DOMENICO QUARANTA: Solid State

Verifications. Five examples

Imagine you are walking around a your city, toward an imaginary exhibition. It’s sunny outside and you take the long way from your place to the exhibition space. The first encounter takes place in the big square just around the corner where your flat is located. It’s impossible to miss it: the giant wooden red pin with its black border and the black capital A in the middle [1] is 6 meters high, located on one side of the pedestrian area in the mid of the square, between the obelisk and the bank building. It looks like those small “you are here” icons you can see on maps, but it’s transferred from the space of representation to the space of existence. No, it’s a literal translation of the pin you can see on your computer, or your Android cell phone, when you look for a city and the maps application you are using places it close to the name of that city. Now the design has changed a bit, but once it looked exactly like this.

You keep walking, and thinking about the relationship between the map and the territory, and how it could be reversed. The street you are strolling right now is very familiar to you, you take it every day when you go for work. It’s a nice street, with a good nightlife and lots of graffiti on the walls, that you often read. At some point, with the corner of your eye, you see something that makes you stop by. It’s the stencil of the outline of a passer-by, pasted on the wall. [2] The face is blurred, like if it was a ghost; but the man dresses like you, walks like you, has your same haircut. It’s you. Astonished, you look closely, and you see a small Google watermark on the skirt: “© 2012 Google”, it reads. Suddenly you recall that day, three years ago, when you were walking down the same street and you saw the Google Street View car moving slowly in the opposite direction. Your girlfriend had just called you and you were on the phone, like in this picture.

Still a bit shocked, you keep walking. After the street where you met yourself, you have to cross another small square. You are looking at your feet now, maybe because you are lost in thought, maybe because you are scared to meet another ghost. You know the pavement of the square inch by inch, so you are a bit surprised when you realize that it’s painted, and that you are walking over some flat areas of bright colors, arranged in a rainbow: red, yellow, green, blue. You raise your eyes, and painted on the floor you can recognize the shape of a plane, [3] made as if it was captured in motion, with different frames of different colors overlapping. You have seen something similar once, on Facebook or some Tumblr blog: it was a satellite view of the earth, picturing a flying plane that, for some remote technical reason, deceived the satellite gaze in a way that produced a beautiful rainbow effect. Two seconds, and it was lost again in that day’s infinite scroll, but it was enough to make you think about the many eyes that are looking at us, unseen.

You enter a one way street, turn left, and are at the entrance of the exhibition space. A nicely designed banner reminds you about the title of the exhibition: “Solid State. Materializing the Digital”. You knew about it, but you somehow forgot about it. After all, you came here just to see Kam, the girl that you first met last night after hours of chatting on Facebook Messenger. The conversation with her was interesting, but she speaks fast, and more than once you lost yourself in her big, beautiful eyes. When she left, she told you “so, see you tomorrow at six at the gallery”, and that was enough reason for you to come. And there she is, close to the pillar, with her blonde hair, a flute in her right hand, the black combat boots and… her body torn apart by a brushstroke displaying the gray and white grid of the empty background of a Photoshop image. [4] Luckily, the crowd is pushing you toward her, and in a few seconds the magic disappears: the brushstroke is an installation, a minimal PVC shape with a printed pattern. The exhibition doesn’t impress you, first because Kam has all your attention now, and then because it’s the usual, boring post-internet shit – you are not really into that kind of stuff. But you’ll never forget the room where you kissed her for the first time. The lights were down to bring forward eight white styrofoam balls, arranged in a circle, and enlightened by eight programmed spotlights in order to simulate an online video loading animation. [5] While kissing Kam, the image of the both of you kissing within the rectangular shape of a Youtube video, behind the loading animation, appeared in your mind.

The Cult of the Plasma Screen

“The internet now occupies the slot in your head once occupied by religion and politics. Who would ever have thought that?” [6]

