I distinctly remember when my family got high speed Internet. It was the year 2000 in the early Spring. I was 13 years old and eager to play online video games with a consistent Internet connection. Since that day I have been a perpetual user of the World Wide Web. This continual use of digital technology has shaped the way I make artwork. Much of the work I create draws its inspiration from the frenetic continually changing digital landscape. Primarily I work as a painter, installation, and new media artist, using the Internet as a driving inspirational force. My continual immersion within the digital world has left me with a fascination with masks, avatars and digital identity. My current work is exploring various facets of my own millennial identity and how I navigate through the contemporary digital landscape.
Every aspect of my artistic practice owes its generation to the Internet and digital culture. The images I make, the language I speak, the music I listen to all have been influenced by the digital world. I find new music by browsing various music streaming platforms and find new songs through auto-play functions and related songs in the sidebars. My exposure to the art world also relies on the websites, blogs, and social media I subscribe to. New artists are more often exposed to me through my digital presence than that of my physical reality. The images I generate draw their aesthetic from my cumulative digital experience. Images and videos that I watch, colours and patterns from the memes I ingest all influence my work either passively or directly. The work I make often has a physical presence in reality but just as often I am more excited about the digital documents of the work than the remaining physical objects.
As users navigate through the Internet their paths are not always known. You may start your search for content with youtube tutorials on After Effects but end up looking at blogs on someone’s personal experience with chronic illness. Peoples experiences on the Internet are rhizomatic. One video leads to the next, which may lead you to the biography of the creator, which leads you to a blog, which in turn leads you to another blog which leads you to an Instagram account which then leads you to an Instagram account on interesting pictures of corners of tables. There is no set pathway on the Internet, and every new door you open will always lead you to something new and unexpected. The way I create artwork mimics the way I consume media. I often begin a process inspired by one thing but as I open more doors my path continually leads me to unexpected places. Often I lose track of my starting trajectory and my final result looks nothing like what I had initially intended. A result of this process means that the works I create often are varied, but the one unifying thread that ties them together is a connection to digital culture.
My consciousness continually feels divided between my physical and digital reality. As I sit and type this paper out I am aware of my physical location but I am easily pulled to various spaces on the Internet. I browse Youtube, watch streamers on Twitch, read articles on Rhizome.org, play video games and comment on forums. As I continually surf through content sometimes the only thing that pulls me back from this digital lull is a Skype or Facetime call from a friend or family member. The digital ringing brings me back to reality in the sense that I have to put myself together enough to communicate with loved ones through a video call. After the call ends I have to then make the choice to lose myself once again to the glowing comfort of my computer screen or reject that digital draw and reengage with the physical world.
My world is consumed with impulses derived from digital technology. My day begins and ends with media consumption. I wake up to the alarm on my iphone, and I fall asleep to podcasts or people live streaming video games on twitch. I have been continually connected to the Internet since I was a small child. Even with this continual connection Digital Culture’s ever increasing speed is hard for me to keep track of. As a 30-year-old man I feel like a grandfather within digital culture. I remember the generation of many memes on the Internet, and the interesting places to lurk for good content. Now at 30 the sites I once knew for OC post stale outdated images that are several weeks old. Younger users have taken the reigns of the culture I am apart of. As I try and explain my references to people throughout this essay, the references I discuss are already dated within digital culture. The more I try and stay ahead of the culture I discuss the further behind I become. As new media platforms emerge, new memes, new meta’s, new ways of communication continually splinter and develop.
As often as I want to dance frantically with joy over the digital landscape there is always a darker undertone to my online experience. As I immerse myself in the frenetic rapidly changing media that is the digital landscape I find it harder and harder to pull myself away from this seductive glowing experience. It is far too easy to avoid my real life responsibilities and lose myself in data. My predilection for intensity and inner maximalist attitude means that when I get into an idea, into a project, or into a media experience, I can easily lose myself within it.
If you look at my one of my outdoor paintings, Digital Storm, you can see the obsessive nature of my mark making. When I created that piece I repeatedly painted over the image until it was time to leave the building and drive away. I poured every bit of myself into that work until the last possible moment. This inner desire for immersion means that I am unable to work minimally. There is no time for reflection when you are totally immersed in an idea.
