Digital Practice: Terry Flaxton

Digital Practice: Terry Flaxton

Our Digital Practice series of artist interviews focuses on the different creative approaches different artists take to exploring digital media. As part of the series, British moving image artist Terry Flaxton has written a short essay on digital art, quantum technologies and climate change. The essay, titled We are the Borg, explores the role digital technology and artists working with digital media are likely to play in the future. 

The text links to a new series by Flaxton, currently in development, which looks at quantum technology, decision making, and the relationship between human and machine. Stills from the project are shown throughout this article.

"With global catastrophe announced by the earth itself with the recent and continuing wildfires in Australia, with huge swathes of nature decimated and half a billion animals extinguished – how can art and human culture remain relevant and responsive? The short answer is that we rely on technological innovation - a producer of climate change - to save us from the veloticised state that the decline of the planet finds itself in because of our ever enlarging footprint. Deniers of our effect on the planet would have it that this is simply the cyclic state an earth type planet goes through – the only argument with that might be that what that essentially means is the state we have entered will and must change and that may mean that is not life sustaining. 

Even without mentioning this recent state of environmental affairs, both caused and remedied by new technologies, an important question to ask is: why should we care about innovation in a world where making new things is as simple as breaking copyright by changing an inconsequential detail, which in fact does not really move the game of innovation along? Moreover, why is innovation seen as a positive thing in a world replete with a ubiquitous shouting for attention by the least talented ‘artists’?

Why is media, or digital or online art, regarded as being with consequence when most that can be observed only implies meaning and significance, and when examined delivers nothing concrete? Why should we have any regard for online art and its platforms of dissemination, or any other platform that purports to deliver that ‘new thing’ in a ‘new way’?

Moving images represent much of what we think of as ‘new’, whether displayed on a flat screen or a virtual display; yet when video arrived in the early days it had certain characteristics that its older sister, film, could not compete with. Film, with its heritage of dentistry and sewing machinery (the celluloid dental implants squashed and drawn out to provide a transparent surface for the light sensitive emulsion – the film - and the stepping into a linear time sequence of the single frame via a sewing machine mechanism) was only at certain levels pliable. Yet video was inherently pliable, plastic and ubiquitous - easily propagated from its inception. Early makers exalted in the idea that video was infinitely copyable and almost impossible to ‘own’ in any previously recognised way due to its ability to avoid scarcity by self-duplicating. Now, however, systems of ownership and scarcity production have evolved, one example being the very platform this message is published on.

This new system is pioneered by Harry Blain of Blain Southern, following on from the time-honoured system of making-available prints from originals (18th century etchings copied by master craftsmen of masters originals, some of whom themselves obtained the status of artist – Blake, Hogarth and Durer for instance). Blain imagined before the turn of this century that an electronic print form could exist with a digital mark imitating a paper watermark, adding an inherent scarcity by using a limited and numbered edition and an authenticating signed paper document. Secondly he proposed that this structure could apply to a moving image art form which itself had no real monetisation previously. Thirdly, the purchase of one of the editions could in itself mimic the standard art practice of a raising value by selling on that print within an online marketplace – and over the next 20 years (finally establishing sedition in 2015 as a formidable market presence) Harry and his brother Rory achieved a first of establishing a network of more than 60,000 collectors of this new form of moving image art. It should be understood that though there have been significant sales of the video art form – a lot of work has been accessioned to galleries – where accessioned means ‘given’ usually the value of those works has been maintained by keeping the cost obscure. Sedition has made the cost clear for artists and collectors alike to see, clarifying and monetising this most ubiquitous of art forms and giving artists like myself not only the confidence of the sale itself to the collector, but the confidence of the market.

So now, as has been seen at Saatchi, collecting can become a mass behaviour where the screen representation of the work is what engages the purchase (after all a painting is not a screen image yet Saatchi collectors buy and sell on the digital image) and the arrival of the ‘real thing’ may be a either a surprise with either delight or dismay as a consequence. With Sedition, the first view and the final view are the same – all that changes is the removal of the watermark and a sense of ‘ownership’. But not just ownership, there is also the sense of being ahead of the bell curve of acceptance – of being part of the community that knows that the virtual – as with Duchamp and his concept of the idea as opposed to the thing – is as important as the real. 

The representation of other forms within the graphics of distribution is problematic. The thumb nail image and its larger sister ‘click here to see a larger image in detail’, which transforms a line drawing or an oil painting or even a 3D representation, has itself grown into a desirable graphic form of art, distinguishable from the original only if the collectors compared the object they receive to the original thumbnail. Perhaps at this point the collector sinks back into their armchair and lets go into the virtual, realising that any onward sale must be preceded by the virtual image and perhaps only then Walter Benjamin’s aura of the art object is finally transcended such that – especially with the digital where the original is created within that state – the copy is the original. 

Walter Benjamin of course wrote the seminal essay The Object of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which discussed how much of the aura of the original artwork a mechanical copy might retain. This was followed 50 years later by John Wyver’s and Geoff Dunlop’s Illuminations programme, which opened the French Art Channel La Sept with: L’Objet D’art a L’age Electronique, which discussed how much of the aura of the original artwork an electronic copy might have. Now Sedition’s collectors know and understand that value.

In the early days of video in the UK, the film community took against video such that video makers faced a battle to be accepted into the Independent Filmmakers Association. The argument against people who used video was that their form was not tactile and therefore not real. When media art came along, the same tired argument was rolled out again and fortunately was knocked aside. Yet, this counter-evolutionary argument still occurs and is potent. It is in fact the Luddite amongst us that would use this argument against innovation.