This short (fictional) tale features five (real) artworks that display a common feature: in order to get them, you have to belong to a cult: let’s call it the Cult of the Plasma Screen. That’s the religion shared by everybody who scrolls blogs, wanders through YouTube videos, checks out a place on Google Maps before going to it, recognizes a Google Street View car when he meets one in the streets, and is familiar with photo editing interfaces. If you belong to the cult, you understand these works instantly as a reference to a system of symbols and a kind of images that are familiar to you. If you do not belong to the cult, you can either recognize some reference that was brought to you by mainstream media, or just like / unlike them as good / bad images, be / not be fascinated by the mystery they conceal, and actually understand them after reading / listening to a long, boring explanation: “this is the pin used on Google Maps to point at the geometrical center of a city when you look for that city in the system. By turning it into an urban installation, German artist Aram Bartholl wants to question the relation of the digital information space to everyday life public city space.” Yawn. All this artworks act as verifications: either you are in, or out. But there are good chances you are in, at least on a surface level: you may be not a practicing adept, but you went to catechism. As Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist said, talking about the Internet, “the last time humanity had so much in common was when a few remaining cave people sat out the last Ice Age.” [7] That’s why the displacement of digital native objects to the physical world is, today for an artist, a pretty natural move, something that doesn’t deserve too much attention, not even a topic anymore. It has not always been like this.

How to Print Out

The nice and scary thing about the cult you, the reader of the catalogue of the exhibition “From Bits to Paper”, belong to, is that it spreads fast, faster than you can imagine. It wasn’t like this five years ago, when the phrases post-internet and post-digital became familiar to a larger crowd. It wasn’t like this ten years ago, when the smartphone was launched and when social networking and content sharing platforms rose up. And it was definitely not like this twenty years ago, when the digital environment was still perceived as “virtual”, as opposed to the physicality of “real life”. A moment in time that, according to the human perception of time, should belong to the present, today is perceived as part of an almost archeological past. It’s hard to believe that, only a few years ago, there were a bunch of artists pretending to be “internet aware” – how can you be internet unaware today? And that, just a couple of years ago, the artist who coined this phrase said: “Net art’s relationship to contemporary art as a whole and to the art market gets more confusing every day. It’s pretty fascinating to watch, though. I tried for years to figure out how to ‘print it out,’ to make something super­salable, but I could never quite figure it out, and I don’t think I ever will.” [8] How can it be? Printing it out is, now, just one option in the menu, one of the ways to export a digital content into a digitized world. And by the way, what is net art? But believe me, there was a time, and it isn’t too far, in which participating in online culture raised concerns of site specificity, when making a YouTube playlist wasn’t exactly like arranging some videos in a gallery, and when a digital content of any kind had to stay digital in order to display its full potential. That was the time when re-materialization was a topic, and showing a digital native artifact in a gallery raised issues of commodification and institutionalization of a practice that existed, so far, only in the “virtual” space of the computer screen.

Now we are far beyond that time. Or maybe not. As you know, the future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed. Chances are that you belong to that future present, or that you are a small step backwards, and belong to the people that still think that what’s on display in this exhibition is the new, an anticipation of the future. Don’t be afraid of it. In six months or one year you’ll be here, anyway.

Domenico Quaranta


Notes

[1] Aram Bartholl, Map, public installation, 2006 – 2010. More info: http://datenform.de/mapeng.html.

[2] Paolo Cirio, Street Ghosts, public space intervention, 2012 – ongoing. More info: http://streetghosts.net/.

[3] James Bridle, Rainbow Plane 002, public space intervention, 2014. More info: http://shorttermmemoryloss.com/portfolio/project/rainbow-plane-002/.

[4] Elisa Giardina Papa, Brush Stroke, 2012. Digital print on laser cut PVC. More info: http://www.elisagiardinapapa.com/EGPbrushstrock.html.

[5] Constant Dullaart, Youtube as a Sculpture, 2009. Styrofoam spheres, 8 spot lights, dmx controller. Video documentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGvWL7Vb7I8

[6] Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Age of Earthquakes. A Guide to the Extreme Present, Blue Rider Press, New York 2015, p. 153.

[7] Ivi, p. 117.

[8] Ed Halter, “In Search Of. Ed Halter on the Art of Guthrie Lonergan”, in Artforum, November 2014.


This text was commissioned for the exhibition From Bits to Paper (http://www.shadok.strasbourg.eu/projets/from-bits-to-paper-exposition/) curated by Filipe Pais and will be published in the eponymous book, accessible to public by the end of October.
The exhibition gathers a selection of herteroclit artworks by different international artists such as Aram Bartholl, James Bridle, Darko Fritz, Vincent Broquaire, Clement Valla, Albertine Meunier, Christopher Baker and Peter Jellitsch. It also includes five projects developed during an artist residency at Le Shadok by the artists Alexandre Saunier, Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkum, Ivan Twohig and Martin De Bie, Julien Fargetton and Thierry Verbeeck.

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