In “Get Life / Love’s Work”, his exhibition presented at the New Museum in New York until October 3, Ed Atkins tackles the subject of distance, in particular in the era of Covid-19, via the medium for which he is best known: high definition computer generated figurative videos. The UK-born, Copenhagen-based artist and poet created a new CG animation using footage from an interview between himself and his mother that he recorded during the lockdown. This video, accompanied by an accompanying installation featuring embroidery, paintings, and text, continues and expands Atkins’ signature questioning of the relationships between contemporary technology, affect, and personality.
The Atkins splash in early 2010 was heard on both sides of the Atlantic. The phrase “post-Internet art” was used at every opportunity, and a critical cottage industry had grown around the term. A major intriguing topic at the time was what I would call “the smooth evacuation”; artists and writers were exploring what it might look like if traditional sites of heartfelt emotion, such as figurative representation and lyrical poetry, were taken over by software, crowdsourcing, and other media-related content generation. machine. The images and language thus created referred to humanist tropes, even though they came from an algorithm rather than a painter’s brush or a poet’s pen. In a sense, this was nothing new, given the tension of Anglophone conceptualism which was concerned with the evacuation of the semantic and referential capacities of language in favor of material and grammatical peculiarities (see Dan Graham’s “Schemes” 1966-1970, which note the frequency of use of various parts of speech in a given text, for example). Yet the “gently evacuated” works of the post-Internet era by artist Cory Arcangel or poet Josef Kaplan were more nostalgic and personal than the systems-based works of the 1960s and 1970s to which they were sometimes compared. These artists mourned the fact that pictures and words – and the art work associated with them – now seemed to belong to machines rather than humans, given the machines’ notoriously superior memories and computational abilities.
Atkins’ videos and poems placed him at the forefront of this cohort. Its two practices are not entirely distinct; his video scripts, for example, are often published later as poems. His three-channel video from 2014 Ribbons features a computer-generated character named Dave, an abject white man who drinks, smokes, and hums self-pity songs through a computer-generated haze filled with lens flare and dust particles. Dave’s Ace-bandage-beige skin is decorated with what appear to be stick-and-poke tattoos or perhaps Sharpie designs that could have been done by drinking buddies as he was punched incapacity. With his shaved head and lean, muscular torso, he looks like a gym-obsessed soldier or football hooligan, someone up for action and not exactly in a good way. As Atkins put it in Art Forum, “Ribbons is, really, like an unholy demo for an occult video game. Atkins had previously shown videos: Death Mask I and Death Mask II (2010-11), A bait for corpses (2011), We the dead talk about love (2012), and Hot, hot and hot spring mouths (2013). There was something particularly fascinating about Dave, which, with his mumbled songs, reflected the little resentments and hopelessness long associated with bar culture – and more recently available through social media platforms like Tumblr and Twitter. Dave is a rubbery kind of fuck boy, eloquent in his melancholy but easily deflated. He looks both like the owner of a sex doll and the doll itself. Plus, Dave was associated with something deeper in Western culture. For those like Atkins who read poetry, Dave didn’t just evoke the exploitative nature of contemporary technology and the meaty details of HD, but served as a commentary on the traditional speaker I of lyric poetry.
Lyrical poetry has always had a strained relationship with authenticity, which makes it an appropriate, though unlikely, vehicle for Atkins’ concerns about the effects of contemporary technology. A lyric poem usually takes the form of a deprived expression of emotion by an individual speaker. In classical times, lyric poetry was inspired by impromptu songs performed by skilled bards at symposia. Originally a way of imitating the virtuoso live performance, it became, during the Renaissance, a means of expressing romantic love. The Victorians made it sentimental, and high modernism added an educated and ironic interpretation to the form. The state of lyric poetry in the 2010s was, at least in experimental circles, affected by the rise of algorithmic doubt regarding the source of the written word; Online language may or may not have a human author, and may be more or less serious, that is, more or less affected by the anonymity of forums and comment sections. Atkins, who is the author of two collections of poetry—A bait for corpses (2016) and Ancient food (2018) – and whose videos play with the conventions of lyrical skill (Dave: “Help me communicate without debasement, honey”), was clearly aware of contemporary trends in poetry. Some of the poets he has cited or worked with include Joe Luna, Keston Sutherland and Ariana Reines. Yet the texts and books Atkins published alongside his video installations tend to be deeply embedded in the mud and the ephemeral of organic matter, and therefore stranger and messier than most contemporary poems, even if they have stylistic links with a sensual neoclassicism.
Atkins’ frequent references to “dead men” can be understood, as he himself argued in many speeches, in relation to the non-indexical quality of computer-generated imagery. In other words, the human figures he manipulates are similar to corpses in that they are inanimate, fully digital entities. But the severed heads we see throughout his work could also be a reference to the mythical poet Orpheus, who was torn limb by limb by wild beasts and whose head is said to have continued to sing, even after death. At Atkins Safe driving (2016), for example, we see the bodyless head of the CG video protagonist lying in an airport security control trash can, muttering Maurice Ravel’s 1928 orchestral composition Bolero. The cliché of the suffering poet, whose melancholy verses struggle to express an authentic and original emotion because it is hampered by the worn-out conventions of the lyrical tradition, agrees with the inauthenticity of CGI, which aspires to realistic detail but reveals its artifice by a excessive loyalty. .
A bait for corpses and Ancient food, meanwhile, showcase Atkins’ verbal inventiveness and his interest in our tactile and olfactory associations with the words and things they describe. These writings have an immediate, logorrheic sort of feel, which is a welcome contrast to the artist’s videos. A bait for corpses explores literary skill and the physical body, wondering if the suffering described in language is mere imitation. He asks, in effect, if some sort of linguistic flesh can be produced by the accumulation of details, or by correlations between seemingly unrelated things, like “making myself a jam sandwich.” [and] pissing in a wastepaper basket. In Ancient food, meanwhile the fries, aka chips, are, in one of the best descriptions of the beloved dish I’ve read, “hot and golden and / flashing with fat, all crispy tips and / or burning plush cores “. These “perfectly direct sticks” are then “skimmed” by the lager. It’s like eating takes place in another semi-psychedelic world; the most common of foods are probed for carnal details with a devotion that would have made the poet John Keats (1795-1821) proud, who was capable of phrases like “the pulsating liquidity of a dew piping” or “a feeling of happiness out of breath “. “
Atkins has sometimes referred to the white male body as a “default subject,” and his focus on building unique and proprietary software and other technology products and environments is one of the most intriguing aspects of his practice, though its exact criticism can be difficult to pin down. In a passage loaded with a track entitled “Elective Mute” in A bait for corpsesAtkins writes that “numbers” are a way of “verbally shit about women.” Presumably, Atkins indicates here the transformation of the continuous, so-called natural, physical world into discrete data and commodities via acts of digital representation and quantification, referring to a long history of patriarchal domination of the material world and women’s bodies. Yet, as Atkins’ works are also, if not primarily, valued for their use of recent technology, which itself relies on ‘numbers’, there is a way these videos glorify the digital sphere that they claim to criticize by revealing the biases inherent in its construction. The fact that Atkins’ new work involves his mother is an intriguing and potentially vulnerable move: it is a pivot between hypothetical versions of Atkins or, in the artist’s words, “dead” images, for a living. , feel people.
This story is the last in Lucy Ives’ column on artist books.