Curator of Digital Artist Residency, Tom Milnes, speaks to resident artists Jason Brogan and Joanne Masding.
“I’m specifically interested in outdated or obsolete, consumer-oriented, sound technology” states Jason Brogan when asked what his starting point would be in terms of material.
“Admittedly, these technologies might not be considered totally outdated, but our contemporary culture has nonetheless moved on from them to more recent versions or entirely new technologies.”
Mini-discs, ViewMasters, VHS video cameras, reel-to-reel tape, Tamogotchi. Printers, scanners, CRT TVs, flat screen TVs. Broken PC towers. The studios of contemporary artists that I have visited often contain a collection of accumulated technology. Many of these objects are unused, boxed but unwanted, and outdated. Some are used but still in working order, alongside others broken and non-functional. But what do artists want with all this stuff?
Technological ‘failures’, although a dead-end for short-term commerce, provide many artists and hackers with valuable cheap material. Other than redundant technology’s affordability, it is also its failure which attracts many artists to explore technology’s flaws, creating alternative aesthetics and uses. Jason Brogan is a composer and artist based in New York. His recent project Opera for Zombie Media for Digital Artist Residency focuses on music composed from obsolete objects.
“Each object that becomes the focus of a piece in the series is found and investigated “as-is”; moreover, it’s in an unused or even broken state. Nonetheless, these objects persist physically even if they’re culturally repressed or forgotten. Admittedly, I’ve always maintained an interest in sound equipment. In fact, I suppose my media archaeological tendencies originated in taking apart various pieces of the home stereo throughout my childhood.”
Obsolescence is possibly the one thing that is a guaranteed constant with consumer technology; it now has a history. Artists know there will always be a steady stream of unpopular, out-dated and non-functional products and materials to be recycled, reaped and reconstituted in to new forms. Working widely with varying approaches and responses to obsolescence, artists’ drive to find new contemporary aesthetics are also propelled by concepts around environmental impact of technological detritus or social and mental implications of mass communication. Formal and aesthetic decisions may dictate how and which technologies get reapplied, whether their original functionality is ignored or used. But pragmatic and functional approaches to technology often mean artists prefer to use old technologies, favouring their ease-of-use, or lauding their ability to be altered and ’tinkered’ with. His work deals with sonic explorations of obsolete technologies, testing their limitations, where this tactility is important.
“Earlier technology like a turntable, literally driven by accessible parts and engineered to be fixable, almost readily invites intervention or tinkering, hacking or repurposing. With a turntable, one simply applies pressure to the platter and it immediately slows down the rotation speed. The platter itself might then be amplified via a microphone. Often, if a device has its own output, I intentionally try to avoid using it.”
This shows the canny ways artists deliberately use the technology for alternative uses, assessing its qualities and exploring the unconventional characteristics of the product. Even if this product is broken or partly functioning, its components are a precious resource. The function of the piece may just alter, reapplying its use in other forms. Of course, it fault and malfunction may just be appreciated, deliberately exploited as they exhibited bizarre of rare qualities.
“A piece of equipment might be broken or have a failing mechanism, and this will often be exploited sonically by way of amplification, or it might drive the form of a piece. Within the context of the project [Opera for Zombie Media], each piece constitutes an aria—or a solo of sorts. Some pieces of equipment offer highly contingent sonic material—with no apparent reason at all, and perhaps due to a malfunction or glitch, the sound world of an old portable CD player might change dramatically from one moment to the next; the needle of a turntable might totally fail and give way to a new, unexpected and unintended sound world.”
Of course, all technology has its limits. Even the most sophisticated software or technology will be superseded with time. These limits and boundaries are often what artists like to play with, what happens when they are exceeded? What does it look like when things go wrong? For Joanne Masding, her recent explorations, during her month-long research at DAR, led her to explore the limitations of GIFs: the animated images file format, famous for funny memes and videos. Masding exploits the faults of technology much like Brogan does. But Masding focuses on an altogether less tangible element of technology, exploring its materiality and testing it.
