by Mikko Lautamo
The Internet is simultaneously a lifeless collection of code and a loud, screaming embodiment of all that humanity is. This central conflict is examined in The Network Paradox, a collaboration between data artist Greg Niemeyer and logician and mathematician Roger Antonsen, on view at Catharine Clark Gallery. Through a collection of sketches, gestural paintings, live software, a VR environment, prints, a sculpture, a tapestry and an 18-foot gravure printed wall scroll, the pair convey an eclectic view of the Internet and digital networks writ large. The exhibition arose as an offshoot of QUANTOPIA, a multimedia concert project created by Niemeyer, Antonsen and Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), that premiers tonight, January 25 at YBCA.
The Network Paradox Scroll, a 20 x 216-inch photogravure and direct gravure etching on paper, is the anchor and purpose of the show – without it, none of the gestural paintings or sketches can hold the space of the gallery. The scroll is presented toward the back, and as I walked past acrylic paintings and prints I was reminded of once attending an exhibit of Guernica only to walk through hall after hall of other works by Picasso and his contemporaries before
arriving at the main event. Rather than build anticipation, I was confused by the relevance of the other work and just wanted to feast my eyes on the masterpiece. However, after studying the Scroll I came to understand the spray-painted acrylics and precise photo prints as two halves of one whole – a binary – representing on one hand the wild, human element of the Internet and, on the other, its cold logical side. When these halves come together in the scroll, the concept clicks.
The Scroll feels like a classical Chinese landscape: its muted tones and simple red, black and gray color scheme give the sense of atmospheric depth. The front layer is dark and gestural, like the acrylic paintings on view, and creates a bold surface of interlocking marks akin to cuneiform writing or hasty diagrams. The middle ground is a diffuse gray made of networks of negative space and widely arcing lines. The final red layer rises up from the bottom of the scroll like misty mountains but, on closer inspection, is revealed to be a precise conglomeration of connected dots and edges created algorithmically by the same software that drives the generative animation on view. The work is structured as a timeline read from left to right with major events in the history of the Internet mapped to gestures and symbols. The symbols’
meanings are rarely clear save for the six bars at the start that reference hexagrams in the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination system that inspired Gottfried Leibniz to create the binary number system still in use today. There are 64 hexagrams, each associated with a specific quality or concept, like cards in a tarot deck. The hexagram in Scroll is oriented ambiguously, meaning if it is hung at the top of the scroll it becomes hexagram 64: “not yet beginning,” and when it is hung at the bottom it becomes hexagram 63: “after completion.” This word play exemplifies some of the humor embedded here and there, but the end of the scroll, called “No Exit,” is far more serious. It appears to take place after symbols showing a strengthening and narrowing of the Internet, perhaps as a response to tightening corporate control or the advent of AI, and echoes Niemeyer’s past sentiments: if the masses cannot become media literate, we will become digital serfs ensnared by the influence of the network.
The uncanny, lifelike nature of large networks is a recurring theme throughout, and is most clearly demonstrated in Network Simulation, an interactive generative software piece available on a touch screen and as a series of printed stills. The visual building blocks of Simulation could not be simpler: white circles called “nodes” connected by thin white lines called “edges.” Basic rules undergird the display that determine when an edge will form between two nodes and when a node will vanish or appear. Rudimentary physics determine how much push and pull the nodes have on each other and how they move through space. When you start to interact with the piece you quickly discover that it is less like drawing dots on a board and more like trying to coax a colony of ants to assume an arbitrary shape. Interacting with the piece feels primordial, like you are shaping galaxies with your fingertips. It’s difficult not to feel that the mass of nodes manifests some kind of intelligence as it resists being pulled in a given direction.
The virtual reality installation, Quantopia VR, designed by Niemeyer and executed by MEDIUM Labs with music by DJ Spooky, is a vibrant counterpart to the Scroll and Network Simulation. Conceived of as a virtual instrument and network generator, Quantopia VR is a prototype for the software DJ Spooky will be utilizing at YBCA. Once inside the gallery’s media room, users, donning a VR headset, can generate complex geometric nodes and toss them out into space where electricity-like edges will form wide-ranging networks. The sense of distance and volume created in the virtual space is remarkable, while the ambient music sets the scene for exploration of the many interactions available. The environment quantifies the distance between nodes and gives a corporeal understanding of how vast and far-roaming networks are compared to everyday human perception.
Network Paradox is a heterogeneous mixture of ideas, some forgettable like the sculpture Family of 20, others hilarious like Hashtag Marx, but ultimately this is a show about one object: the Network Paradox Scroll, which delivers a thoughtful and far-ranging meditation on the vast network of human beings and digital machines that we are all tied to. The raging yang of spray paint and gestural mark-making is countered by the cool yin of algorithmic software. The playful edge of technology and spectacle is married with anachronistic borrowing and Industrial Age production methods. It’s a contemplative experience that yields more information once you notice the subtle ways everything is connected.
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Greg Niemeyer and Roger Antonsen: “Network Paradox” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through February 16, 2019
Quantopia: The Evolution of the Internet @ YBCA Friday, January 25th at 7:30 p.m.
“Net, Web, Cloud, Fog” a panel discussion @ Catharine Clark Gallery Saturday, January 26th 4-6 p.m. RSVP recommended.
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist and educator from Sacramento. His work uses computer code to create interactive and never-repeating installations centering on blended biological, social, and economic systems. He teaches Electronic Art at Sac State and has exhibited work in the United States, Europe, Australia and online. His work can be viewed on Vimeo.