Our Uncanny Digital Existence

By Amanda Ba, Columbia University

Originally published in the 2020 print edition

 


Since the time of the Y2K bug, new media has exponentially and effectively saturated both our everyday life and the art world that embellishes it. The engagement of art with technology is at the frontier of contemporary art, cropping up at every gallery and biennial: the introduction of a new technology assumes its immediate and inevitable appropriation and reappropriation for artistic purposes. As with any contemporary and ongoing development, it is difficult to fully assess its impact and implications without the benefit of hindsight, but seeing as society has already been introduced to a piercing self-awareness of our digital citizenship and dependency on technology, new media art has proven itself to be a highly viable lens for further reflection upon and analysis of our digital age. In recent years, interdisciplinary artist Jacolby Satterwhite has become a superstar proponent of this investigation, culminating in two exhibitions: “Room for Living” at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia in 2019, and “You’re at home” at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn in 2018. In particular, his show at Pioneer Works exemplifies a technological audiovisual overload—a cacophony of animated videos on a myriad of screens, installation works, a virtual reality album, and live performances—emblematic of our contemporary media-saturated existence.

“You’re at home” is an immersive environment revolving around Satterwhite’s latest video opus, Birds in Paradise, a digital tapestry of “mythological, queer universes derived from American consumerism, pop culture, African folklore, ritual, and personal narra-tives.” Green-screened clones of Satterwhite himself permeate these hypnotic and fantastic environments, dancing alongside multitudes of computer-generated imagery (CGI) avatars that occupy the morphing architecture of futuristic edifices. Bionic creatures soar amidst leather-clad performers and muses, their machine-like movements inspired by what Pioneer Works identifies as “voguing and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s pared down, repetitive gestures, reflecting a kind of banal labor performed by citizens of a theoretical society with no social classes” [1]. These scenes are collaged next to real-life footage of forest fires, glacial melt, and other imagery alluding to impending climate cataclysm, as well as footage of performance pieces emulating Yorùbá rituals in which a digital avatar of the artist is hung upside-down, twisted in and whipped with cloths, or baptized in a river by a Nigerian mermaid. 

The personal flourishes that embellish “You’re at home” also include an audio LP. Satterwhite’s mother Patricia, who suffered from schizophrenia for most of her life, retreated into a private creative practice leaving behind numerous a cappella recordings of songs she wrote on cassette tapes and hundreds of drawings of commonplace material objects. Satterwhite took her recordings and produced a double LP electronic album, Love Will Find a Way Home, released alongside the exhibition. The album functions as the nightclub-esque soundtrack to Birds in Paradise, while Patricia’s drawings—compositions of thin lines in lattice-like geometric arrangements—are rendered digitally and inserted into the videos and 3-D printed into sculptures that populate the exhibit.

The show is overwhelming and confrontational. Satterwhite’s work traverses numerous forms of both “old” and “new” media. Take, for example, the familiar white-cube gallery inside Pioneer Works showcasing his mother’s drawings and lyrics on framed sheets of A4 paper. The traditional gesture is then digitally transcribed, the drawings processed and reprocessed many times over to achieve a holistic and totalizing body of work. “You’re at home” employs non-differentiating digital aestheticization and fetishization to a mishmash of heavy sociopolitical references— race, sexuality, queerness, environmental anxiety, mental health, decolonization, ancestry, utopia/dystopia, and the abandonment of the material world. How are we meant to engage with such a multi-faceted exhibit, one that takes a maximalist visual approach to media and cultural references? 

The Nostalgic and the Uncanny 

Satterwhite himself speaks openly about his conscious utilization of certain aesthetic properties within his video animation work. The grittiness that characterizes his moving image practice, for instance, is intentional. In an interview with Art21, he gives credit to his beginnings as a painter, saying, “I come from the discipline that is more primal or basic or fundamental—painting and drawing. There’s construction, there’s observation. Everything comes from scratch. The videos will never be a certain kind of polished, but I like the DIY aesthetic of it because it feels immediate, and I feel like the formal properties pack a larger punch when they’re so hard-edge, in-your-face” [2]. The “hard-edge DIY aesthetic” that he speaks about is widespread in new media animation, and a crucial access point to understanding it. We could redefine this grittiness as a certain uncanny quality that many new media artists imbue their work with, choosing to maintain a certain distance from importing direct reality. 

Take John Rafman, for example. In his ongoing animated video series Dream Journal, Rafman epitomizes the use of janky 2000’s CGI. Dream Journal renders Rafman’s fantastical and unsettling dreams in a digital landscape, providing a window into his subconscious and articulating the transient imagery that otherwise evades visualization. The textural rendering in Dream Journal comes across as somehow off, often with unconvincingly flat lighting or a sky that is just a still image of clouds. His characters, most of which are exquisite-corpse-like humanoids with monstrous mismatched body parts, traverse harrowing terrains in glitchy, mechanized gliding movements. 

