Aesthetics of Exposure

Works by Zach Gage (left) and Brian House (right)

Zach Gage (left) and Brian House (right)

Eyebeam In Objects, on view at Upfor Gallery, Portland, OR, grew out of my interest in challenging a group of Eyebeam technologists and artists, whose work primarily lies in immaterial forms, to render their work into objects for gallery presentation. The resultant pieces interrogate notions of materiality and its porous relationship to data and concepts.

Contemporary technologies are often pervasive yet deeply unknowable, even through first-hand experience. One is pleasantly unaware of encounters with algorithms while perusing social media sites, being bio-sensed throughout major metropolitan areas, or scanned by facial recognition surveillance while walking through airports. The unrecognized quality of these encounters is due to intentional obfuscation by its designers as well as code’s tendency to self-present as immaterial. This has led to our current cultural landscape wherein technology seems to keep creeping up on us and jumping out from the shadows before we have the language to understand or the skills to navigate, nevermind resist. For instance, 3D printing technology has led to a legal wild west in which copyright law becomes nearly quaint in the face of infinite material replication.

Much of the contemporary art world, with some exceptions, appears to be flat-footed in the face of such radical and unpredictable change. This is not a complete surprise given its often cautious approach to support works engaging with technology. Some recent east coast shows have professed critical engagement with emerging digital practitioners that only amounts to ramping up the artifice and mythology of technology as black-box magic, or mere surface—outside practical comprehension or even accurate metaphorization. These shows have focused on using digital work as means to create “experiences” (in nearly the retail usage of the word) which feel alien and extraterrestrial using dated visual language of what at times has the feeling of mid-twentieth century “rocketship aesthetics”.

Despite the skewed state of public presentation and support, there is a large community of emerging digital artists whose work is uninterested in putting people under the spell of technology. The artists included in this show are deeply invested in challenging relationships to technology in an engaged and sustained manner. Their work is more interested in pulling the curtain back and trusting viewers’ curiosity rather than creating a sheen of celebration.

Through a restraint of artifice, they gesture towards an aesthetics of exposure: the guts of the work hang out and illustrate the inherent materiality of digital-ness. After all, binary needs to be counted on physical hardware. The Cloud is not a cloud; in fact, it is a collection of giant warehouses throughout the world, made of plastic, concrete, metal, and glass, consuming fossil fuels at an alarming rate.

They are creating work that digs into issues of environmentalism, politics, information ownership, and the assumed inscrutability of technology itself. In essence, they might be closer to an activist folk tradition, by digital means. Actively exposing the material of our emerging technological relationships as an aesthetic can be a wedge to open broader and deeper understanding and ultimately collective and individual agency.

Featuring work by Chloë Bass, Zach Blas, James Bridle, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Zach Gage, Brian House and Addie Wagenknecht.