When video arose in the UK it came with the fresh chaotic pleasure of the disordered. It was essentially a gesture of the anarchist against film, espoused by Marxist materialists who knew that their form must work against their enemy Hollywood, which owned the consumerised fetish of narrative, lock stock and barrel. Narrative is the full-force perpetrator of standard societal values. Video was happy to engage with narrative and yet not be slain by it – whereas Marxism was yet again chained to the means of production by its own analysis and hatred of narrative as a slow incursion by the forces of capitalism.

What strikes me as I rethink this history and the mechanisms through which innovation itself emerges, is that the intuitive sense of a new art form can, if you know how to look, be seen emerging in the collective cloud of unknowing that is the zeitgeist. The implications of global warming must be feeding through to our artists (unless we as a group are failing society as a whole) and can be seen interwoven with the structure of artworks, or acting as their silent driving force. I’m not here simply speaking about banner waving and on-the-nose gestures – these are the tools of politics. I’m talking about subversive art gestures, which whatever the artist does undermines the social fabric that enables billionaires apparent pursuit of global destruction.

As I myself seek to innovate new moving image art forms (and as we know nothing moves – just the mind) perhaps I myself am fettered by being born too early in the production of change via the introduction by the inventors and innovators of television (Baird, Zworkin and Farnsworth, who own most of the patents of early television together with the help of Crooner Bing Crosby’s Ampex - and Sony’s Portapak) with the result that I lack a distance view of about the nature of change and innovations currently unfolding, paving the way for quantum technologies that will necessarily be operated by digital platforms at-a-quantum-distance.  

That’s a complex idea – but Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle tells us that if you seek to know the position and therefore to in turn stop a quantum particle in its movement , you cannot know its velocity – and should you wish to know its velocity you have to stop it mid-flight. Effectively any question you might ask of the quantum creates uncertainty. Consequently you may not ask questions of Quantum Computers – you may only approach an answer by methods such as annealing the answer. 

What that means is that unlike digital computation where you simply compute the figures (some computations require so much calculation you can take all eternity to find the answer, using that abacus-on-steroids machine that is the computer), if you anneal the answer – alter it - you simply arrange the details that are thrown up by passing information through a quantum series of behaviours. Effectively something that may take 100,000 years in a digital computer may take only 6 seconds in a quantum computer. The bottom line is you have to put enough distance between yourself and wanting to know the answer to the question you want. The digital exists because we need it in preparation to address the quantum. When we know the relationship between not asking a question via annealing and obtaining the right answer we can set off a digital computer to play with a quantum computer such that ‘an answer’ of sorts comes out. Imagine what this technology will do to art! And for that matter to the planet’s problems initiated by us. (I am making a major new 14 part piece of work on this very subject in two 7 part halves).

Consequently the new maker, the young maker is not tied by allegiance to any form other than that of convenience to obtaining an outcome. Our better young makers take spectacle as a necessary part of the palette (with little or no nod to Guy Debord or Raoul Van Eigen’s combined position on spectacle as the enemy of truth, due to its absorption of attention and consequently Soma-like qualities) . Entertainment, they propose, will annul your freedom even whilst you engage with the Society of the Spectacle.

The young maker understands the potency of large as opposed to small, which when the tide turns makes the small potent when as opposed to the large. It's an inherent and digested understanding – albeit won by many a starving artist in her garret – that all instagrammers (and whatever platform comes next) colonize time and space in the viewer’s mind and give no quarter whatsoever to questioning and indecisiveness – they simply take what they believe they’re entitled to.

So to answer the questions I posed at the beginning: 

The reason we should have due regard for online art and its platforms of dissemination is because these are intrinsically linked to the vanguard of quantum technologies. The young simply deliver the old, the middle aged and their own generations to the flames of the furnace of human propulsion. Go willingly to your destiny.

The digital itself is finished as a concept – got the t-shirt, no longer need to rehearse the idiosyncrasies of this state (“it's not a medium”, an artist friend always makes plain after drinking several glasses of whisky and smoking a big fat cigar – “the digital is not a medium, it's a state”). 

The quantum itself will not be mystified by its early adherents as they are transformed by its simplicity. It too is a state – and it will also be a medium (I’m not going to tell you what that is) which will not conform to McLuhan’s far reaching insights. Yes, the state is the message, the massage and also the triage – every breath you take, as the ancient one sung, is the breath of the ever changing concept that can only be alluded to and not named. The only things we really know about this and other forthcoming states is that if you commit the human act of questioning you annihilate the answer. So our questioning must stop and be replaced by the circumspect gaze of the post-human creature, described in myth as the angel, the creature that does not desire, the already soma-induced or opiated winged-creature – the servant of the sky god and the earth mother. We no longer need a Lucifer to bring light or a Prometheus to steal the fire of consciousness and free-will, because we shan’t require that functionality any more.

The quantum age will be about forgetting the fears of AI and the melding that must occur with us as sentient workers within the machine mind of god. Each citizen that utilises the conscious gaze - in an age of quantum entanglement – becomes transformed and enhanced in the one. Your superposition is your commonality and connected entanglement with all other sentients everywhere.

Why should we care about innovation in a world where making new things is as easy as breaking copyright? Or breaking the planet? The answer is that we ourselves are that innovation we have sought for until now - for we are and shall ever after be: The Borg.

You can see it happening all around you – just look through the eyes of others. But whilst doing so, note how the planet is responding because without a home to leave – there’s nowhere to go."

- Terry Flaxton, 2020

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