INSTA(NT) GRATIFICATION: Temporary Highs At Bitfor...

INSTA(NT) GRATIFICATION: Temporary Highs At Bitforms Gallery

Jonas Lund’s inviting work New Now 4 (2016) opens Bitforms Gallery’s exhibition Temporary Highs, now on view until July 16, 2016. The work is a UV print on plexiglass, framed in metal and illuminated from behind by purple LED strips. It is the result of what I posit is a collaboration between the artist and the neural network he created, which generated the image on view and, according to the artist, dictates the pieces he creates. In a show about how we interact with digital information and pleasure in online spaces, the piece serves as an investigation of how networks of information generate unpredictable meanings seemingly independent of human intervention. For the piece, Lund has developed an artificial neural network into which he inputs all his previous works, and creates pieces based on the network’s outputs.

Artificial neural networks are a branch of Machine Learning; the field of computer science focused on the ways that computer’s can “learn” through pattern recognition as part of Artificial Intelligence. Like the biological neural network of the central nervous system, artificial neural networks are made up of a family of models which operate like a system of interconnected “neurons”. These “neurons” exchange information to generate often unpredictable results from a number of inputs. Lund uses the artificial neural network he created to “optimize his practice” by inputting images of his previous works and creating new pieces based on the resulting outputs.  How exactly this happens is not clear – what is clear is that this is a collaboration between the artist and the network he has created- where new works are generated through a process created by the artist but not totally in his control.

The text on the piece states that “arguably, the artificial intelligence created by the artist becomes the artist” and that AI “seeks to understand and tap into our deepest impulses”. The question of whether AI has the agency to “learn” and “seek” is at the crux of the field’s philosophical debates, and serves as the basis for much science fiction. Yet the suggestion that somehow the AI the artist has created becomes the artist himself obscures the collaborative nature of his process. While it can be argued that artificial neural networks do have agency through their ability to “learn” patterns and generate meaning independently, the hand of the artist is still present in this piece as it’s primary agent. The artificial neural network is dependent on the artist’s inputting of his works, and the visualization of the results it produces is dictated by the artist’s own manipulation. While the concept of “optimization” comes from the targeted marketing we all experience through facebook ads and the like, there is an intimacy at play here between the artist and his technology that is not qualified by marketing business-peak. Additionally, the liquid abstraction printed on the plexi glass (as a visual rendering of the neural network’s outputs) suggests the ultimate inscrutability of optimized data when separated from human life – it’s all just a wash of color.

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“New Now 4”, Jonas Lund. Photo: Bitforms Gallery

The press release for the show states that the included artworks “operate in [the online] space where immediate gratification is paramount”. Petra Cortright’s video piece “Marled Clay Cheese (2015) perhaps best suggests the perverse results of this “constant search for validation, understanding, and connection” in virtual contexts. Using Windows task bar strippers sourced from VirtuaGirl, Cortright has put together a two hour loop of digital women dancing against a bright green background that looks like a green screen. The uncanny piece highlights the artificiality of the software, VirtuaGirl, which has been around since the late 1990s, and probes the “immediate gratification” such software provides.

The VirtuaGirl software was made available to the public in 1998, and boasts over 150million users so far. The software, which is now subscription based, promises that “girls come to dance and strip on your screen, while you continue using your computer.” In this early and perhaps ultimate form of virtual instant gratification, the software promises titillation as a quotidien part of computer activity. It provides gratification that does not require any reciprocal activity, something that actual women generally do. With VirtuaGirl you can get off while checking your email and scrolling through twitter – no need to bother with a real girlfriend. In an unlikely parallel with Lund’s piece “New Now 4”, the VirtuaGirl software appears to work like an artificial neural network, randomly picking the downloadable demo shows that subscribers’ receive daily based on a series of user-generated inputs. From there the subscriber is in control, and can either pay to see the randomly selected demo girl nude, or continue to enjoy her partially clothed performance. Against Cortright’s green screen and outside of the viewer’s control, these virtual  figures appear displaced, leading one to wonder where they really belong, and even who they really are. Occupying the same digital space but unaware of one another, they dance in a 2 hour loop, complicating the linear logic of the (visual) consumption-to-(sexual) gratification system they were originally programmed to satisfy.

In investigating the impact of digital space on social behavior, many of the pieces in Temporary Highs also suggests the ways that meaning is scrambled as a result of the rush of data, the absolute cacophony of stimulation available in the digital sphere. Several of the works continue the century long exploration of the ways that photography does and does not represent “the real”, taken to new extremes in our era of compulsive over-sharing. Anouk Kruithof’s mixed media sculpture Neutral (openhearted) (2015) is one of two sculptural pieces in the show, shifting these questions into three dimensions. Using screenshots of posts from the TSA’s instagram, Kruithof expands and distorts parts of these images, prints them onto vinyl and other materials, and drapes them over abstract metal structures. What results is not a straightforward representation of her source material. Rather, the transformation enacted by the artist’s process highlights the malleability of digital imagery and suggests the exponential possibilities of meaning-making for data created, manipulated, and consumed in the digital sphere.

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“Neutral (openhearted),” Anouk Kruithof. Photo: Pim Top

As State sponsored propaganda, the TSA’s instagram is strange and funny, often succeeding in making one of the government’s more ineffective surveillance and security branches accessible and even charming. The organization’s instagram frequently posts pictures of oddities confiscated from travellers, serving as a surveillance-adjacent platform that purportedly celebrates human quirkiness caught in the act. Of course, the consequences faced by the people who provide the account’s source material are never revealed, as this would make it all too “real”. These TSA images are usually taken with the ID of the objects’ owners alongside the confiscated items, but the IDs are blurred for security reasons. Kruithof focuses specifically on the blurred ID cards, screenshotting them and printing them on different plastics, in this case vinyl. Resting on the sculpture’s metal frame, the source imagery takes on a new physicality that runs perpendicular to its original purpose. Here surveillance has veered into abstraction, where instagram as a representation of “truth” has been distorted and blurred, taking on new life when stretched across a sculptural body.

Temporary Highs was curated by Lindsay Howard. Information about the other works in the show is available on Bitforms Gallery’s website. Be sure to check out the the exhibition’s website, a pseudo-social network in which simply liking likes provides a temporary high.

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Installation view, “Temporary Highs,” Photo: Bitforms Gallery

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Installation view, “Temporary Highs,” Photo: Bitforms Gallery

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Installation view, “Temporary Highs,” Photo: Bitforms Gallery

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Installation view, “Temporary Highs,” Photo: Bitforms Gallery


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Jazia is an art advisor, writer, and curator based in New York City. She enjoys spending time in museums, galleries, and flea markets from here to Marrakech.