In his critique of Alfred Barr Jr.’s 1936 exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art” at the Museum of Modern Art, art historian and critic Meyer Schapiro wrote of work that “bears within itself at almost every point the mark of the changing material and psychological conditions surrounding modern culture.” So too are these conditions found in the Low Museum’s second annual “Lowennial” exhibition, titled “Forging Digital Identities” and curated by Low executive director Pastiche Lumumba. Five national and international artists working in digital media are presented in the show that explores the effects of global consumer-capitalism and Internet cultures on the formation of identity and aesthetic production both online and IRL (in real life).
The Low Museum’s quaint and professional space greets guests with a large wall projection of Hirad Sab’s website. We’re invited to explore the site using the provided computer mouse. Some .gif images are present, but what is most striking are the often dark still-life collages of Farsi text, geometric shapes, and highly reflective 3-D models of chains, tropical plants, and water bathed in chilling pinks and blues. From his upbringing in Iran and his subsequent studies in America, Sab’s amalgams occupy a precarious intersection of culture and the democratic nature of image circulation online (as well as the potential for semantic modifications). It is of an aesthetic trend that expands and mutates as rapidly as the global marketplace.
Opposite Sab hangs Terrell Davis’s Desktops, three digital prints on duchess satin. The square kerchief-like pieces hang from their corners, compressing their designs of the familiar pinks and blues that are found scrolling through Sab’s website. When unfurled, we are again confronted with a consumerist still life. Davis arranges real life objects in fictitious computer desktop sprawls, then recreates the scene digitally. What’s left is a hyperactive, color-coordinated game of corporate brand hide-and-seek. Magnum condoms, Takashi Murakami’s design for Louis Vuitton, Fiji water, and Nicki Minaj are scattered among other commodity referents familiar to Millennials. Davis’s Desktops are not so much the disquieting critique of globalism or the formation of cultural identity seen on Sab’s website as they are an embrace of plentitude afforded by such a connected world; that the right combination of objects makes the self. Aside from what appears to be a small self-portrait in one of the desktop compositions, Sab and Davis both avoid any investigation of how their physical bodies may interact with technology.
Nevertheless, the problem of a bodiless digital space is answered. Faith Holland’s Improving, Non-Stop and Sondra Perry’s Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I & II reconnoiter bodies as directly mediated by digital interfaces and algorithms. In Holland’s case, this has IRL repercussions. A screen-captured video shows Holland retouching her self-portrait in Photoshop, erasing perceived flaws and sculpting the contours of her face in much the same way fashion and health magazines retouch photographs. Holland then prints off this new face to wear over her own like a mask. While having “perfected” her appearance, this impedes her daily activities. She walks out of her apartment. She rides the subway; an MTA advertisement reads “Improving, Non-Stop” and looms on either side as more passengers sit down seemingly unaware of Holland. Sitting on a park bench, a woman stops to take a picture of Holland while a few people gather to look on. She watches a movie, washes her mask,has sex, goes to bed, and the video loops; her face edited into a mask once again. Six of these masks were available for reception guests to wear. Playful as they were, the claustrophobic anxiety brought on by laborious self-correcting and the commodification of Holland’s own face extended beyond the video to obstruct the audience’s ability to interact with the outside world, let alone Holland’s video.
Adjacent to Holland’s, Perry’s contribution pushes the body further into erasure. Two smalls screens embedded in the drywall displayed rapid, physically demanding performances by Danny Giles and Joiri Minaya, both of African descent. Even more chaotic are the attempts at catch-up played by a computer program set to replace the dancers’ dark bodies with the whitewashed studio backdrop. Utilizing a “content-aware scale,” the program combats the performers’ corporal petition to occupy the room yet ultimately fails to conceal the movements. As the surface of their bodies become more digitally engaged, or “filtered” as the wall text notes, the more political it becomes. Suspicious, then, that their hair, a site of particular historical politicization, is left unaffected by the software. What is left on the screen is an even more active part of the body, less controlled by muscle than physics, revolting against the body’s erasure.
Between the aesthetic milieus and somatic implications of identity discovered in and via digital spaces, Isaac Kariuki’s Skype Fashion Week offers another approach. As a direct response to the most recent London Fashion Week, Kariuki called on models and non-models of color alike to submit self-portraits. The slideshow of computer screens and faces act as an online reclamation of space whereas in real life London had auspiciously lacked people of color. Together, works in “Forging Digital Identities” construct an interconnected snapshot of our current forms of consumption and production both online and off. As Schapiro wrote: “… in a society where all men can be free individuals, individuality must lose its exclusiveness and its ruthless and perverse character.”
E.A. Hyde is an artist and writer currently studying art history at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. He is the editor and publisher of Ferrofluid Journal and co-director of HOUSE Gallery.