Even Ed Atkins, known for his hyper-realistic digital rendering of a recurring character he calls a “model,” leans into this uncanny aesthetic in some areas of his video work. Atkins describes his models as personal surrogates (they are even animated by his motion-captured body) but strips them of their humanity: “They’re hollow vessels that do whatever I want them to do. They’re a way to perform desires – of mine, I suppose, however convoluted, repressed” [3]. As a result, they are stiff and unsettling, even when they speak in his voice. Though they appear superficially realistic, the grittiness of an off-kilter DIY aesthetic shines through, as in Rafman and Satterwhite. Sometimes Atkins’ models seem to act in a void, like miniature lifeless bodies tossed into a bin atop an airport security conveyor belt in his 2017 video piece Safe Conduct. Beyond the conveyor belt, at the margins of the digital space, lies only an unrendered field of gray. This combination—an attempt at the hyperreal and an active acknowedgment of the computer program’s blank slate—heightens the viewer’s awareness of the un-realness of it all. 

On a practical level, this technologically-outdated style can be partially explained by the fact that these artists are individuals working on hobbyist software without the aid of a large-scale production companies or visual effects teams. Without using the latest animation and rendering programs, the videos aren’t able to achieve the ultra-smooth, hyperrealistic effects that we have come to expect in blockbuster movies. But on a more poignant level, the works acquire a self-reflective, keenly satirical quality by resisting the technological race of mainstream mass media. 

In Julio García Espinosa’s 1960s manifesto, “For an Imperfect Cinema,” he reflects on the promises of experimental cinema—itself a new medium at that time— and its potential to create an art by, for, and of the people by subverting the elitist position of traditional film production [4]. Hito Steyerl goes on to liken imperfect cinema to her theory of ‘poor images,’ widely-circulated images in low resolution such as previews, thumbnails, memes, and so-called ‘cursed images.’ “Most of all, [imperfect cinema’s] visuality is resolutely compromised: blurred, amateurish, and full of artifacts,” Steyerl writes [5]. Poor images homologize the role of contemporary new media animation aesthetics: they effectively “present a snapshot of the affective condition of the crowd, its neurosis, paranoia, and fear, as well as its craving for intensity, fun, and distraction.” Rather than deluding the viewer into succumbing to a digital world, they reveal the fetishization of technology deeply embedded in our collective cultural psyche, resonating especially with those who have witnessed the internet progress along its own trajectory. 

What was so seductive about original Y2K-era CGI was its novelty and the hope for possibility that it sparked. Formal believability was beside the point— each innovation was the newest thing we had seen, the best thing we could imagine, and we plunged ourselves into it without hesitation. Two decades on, we now crave the nostalgia of that feeling. It is no wonder, then, that Satterwhite, Rafman, and Atkins all cite video games from the 2000’s as inspiration. Satterwhite describes Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, and Tomb Raider as his sources of solace while undergoing a three-year treatment for childhood cancer [6]. Atkins talks about his ever-growing fascination with video games, admitting that he tries to focus on just observing them and watching playthroughs, since playing them “[fills him] up in such a dangerous way… the best and worst, things that make [him] feel replete” [7]. There is an irresistible allure that comes from our desire to transport ourselves into a space where our fantasies can exist; early video games were the catalyst for this never-ending bombardment of simulated worlds to come. Alongside film, they were the impetus for the rapid advancement of CGI towards a perfect imitation of our lived reality, an eternal race against obsolescence. 

Digital graphics in mainstream cinema, such as the computer-generated rendering of a young Carrie Fisher in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and Will Smith fighting hand-to-hand with a CGI version of his younger self in Gemini Man (2019), have proven controversial. Both elicited public backlash, stemming from a place of dissatisfaction and discomfort with the challenges they pose to our own material existence. Inevitably, logic prevents us from accepting their existence so easily—our curiosity and preoccupation with testing ourselves to see if we can distinguish between the digital and the “real” rattles us from the suspension of disbelief, and shatters the fictional world of the film, leaving us in limbo. 

However, with work like Satterwhite’s, unlike mainstream Hollywood, we find solidarity with the artist in knowing that he is not trying to fool us. Instead, he leans into the uncanniness of digital graphics, offering us a concrete connection to the real world by juxtaposing his CGI figures next to imagery directly imported from life, insisting on a clear distinction. Our recognition of this uncanny valley sparks a sense of sympathy towards these obsolete digital beings, but Satterwhite’s fantasy isn’t dismissive escapism. Instead, it’s a sort of alternate reality lens that distorts references to the real world in order to reveal the anxieties present in society’s communal conscience. The work remains deeply embedded in a moment of the present, providing visual commentary on current issues and appealing to our longing for the nostalgia of the more innocent past while pointing towards a wholly virtual future. 

Algorithmic Existence 

Our digital lives and experience are so intertwined that it’s hard to formulate that question: what are the sources of our being, our lived experience, what comes from where, where or who are we? The dichotomy between digital and real life has collapsed in large parts of the world. I’m interested in finding ways to represent this collapse. 

– John Rafman [8]. 

