The Territory of the Digital
We live in a world of images that have been manipulated through filters and editing techniques, giving our physical spaces the potential for transformation on the screen. The maximisation of smartphone cameras and Apps like Instagram have changed the very nature of photography. It has become more economical, simple and accessible, transforming its once very personal nature into something that is social.
Persijn Broersen & Margit Lukács are a Dutch artist duo who create new media artworks, that comment on images as a tool to explore the intersection between nature and virtual space. I discovered their work during their presentation at this year’s Visual Science of Art Conference (VSAC) in Belgium. My ears pricked as they described their interests in digital media as a tool to impact our perception of the world.
In conversation with Broersen & Lukács, they reflected that from the very beginning of their artistic career, the motivation behind their work stems from their interest in computers, television and screen technology. Inspired by Ernst Gombrich’s text, The Sense of Order (1979), and his theories around pro-linear perspective, they wanted to investigate the impact of representing space on a two-dimensional surface. They describe how in traditional paintings, the viewer is presented with a glimpse of reality, a single viewpoint from the artist at that given moment. This method of framing immerses the viewer within the artist’s objective outlook. But what happens when this frame is digital?
In their first pivotal work, Primetime Paradise (2004), they created a film made of stills they’d collected whilst watching television. The viewer is guided through a mysterious sequence of images, connected together through tunnels, windows, and pathways of layers. Critical distance is abandoned and recycled in exchange for the digital surface, a continuously changing landscape that represents the hyper-connected world of the media.
As I watched the carefully selected frames it made me think of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing:
‘An image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made...every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights’ (Berger, 1972, pp9-10)
The images were never projected on television to be displayed together in this way. Broersen & Lukács have taken them from their original ‘place’ and ‘time’, and have re-used them to create a new meaning to explore perception and the screen.
Fifteen years after Primetime Paradise, Broersen & Lukács continue to create films that explore the materiality of the screen, drawing upon the unreliable nature of photography in an age of post-truth, fact and fiction. In their recent film Forest on Location (2018), they depicted the last remains of the primeval Białowieża Forest through a virtual landscape of dark uninhabited spaces. An avatar modelled after the opera singer Shahram Yazdani wanders around its depths singing his Farsi interpretation of ‘Nature Boy’, the popular hit made famous by Nat King Cole, and whose melody was claimed by Herman Yablokoff who originated from the region of Bialowieza.
There is more to this forest than meets the eye. Dating back to the 14th century, this is the largest and oldest forest in Europe, with a history enriched by a cross-stitch of fact and fiction. It’s a place of both refuge and danger, acting as a site for mass executions led by the Nazis, as well as protection for the once endangered Bison. It’s fairytale-like presence has fuelled myths, literature and folklore, as well as paintings by established Polish and Russian artists. Captured by the many interpretations of this forest, Broersen & Lukács sought to reinterpret it through a new virtual impression.
I found myself looking for a narrative, as one tends to do whilst watching film. But the real story lies in the aesthetic of Broersen & Lukács’ work. Their 3D representation of the forest is made up of thousands of their own pictures, layered on top of one another through a technique called photogrammetry. Behind the solid looking exterior of the trees is empty space, as the images we see are only merely a skin, an outer shell to project the idea of reality. This hollowed-out appearance without any real definition of depth, draws upon the two-dimensional medium of the screen, the territory of the digital. Forest on Location becomes another layer within the history of Bialowieza Forest, using the screen for its potential in reframing the natural world through personal interpretation.
In another exploration of the photographic representation of space, they described the origins behind their artwork, All or Nothing at All (2019). The artwork was made during and after their residency in the Danish city of Viborg. Prior to their visit they scanned Google images to gain some primary virtual impressions, finding beautiful shots of the town that were strangely devoid of people. It became apparent that they were looking at tourist scenery, containing photographs enhanced for the purpose of the internet. In All or Nothing At All, they recreate their own virtual version of the city, showing a Viborg that is only visible from the surface.
At the beginning of the film, the viewer is encountered with the edge of a city, glowing from its centre in a quiet still night. As we grow closer we discover that the walls are crumbling and that this city is in ruins. Now on street level, an avatar appears walking before us, striding disjointedly across its surface. Gradually, an army of replica avatars walk alongside her, and they begin to sing in unison. They are rendered in a glitchy and imperfect manner, hovering over space, disappearing partly into walls, even walking straight through solid surfaces.
In discussion of All or Nothing At All with a couple of animation academics at VSAC, we explored the materiality and appearance of the avatars. They found their awkward movements and flaws quite difficult to watch, and suggested how the aesthetics of the work could be improved. But perfection is not the goal of the artists, as this is not just a story about a perfect digital representation. As the avatars enter a dance routine, their movements become unaligned and out of time. Unity is replaced with the more human qualities of imperfection, fighting against the enhanced reality of digital scenery. Broersen & Lukács unveil the cracks beneath the surface, the depth within the void, and the environment in which we explore through physical and virtual encounters.