“I wanted to see if I could find the limits of the GIF, and by doing so, share something about its materiality. The GIFs I made take video from YouTube as starting points, which I selected from the results of a search on ‘weightiness’. Animated GIFs are supposed to be tiny, jazzy things that don’t take up data space, I wanted to see how much information I could pack into one before it cracked, to try and give it some mass. In doing so, I found some initial limits, to do with what my version of Photoshop and Mac can handle, and a size limit on the website content management system, but also to do with the point when a GIF stops feeling like a GIF; when the mesmeric loop is too big to suck you in. At the end of the residency I multiplied all the GIFs on one page, to see if I could make the data rate visible – that the GIFs stutter until all the information has loaded, and you can see this invisible process taking a form that can be experienced.”
This tactility then, and a tendency to test the nature of these technologies, persists even when exploring software. Exploring what makes a technology tick. New aesthetics emerge out of faults in materials, which artists choose to expand on. The ‘material failure’ chosen for its aesthetic qualities seems to drive these technologies into new areas and it is these aesthetic choices that make the ‘hacked’ technologies so intriguing. There is an element of chance, an unknown output. This ultimately leads artists choosing tech not for its performance reliability, differing from other consumers. The reason artists may pick certain technology can also be put down to affordability. With mass production creating products cheaper than ever. The redundant products are left in innovations wake create a stockpile of cheap technology.
“My decision to often use affordable and common materials comes out of wanting to think about production, trade and consumerism. I want to think about the politics of production and being a producer. I think I’d describe it more as common familiarity, that’s part of an everyday consumer language, which is more often than not when this stuff has become commonplace, reduced in value and physically and culturally lighter. I refer to this in opposition to both high-end, brand new technology or material, and outdated and redundant technology, which have specific contexts that make them extra visible, rather than ‘current’ technology that I can play with being read as visible or invisible. Part of this commonness also means that the machinations become more accessible, more known, and easier to split apart and reconstruct.”
The Technological Life Cycle (TLC) of a product is pre-planned and carefully considered by tech giants as to how and when they launch their new products. Not too late as to gift possible consumers to other manufacturers but not too soon as to obviate their own products on the market. Timed at some point during the predecessor’s downturn. Each product is calculated with a possible length of ‘maturity’ when they will be both at their most valuable (culturally and economically) and cheapest to produce. This ‘maturity’ of a product is also the reason for the vast quantity of e-waste emerging, with the possibility of production at peak efficiency, the downturn will inevitably lead to a torrent of un-recyclable and toxic waste.
Places like India, Pakistan and China are becoming the receptacles for a lot of the West’s electronic waste as well as becoming increasingly large producers themselves. In 2014, 1641 metric tonnes of e-waste was produced in India alone, and it may be shocking to find out that India is only the fifth biggest producer of e-waste in the world.[I]
It’s no wonder that artists are responding to this huge issue, with a vast quantity of e-waste appearing around us. How do artist foresee change in commercial production? And will artists continue to respond to this era of production? Brogan is convinced.
“Given both our current and future ecological and economic conditions, I do foresee it continuing into the future. Undead technology will continue as an unavoidable part of everyday life, and as a reminder of non-human (and non-linear) temporalities.”
Tom Milnes is an artist, curator and researcher living and working in London. His work and interests explore our relationship with technological cultures. Milnes’ use of site-specific work exemplifies different cultures responses to technology with works actively confuse time frames. Recent exhibitions and screenings include: White Marble,Toronto Urban Film Festival (2015), JHB Archive, Birmingham Open Media (2015) and Aspect, Kingsgate Gallery, London (2014)
Milnes was recently the Sandarbh International Artist-in-Residence and Kingsgate Emerging Artist-in-Residence. He is the curator and founder of the online platform Digital Artist Residency.