upon the social reductions and bodily extensions produced by our collective and individual positions in globally-distributed flows. In fact, the term flow functions almost ubiquitously these days to denote any and all transport of data, commodities, and people through the rhizomatic networks that serve as the infrastructure of a post-modern, globalized world. As such, flows are typically synonymous with movement, with possibility, and with the deterritorializing lines of flight that both transcend traditional striations of power and restructure the very systems in which they participate. Within this mindset, flows are sometimes equated with political freedom and/or economic abundance; the more, the merrier. The age-old saying 'My cup runneth over' comes to mind.
But then again, perhaps we've had too much of a good thing lately. After all, an overflow could imply inertia as much as motion, such as when individuals are trampled by an overflow crowd or when conversations become indecipherable in the din of a packed room. It could also suggest an inability to control or contain, such when waters overtop levees despite claims of technological dominance over Nature or when leakage of fluids reveal the human body to be open and porous despite masculinist fantasies to the contrary.
A case in point is Seattle-based photographer Chris Jordan, who documents the ever-growing streams of material waste that are the inevitable result of 'successful' capitalist consumption. More vividly than any numerical statistic could suggest, his images visualize the dangerous desire for greater computing power that drives us to covet the latest gadgets and serve as powerful evidence of Moore's Law spilling out into, and forever tainting, our environment. Moreover, they demonstrate that concepts such as abundance and recession are not necessarily polar opposites, but instead function as multifaceted phases in a fluxuating continuum, a systemic Mobius strip perpetually folding in upon itself whilst overflowing the very boundaries it produces.
Likewise, in computer programming, data and code intertwine in an ongoing dance of transit semiotics. Appropriately, the programming term buffer overflow describes an anomaly in which extra data overwrites adjacent memory, including in some cases program variables and flow control data. It is often at these moments of collapse, when systems escape their own logical structures, that the codes underlying the flows reveal themselves. Such is the case in the works of San Diego-based artists Kael Greco and James Enos.
With a background in computer science, Greco has an ongoing infatuation with the kinds of system failures just described. Like many young gamers, he discovered a glitch in the classic Nintendo game Super Mario Brothers that granted access to a level, known as the "Minus World," that was never programmed by a human agent, but was a product of an accidental hijacking of system memory by extraneous data flows. Growing out of that youthful experience, he began to explore the constructed logic that governs not just the screen-based realities of video games, but the possible actions employed by gamers to move their avatars through those coded systems. Using custom software to record multiple plays through various video games, Greco reassembles them into a singular space of play in which all performative possibilities unfold simultaneously, producing a compressed visualization of the limits of human-machine interaction.
An architect by training, Enos is interested in the spatial and symbolic hierarchy of codes that frame the larger socio-urban networks of contemporary society. To this end, he mashes up representations of physical pathways, such as freeways, with large subsets of statistical data related to comparative advantage and industrial selection to reveal functional dependencies within our shared anthrosphere. Part art project, part scientific research, Enos' obsessive-compulsive assemblages highlight the fact that data is rarely experienced in a vacuum, instead it must be activated in order to become information. Knowledge is, it seems, really just structured data; data in formation. The relative problem then becomes how many of the individual trees are obscured by the structure of the forest and vice versa.
Chicago-based digital artist Jason Salavon's work highlights this problem by seeking to surface statistical averages through algorithmic processes, often forcing specific units to become invisible to reveal larger truths. In the past, he has visually averaged everything from photographs of homes for sale to Playboy centerfolds. Individual features fade away in these Galtonesque composites and what we are left with is a vague sense of shared characteristics. In a large animated mural called "American Varietal" and commissioned by the US Census Bureau, Salavon plotted county population data over time to reveal migration patterns translated into a dynamic abstraction of form and color. Such an assemblage complicates traditional notions of horror vacui. Sixty thousand data points define variations in shape and hue. The data is present, but not explicit; influencing the organizational patterns of the work in the same way user-generated terms in a database algorithmically influence the scale of particular words in a tag cloud. The fact that each of those individual data points represents specific human bodies should not be overlooked either, as it suggests a complexity of authorship based on collective aggregation of fragmented bodily flows, often involuntarily produced.
In an age of biometrics, the human body confronts its own increasingly radical exteriorization into a convergent media platform, perpetually coupling with technology to construct bi-directional information flows. A direct result of our attempts to augment our reality through cyborgian extensions is that dispersed dataveillant assemblages are constantly informing on us. Of course, bodily augmentation itself is nothing really all that new or unique to our contemporary moment. The Los Angeles and Berlin-based video artist MM Green historicizes our ongoing attempts to augment bodily experience in his video installation by juxtaposing high-tech iPods with an antiquated stereoscopic viewer. Framed by the stereoscopic device, the viewer's body must participate with the videos playing on the iPods in a way that transforms the screen-based imagery into the illusion of three-dimensions. In the process, the white noise of the video imagery synthesize in such a way that it is possible to just barely make out recognizable objects before their momentary perceptibility dissipates, pointing to the fact that consciousness is tied not only to how machines log our augmented haptic movements through data/space, but also how that data is then reassembled with adjacent data flows.
