Artist statement: Stuart Sontier
collapse: reflecting on a digital sublime
The Refinery, Nelson.
June 21- July 2nd 2021
We are led to think of the digital as immaterial; a bunch of ones and zeros, bytes and gigabytes flicking through some notional ether, but something that serves art and commerce, photography and the illusional paperless office.
This work exists in a space between the digital and the analogue, where the former has a complex relationship with the latter. Images are taken from inkjet printing failures and printer test patterns, visuals that are not considered for their aesthetics. The tests are part of the software driving the machine, created by programmers with no particular interest in them beyond the information they convey.
Joanna Zylinska* refers to non-human photography, where the human agent is absent either from the making or the use of the image. Imaging made by security cameras or for mapping, satellite imaging or number plate and face recognition are a few uses. With the introduction of artificial intelligence, the imaging may not even make sense to us, unless our intervention is required. The ‘image’ may be a huge dataset of pictures that is codified as a facial recognition system or used to create new, unique faces.
Underneath this is human intervention. For instance in encoded biases that result in particular recognition outcomes. Or how code interprets visual inputs to give the required output. When and how software fails are the concerns of programmers, but bugs in code are inevitable.
The weight of a technological sublime sits heavily. When technology fails there is a glimpse of the overwhelming lack of familiarity with it. Coupled with this is that disposal of tech waste reminds us of our role in the diminishing of the planet.
With our current population we use resources and create quantities of waste that threaten to engulf us. Our digital machines, often with inbuilt obsolescence, create plastics, toxics and other waste that we still don’t know how to properly dispose of.
Nicholas Gallie** in his thesis The Sublime of Climate Change refers to the potential for stasis as a reaction to being overawed, inaction induced by the fear of annihilation.
Climate change is to me an indicator of larger societal issues. The non-human allows a different perspective on problems that are global and hard to visualise.
I recover printers, ink and paper from second-hand markets, often receiving relief from the owner when their product is saved (briefly) from the rubbish dump.
Using the printers’ own test patterns, scanning and reprinting faulty images along with using old papers and redundant inks, I rework physical materials in similar ways to those of film-based photographers who work with chemicals and silver-based papers.
The printers act as examples of inherent but random modes of failure. I find several points of interest – one being what can be used visually when they fail. The other significant one is where the digital meets the real world, in the production and disposal of associated waste, especially given the likelihood of obsolescence and the palpable waste in the single-use ink cartridges.
In Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime, the idea of awe is coupled with that of terror – often the fear of death induced by contemplation of the monumental. In a digital sublime, the focus is on the inanimate, the ephemeral, the conceptual – the metaphorical workings of the machine. The awe of this phenomenon, created by humans, has both utopian and dystopian possibilities. We communicate in ways unheard of while at the same time worrying about the obsolete ink carts and dead printers, redundant phones and other required devices we are forced to dispose of.
The sublime of the natural world has not gone away but sits alongside awe of our technological achievements. The move to digital and the consequences are not solved by inaction. The challenge is to confront the sublime, the fears, and form an understanding and find solutions in forward motion.
The natural is coming back to us, to remind that there may be hubris in the belief of our superiority over nature.
* Joanna Zylinska – Non-Human Photography
** Nicholas Gallie – The sublime of climate change