The Shimmering World Conference

A letter from one of its speakers

By Shama Khanna

Courtesy Ruth Claxton, Matilda Moors and Rosa Tyhurst

The Shimmering World conference at Manchester University, which took place 24 April, saw artists and academics come together to share the same stage, with speakers including David Panos, Tamara Trodd, Melissa Gronlund, Ed Atkins, Hannah Sawtell and myself. The open call set out a wide a range of subject interests from feminism to Object-oriented ontology (OOO) and Marxist criticism all in relation to the ‘seductive image’. This was a broad enough remit to ensure we were still wondering about the nature of post-internet art at the end of the day. The conference was a bold initiative nonetheless to begin to define some of the key terms and crossovers.

An infographic posted on the conference’s Twitter feed suggested five reccurring words linking the panelists’ presentations with a notably Debordian slant; the ‘image’, ‘production’, ‘capital/ist/ism’, ‘commodity’ and ‘surface’. Hannah Sawtell – who was in New York ahead of her show at the New Museum – delivered concrete poetry via Twitter and Skype including tags such as; “#AUSTERITYDRONE #SURPLUSDESIRERETWEETSITSELF / #PREFOSSILISEDWIREFRAME #DORMANTPOOL”. These phrases echo the ‘Narcissus Trance’ predicted by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, symptomatic of our compulsive fascination in treating modern technology as extensions to our own body. McLuhan proposed that artists, with their innate critical awareness, were the ones to break the Trance. Following the proliferation of Internet art half a century later where the glitch has been absorbed as style, does it all serve as a mass exit plan or what distinctions are there still to be drawn? 

#AUSTERITYDRONE #SURPLUSDESIRERETWEETSITSELF #PREFOSSILISEDWIREFRAME #DORMANTPOOL

Opening the conference, the Edinburgh-based academic Tamara Trodd spoke about the work of Elizabeth Price in relation to accelerationist theory and institutional critique quoting Price saying ‘I don’t want to clean up, but to dirty’. The presentation focused on Price’s 2009 video USER GROUP DISCO where quotes by Adorno and others appear and disappear like Barbara Kruger style aphorisms across the screen. Trodd picked up on the affirmative as well as the libidinal messages of the shiny objects which spin and twist away in the background, soundtracked by 1960s pop group the Shangri-las, their seductive sheen repressing and disguising the background of manufacture and labour that went into their production. Price turns modernist critique on its head collapsing high and low cultural forms revealing the current post-medium condition.

The 2013 3D Hollywood extravaganza Man of Steel unexpectedly appeared in two presentations: writer and artist Daniel Rourke spoke about the Phantom Zone – a flat screen-shaped prison dimension that Superman’s nemesis General Zod becomes trapped within. Similarly to the atemporal suspension experienced in the Narcissus Trance of listlessly browsing social media for too long, the inmates of the Phantom Zone reside in a ghost-like state of existence from which they can observe but cannot interact with the regular universe. Later in the day’s programme a short clip from the film appeared in Ed Atkins’ video Even Pricks, created the same year as the blockbuster. The sparkling CGI didn’t look out of place with Atkins’ own ingenious special effects. Although later in the video there’s a parody of the ubiquitous type of ‘Coming Soon’ movie trailers which, in this version, entreated viewers “this summer”, to “destroy your life”, which perhaps underlined the pathos driving Atkins’ approach.

Similar to the atemporal suspension experienced in the Narcissus Trance of listlessly browsing social media for too long, the inmates of the Phantom Zone reside in a ghost-like state of existence

Hito Steyerl’s writing on the poor image was another steady reference throughout the conference, with the general understanding that the screen is a commodified space. Artist Harry Sanderson began his talk with a promotional animation for the ‘Elephant Park’ development in the Elephant and Castle area of southeast London. Healthy green trees bristle and aquamarine butterflies float across the screen promising ‘inner city nature’ in probably one of the busiest traffic intersections and most contentious regeneration projects in the city. Sanderson went on to debunk the presupposed freedoms of networked society, saying that the sense of interconnectedness it promotes always serves to exclude as much as it includes. These themes chimed with my own presentation introducing ‘Flatness’, an ongoing curatorial project about the screen-based image currently operating across multiple platforms including flatness.eu.