Neverland was a fictional location created by the author J.M. Barrie where Peter Pan and his lost boys are able to perpetuate the thrills of boyhood adventure eternally. It is a term that has come to be associated with an eternal childhood, immortality and escapism. Neverland has become the perfect metaphor for my generation’s digital escapism on the Internet. We plunge ourselves into its glowing electric currents. We continually absorb media in an attempt to escape the increasingly depressing reality that is the physical landscape. Who needs to worry about war, the immigrant crisis, your ever-increasing debt, and the continually collapsing environment when instead you can focus on binge watching a season of Orange is the New Black, or play countless hours of video games? Who needs to worry about being politically correct, or saying hurtful things when you can simply log off of your computer and forget every comment you write? Due to the freedoms and limitless distractions imbedded within the digital realm, it is entirely possible to perpetually avoid ‘adulting’. As I move through the spiraling folds of the online world, I witness the countless lost souls floating through this same experience. Individuals who would rather fall into Youtube spiral than address their real life commitments.
Throughout my masters I have continually attempted to refine my own practice as I reflected upon my own digital experiences. Although I tried to make my work personal, my hope was that my personal narrative and emotions could reflect the experiences of others within digital culture. Foul Bachelor Frog, a work I created in the spring of 2016, is drawn from the sensation of losing touch with your physical self in favor of digital immersion. The work spawned from my own existential dread as I struggled through the winter of 2016. During that winter I lay awake at night dreading the inevitable end of relationship and anxious about the MFA program. As I lay there engrossed in my own self-pity I found myself immersed in an ever-increasing amount of squalor, and using the Internet as a way to forget about my anxiety.
Foul Bachelor Frog was created out of this loss and the immersion I used to distract myself. It is also based upon a meme of the same name. I had known of the meme for a long time and had often found myself chuckling as I found myself reflected in its hedonistic sentiment. As I struggled to deal with my own problems I created the work in an attempt to address them. I donned the mask of the frog and then proceeded to perform and exaggerated some of my own hedonistic behaviours. The work exists as a series of photographs and two videos documenting a performance. The photographs function more as relics of a personal performance than as individual works themselves. The whole grouping of works was to created so that they would all be shown as a collection. One video is a single continuous shot that is meant to act as an animated painting of this foul creature. The other was a 360 degree video of the space that is meant to be viewed using a virtual reality device. Using virtual reality the aim was to create a digital installation, a space people could visit from within a gallery space but also from the Internet.
Foul Bachelor Frog was not the first work I have made where I examined how physical and digital identity overlap. I. As a digital native, I am use to having the flexibility to change my username and/or identity at a whim. If I outgrow a name I abandon it. Along with these names we are perpetually able to choose the avatar that we use within the digital landscape. In 2014 before I began my MFA I created an installation at The Rooms Provincial Gallery in St. John’s Newfoundland titled Digital Beasts. Within the installation was a series of masks that all represented different archetypes of individuals on the Internet. The installation was created out of my fear of Internet censorship and my continual worry that the anonymous nature of the digital world might someday be stripped away by the government.
When I created these works I did so in isolation. I knew what I wanted to create and went about trying to orchestrate a complicate installation and photo shoot. When going through the program at the University of Ottawa it was brought to my attention that the work had a flavour similar to Jeff Wall’s, The Destroyed Room, or Jon Raffman’s, You are Standing in an Open Field(Gale). Upon finding out about these works I was pleased to see that my work fit in with other contemporary artist who were addressing the history of painting through photography.
In the past my art practice was a way to pull me away from screens and engage with my work in a physical manner. I painted large-scale murals that acted as physical gestures to separate myself from my digital immersion. These works were reflections of my digital experience. I would listen to electronic music tracks, and create massive sweeping impulsive and gestural works. These works would then be documented and then immediately posted back onto the Internet. The act of creation was a physical and performative action, but ultimately the works would be recorded using digital devices and end up back within the frenetic digital network. Recently I have found that my artwork has shifted and now includes much more digital processing. I find myself increasingly connected to my computer without that freedom of action in reality. My escape and expression on the landscape has shifted to the expression of ideas through digital tools like photoshop, after effects, and a variety of applications on my iphone.
Before entering the program at the University of Ottawa. I had primarily worked as a street artist and mural painter. The paintings I created were reactions and reflections of my experience on the Internet. I would create large sweeping motions and gestures inspired by the electronic music I was listening to at the time. The paintings were direct and often took between an hour to 6 hours to create. There was no second-guessing the process. I got to my wall of choice, put my paint down, put my ear buds in, turned on a playlist and began painting. After the generation of the work, I set up a tripod, took a quick photo and walked away from the work forever. Every painting would inevitably be destroyed, either by an individual painting over it, or simply by exposure to the elements. When I returned home to my computer I would edit the photos and post them back on the Internet.