Lil Miquela is an Instagram virtual influencer, a CGI teenage model promoting primarily streetwear brands. Since her online birth in 2016, she has become progressively more “real,” transitioning from rendered mirror-pic stills to posing with a multitude of human influencers and celebrities and making music videos for her electropop songs. In May 2018, there was a moment in which she publicly acknowledged her own digital origin, referring to herself as a “robot” through a meme [9]. Following that announcement, her posts have been interspersed with colloquial jokes and references to her digital being. However, she is not a robot, as “robot” implies a material existence, and she is but an algorithmic rendering.

Computer-generated figures are a metaphysical challenge. On the one hand, we are innately trained to sympathize with anything that resembles the human form. When we see Satterwhite’s avatars gyrating in cyberspace, we think about our own experiences dancing, or what it would be like to dance with one of those figures, or perhaps even to become them. On the other hand, a collapse between the material and the digital is no longer an entertaining distant daydream, but a very real and unnerving possibility. Our preoccupation with the uncanny is saving us from the deeper issue: the looming probability that one day, we will no longer be able to discern between an animated person and a real one. In the interim, the immediate concern remains “the surrogate, the veracity of the CGI pushing hard at realistic and failing hard to push into real… which might be close to an idea of abjection” [10]. Abjection, according to Julia Kristeva, is the subjective horror that an individual experiences when they are confronted by “corporeal reality” (both psychologically and as a body), or a breakdown in the distinction between what is Self and what is Other. We are already experiencing this in grappling with our own digital citizenship, our online personas, our performative alternate existences—the algorithms that recreate and define our world at large. Add on the recent development of CGI social media personas like Lil Miquela and the progression of virtual reality tech, and it really does begin to feel as if we are on the brink of falling into a revolutionary all-encompassing integration. 

Salvation 

No longer are we concerned with the loss of art’s authenticity, once forecasted by Walter Benjamin. We are now accustomed to an age where digital reproduction is both the norm and the impetus. There is nothing authentic anymore—aura in the Benjaminian sense is ephemeral and mystical, if it even exists at all. But it’s not all bad, really. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” a contemporary riff on Benjamin’s essay, Douglas Davis offers us an optimistic solution to reclaiming individual authenticity by “increasing the power of our subjective presence in the other reality” [11]. In a reversal of Benjamin’s argument, digital technology holds the potential to provide us with that individuating mark. The drawbacks of the digital space—increasing capitalization of personal data, collectivization around surface-level trends, and constant surveillance—are not to be overlooked, but a deeper dive into the virtual world also equips us to combat these deleterious trends. Davis proposes that the promise of the virtual lies in a subject-based approach to the Benjaminian aura: we reach through the electronic field of ease that cushions us, like amniotic fluid, through the field that allows us to order, reform, and transmit almost any sound, idea, or word, toward what lies beyond, toward the transient and ineffable — a breath… Here is where the aura resides — not in the thing itself but in the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise. 

We live in the “age of the remix,” as Jacolby Satterwhite describes it. “It’s about how you use the information around you to generate your individuality.” Liberation can be achieved through a constant self-interrogation—a conscious effort to understand the nature of our entrapment, and a learned ability to transcend it. Inserting oneself in a digital world doesn’t have to be escapism, it can be a combative political gesture: fight virtual with virtual. 

 


NOTES 

1. Pioneer Works. “Jacolby Satterwhite: You’re at home.” Pioneer Works, https://pioneerworks.org/exhibitions/jacolby-satterwhite-youre-at-home/. Accessed 28 Nov 2019. 

2. Art21. “Jacolby Satterwhite is going public.” Art21, https://art21. org/watch/new-york-close-up/jacolby-satterwhite-is-going-public/. Accessed 28 Nov 2019. 

3. Speed, Mitch. “‘A Plea for Empathy’: Ed Atkins opens up to Mitch Speed.” Art Basel Conversations: Performance Beyond the Body. YouTube, 25 June 2018. https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=SqJjjUgNoe0 

4. Espinosa, Julio García. “For an Imperfect Cinema.” Jump Cut, no. 20, 1979, pp. 24-26. 

5. Steyerl, Hito. “In Defense of the Poor Image.” E-Flux Journal no. 10, November 2009. 

6. Bullock, Michael. “Interview: Jacolby Satterwhite on how video games, art history, and sleep deprivation inspire his 3D interiors.” PIN-UP 25, Fall Winter 2018/2019.

7. Rafferty, Penny. “‘Ed Atkins on his hyper-real and harrowing new films.” Dazed, https://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/34547/1/ed-atkins-hyper-real-h. Accessed 28 Nov 2019. 

8. Feddema, Sid. “John Rafman: If we spend as much time on the internet as we do off of it, where do we actually live?” Flaunt Magazine, https://www.flaunt.com/content/art/jon-rafman. Accessed 28 Nov 2019. 

9. Lil Miquela. “Who Can Relate?” Instagram, 14 May 2018, https:// http://www.instagram.com/p/Bix-NTeB9UV/. 

10. Kristeva, Julia, Roudiez, Leon S. Powers Of Horror: An Essay On Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Print. 

11. Davis, Douglas, “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis: 1991-1995).” Leonardo, Vol. 28, No. 5, Third Annual New York Digital Salon, 1995, pp. 381-386.

 

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