The project addresses aesthetic and socio-political readings of the term in order to examine contemporary instances of flattening (such as digital compression and the flattening together of work and social time) and assumptions of flatness following the rise of deregulated neoliberal economies – departing from the ideals of pre-Internet 1980s cyberneticists and cyberpunks, who predicted the web would bring about a radical decentralisation of power and the participatory revolution anticipated ahead of Web 2.0 through new social media platforms. These developments were instead met with unexpected hierarchies of power (the NSA being a particularly timely example) and the rise of communicative capitalism (Facebook, for example) which seem to have become accepted as benign evils. Against this background, the project examines the material implications of the web, attempting to locate the use value and abuse value within an economy of shifting surpluses; where images flow across borders as simply and easily as money. My paper considered the work of various, including Magali Reus, Gil Leung, Lucy Clout, Richard Sides and Ed Atkins, and the ‘resistance’ their moving image works pose to the immaterial mode of circulation of mainstream CGI. I proposed that these artists essentially undo the smooth, persuasive function of the image by the precise, often discontinuous editing of sound and image to produce a prickling sensation in the body of the viewer – separating affect from the image. Where the image is disembodied, the viewer instead is ‘brought to life’, stirring from their passive position in the audience. Drawing a parallel between a body without a soul, Atkins spoke about ”trying to make cadavers” in his films, “fitting every digital tool at my disposal turned against their condition, in a way to both return the mortal corporeal to a digital encounter and to retrieve some kind of literally deconstructed agenda”.

Drawing a parallel between a body without a soul, Ed Atkins spoke about "trying to make cadavers" in his films

Perhaps sharing this deconstructed agenda and making clear the hand driving the machine, artist David Panos stated how green screen has become a cultural signifier; describing how he and collaborator Anja Kirschner have used it to drain historical realism from their works and heighten artifice. Visualising the theories of twentieth century Marxian philosopher Alfred Sohn-Rethel and present-day philosopher Peter Osborne (who in turn discuss the real abstraction of money and now the digital abstraction), Panos played a video loop of a 3D scan of a piece of iron ore floating freely against a bright green background, making clear the infinite exchangeability of digital abstraction – strings of ones and zeroes – against the toil needed to produce the simulation. He also spoke about the rapid generational shift which has taken place amongst filmmakers based in London over the last five years, a change which has effectively swept away discourses such as the poetics of noise forming around artists working with 16mm film such as Ben Rivers and Emily Wardill, both born in the 1970s, and replacing them with an homogenous “terrain of presence”, created by artists born in the 1980s, where the difference between what you see on the street and in galleries is radically diminished.

A rapid generational shift has taken place amongst filmmakers based in London over the last five years

Critic Melissa Gronlund also detected a recent change in the portrayal of the self and identity through the dialogic, referencing Atkins’ conversation between two cadavers in Us Dead Talk Love (2012), Erica Scourti’s algorithmic diary Life in Adwords (2013), Frances Stark’s animated sex talk in My Best Thing (2011), Alex Israel’s As it Lays (2012) series of YouTube interviews with celebrities, and Steve Reinke and James Richards collaborative video collage Disambiguation (2009). Gronlund discussed the self-consciousness of performing our online selves through social media to an unquantifiable audience whose level of response, if any, we can’t always guarantee. These aspects of an emergent digital ontology where the medium is embodied as a language adjusting to the contingencies of its author’s voice rather than molding to existing protocols is an exciting prospect signaling that the digital divide between other artforms is being breached by a newfound fluency.

6 May 2014