My interest in street art and graffiti predates any sort of art historical knowledge. As a teen I knew who Picasso, Dali and M.C. Escher were. I knew I liked their images but I was not that concerned with their place in history. I came to Graffiti and Street art through the Internet. I followed graffiti and street art culture through their digital presences. As I frequented these blogs and forums I was incredibly fascinated with the bright colours and images that reminded me of comic books and video game characters. When I entered my BFA at Memorial University’s Sir Wilfred Grenfell College I was obsessively checking several street art blogs daily, and all my art history assignments during those first few years revolved around street art and graffiti.
As I learned more about art history’s bad boys like Marcel Duchamp, Gustav Courbet, and Francisco Goya, artists who all resisted the institutions of their time, I began to compare them to the institution resistance inherent in street art. When I completed my BFA in 2011, I began working in Artist Run Centers in St. John’s. I loved working within the confines of the fine arts world as I increasingly became more involved with artist run culture. As much as I loved working within the confines of these supportive spaces, I also resented the nature of institutionalized art. The idea of having to continually seek approval for art making in the forms of grants and show applications always seemed incredibly restricting. When you combine this resentment of the arts institution, a lack of studio space, and a love of street art it was a natural progression for me to begin working outside.
I continually worked outside from 2009-2015 and as I worked I slowly began thinking of the works as a direct link between my digital physical realities. I had adopted the pseudonym, Tekar, an alias I had used in digital forums long before working outside. The work I made was created in isolated or abandoned spaces within Newfoundland and the East Coast of Canada. Very few people outside of the graffiti world would ever see the work. I loved the idea that predominately these works existed on the web. The photos I took of these ephemeral works became the only remaining relic and could easily be disseminated across social media. I loved the idea that these works existed outside the confines of the arts institution. The works were fast and immediate, and as I created them I tried to imbue them with the feeling of continually absorbing digital media; the feeling of being lost within a frenetic ever-changing digital landscape. The paintings were created in a manner where I attempt to reflect the environment where they were created. These large works functioned as analog corruptions of the physical landscape.
The more I painted outside the more I realized that my intent with these works became about the final image, the final photo, a photo that captured the final painting. The act of painting the work in turn attempted to capture a feeling of frenetic energy and media ingestion. This final photo would then be placed right back in the frenetic world that was the impetus for its creation. They became a digital relic of a physical gesture that attempted to both mimic the digital world but also to escape it.
My most successful painting efforts at the University of Ottawa happened during my first semester. Most of my experience painting prior to coming to Ottawa had come from creating large ephemeral works outside. For years I had consciously avoided creating painted objects. As I studied here in Ottawa I decided I would attempt to make a transition from painting murals to painting canvases. My goal for creating painted objects was to find a way to make a body of work that would be able to accurately reflect the works I made outside. After a series of experiments and trials I determined that I had to abandon much of the ways I worked outside as they did not suit the painted canvases. Towards the end of the semester I created a piece titled, Hive Mind. This work was comprised of 15 2x2 hexagonal pieces. The intent for the work was that it would be an evolving piece and could be installed in any number of ways within different gallery spaces. The work for me became a form digital impressionism, or physical impressions of digital culture.
Another successful painting I completed during my time at the University of Ottawa was a piece called, Neverland Beta. With this work I constructed a large 14’x14’x12’ room and painted it in its entirety. Once I finished the room I then used a 360 degree camera to capture an image of the space and then place this image online. I wanted to create an immersive painting that you could view with a virtual reality device. I was looking for a way to create physical works and then import them back into reality. An interesting aspect of this work was that it functioned better as a digital relic than it did in reality. When I showed individuals the work on my computer they often grew excited and eager to see the work. However once in the space they often confessed that the experience was a bit of a let down and that they preferred the electronic version.
As I moved into my last few semesters at the university of Ottawa I abandoned the realms of physical object making. In the fall of 2016 I began constructing images with photoshop and a variety of different applications on my computer and phone. The images I made were an extension of my painting practice and frequently included classical art images, video game graphics, and self-portraiture. When I was in the practice of making physical paintings and images I always shied away from creating representational images. For me the act of making physical images was always more about the way I moved and interacted with the canvas than making something representational. It is my belief that if I want to make an image including representation there is no need to look further than a camera to create realism.
These new digital collages began as still images that designed to be viewed on instagram. There was something extremely attractive about using a combination of Photoshop and applications on my phone to generate the images. The more I worked on these compositions the more I felt the need for movement. With that thought in mind I slowly began to animate the images. The resulting works were short animated GIFs that looped every 9 seconds. With this added motion I was able to heighten the intensity of the GIFS. The flashing colours and repetitive images were able to accurately capture the frenetic experience of diving through the plethora of content on the Internet.