This recognition becomes all the more nuanced when we return to the issue of aggregated assemblages of individuated data. Bodies are defined by the activities in which they participate, both independently and collectively. But independent and collective activities are not necessarily distinct in an age of information abundance. Like people, data can, depending on accessibility, be quite sociable. Individuated and group identities (crowds, communities, publics, etc) arise from the levels of accessibility of data/bodies within societies of control, a bi-product of the granularity of surveillant assemblages. LA-based artists Roni Feldman and Jody Zellen explore these necessarily mediated interconnections in their work.
Feldman's current practice involves painting scenes overloaded with bodies drawn from various events (sometimes singular events, but more often multiple and dispersed moments rendered as singular and specific) in which people are overtly operating collectively or via a shared, often temporary, identity. These include protest marches (think immigration reform, the anti-war movement, or the Iranian green revolution), but also adult film conventions, Harry Potter book releases, candlelight vigils, etc. The works that will appear in the show use overlapping layers of varnish such that any viewer perspective only allows for some of the image/s to be revealed, obscuring the rest in a negative inversion. Thus the viewer, whose position is often rendered as a perspectival member of the crowd, has to constantly move about to both produce and erase the never-whole fragments of the work.
Zellen, a new media artist, will debut a performative/participatory digital installation for the exhibition that uses statistical data about current international labor trends to represent the jobless as animated figures meandering through a generic cityscape. When the viewer moves into the active space of the installation, they are 'captured' on a video camera that projects a 'shadow' of the person onto one wall of the space. This data-double of the viewer is actually an assemblage of the available animated figures, the number of which is dependent upon the current state of (un)employment in the countries that are referenced in a continuous random loop. This subtle and yet powerful work, which inspires a strange combination of guilt and pleasure as it probes once again the intertwined flows of abundance and recession, emphasizes that the data produced by our actions is never fully our own, but can be reassembled in unexpected ways. If data is the basic building block of meaning, information is the sum of the world's multiple meanings forever in flux.
Playing on this multiplicity, a number of LA-based artists in the show - Alexandra Grant, Aiko Hachisuka, and Simmons & Burke - emphasize the performativity of data in which meanings/identities are assembled by producing new linkages, new affiliations, new inscriptions in the landscape of encoded things. It is no accident that the root for the word affiliation is fil (French for string i.e. filament), a devise used to connect multiple points or bind disparate objects together. Ironically, fil is also the root for the English word file, which is often assumed to be a discrete entity, but which is more often than not an archive unto itself.
A painter with a profound investment in the graphical qualities of language, Grant paints large-scale reconstructions of poetry produced by her collaborator, Michael Joyce, an early pioneer of hypertext fiction and the chair of the English department at Vassar College. Eschewing the linear pathway of standard written text, Grant employs comic-book style speech bubbles to isolate each individual word and fragment it from its spatial relationships of meaning. Filtered through her own tri-lingual experience and inverted as if seen through da Vinci's mirror, she constructs her own poetic playlist, a visual archive that is paradoxically accumulative and anemic. In her "Six Portals" series, she emphasizes this ambiguity by not only rearranging the cellular fragments of Joyce's text, but by metaphorically isolating the human senses. The six portals suggested by the title of the series reference the Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra, a Buddhist text which discusses the five physical senses plus the mind as the chiasmic doors of perception that lead to consciousness and to subjectivity.
While Greco hacks video games to make them inoperable and Grant paints doors that cannot be physically entered, Hachisuka constructs furniture on which no one can sit. Using old couches as the still visible ground for her assembled structures, she incorporates discarded clothing purchased from garage sales to build up an interlocking field of simulated bodies/objects, stuffing and stitching the forms together into an agitated symbol of domestic aspiration and anxiety in the face of economic meltdown. Making do with limited materials and selling possessions in order to survive are both associated with these difficult economic times. Even couches, those havens of rest and relaxation, can these days be a symbol of the lethargy and depression of unemployment. That Hachisuka uses these materials and associations to construct such bright and colorful assemblages, however, is perhaps more suggestive of hope than of defeat.
The same could be said of the seductive sound/image collages of Simons & Burke. Unrepentant digital flaneurs, the team of Case Simmons and Andrew Burke arrange thousands of pictures and sound snippets collected from endless hours of surfing the Internet, the remnants of their couplings with digital objects in the process of activating their technophenomenological body/selves. The result is a visual and auditory rendering of controlled chaos, as well as a visceral portrait of their itinerant data-double(s), made all the more relevant as the two operate as a single artistic identity. The work is no simple detournement through data/space, however. In their hands, Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle is mashed up with Geert Lovink's Society of the Query. The promise put forward by Simmons & Burke's series of collages, titled "You Can Live Forever in Paradise On Earth," seems both wistfully earnest and painfully hollow in the pulsating excess of their overcrowded and overwhelming work, which is, of course, just a cracked mirror held up to our own overcrowded and overwhelming lives.
James MacDevitt Director/Curator