Digital imagery and pixilation have been played with by artists for years, and one emerging idiom that has even crept into edgier design work is glitch art—art generally made in a digital medium, inspired by or directly using the relics of data degradation and disruption. It is a little more rare to see an artist intentionally pull from flat, digitally corrupted images and broken devices directly and represent them in a layered, tactile, physical form. Cait Willis does just that, allowing the surreal and spontaneous collage of digital corruption to acquire a body of its own in her new works on display at Ghost Gallery (504 E Denny Way).
Glitch art and work that confronts digital fragility exists in a larger cultural context beyond edgy, ironic aesthetics. In almost a reinvention of the Ghost in the Machine fallacy, a faith in digital matter as impervious and immortal has begun to be taken for granted—as if a digitized image exists somewhere in the ether, in that Cloud that everyone is talking about, remote from the physical data centers whirring endlessly below, as if these hunks of metal are anchors tethering incorporeal information within human reach. It’s a fiction, of course, and even copied data degrades with each compression, rescaled and re-optimized, until its code is as soiled and smudged as a piece of paper passed among a dozen primate hands.
Some even insist that the next step of human evolution is digitization of the mind, freedom from the physical realm entirely, in a revival of Gnostic ascension, via technology. Such technology is a long, long way off—perhaps will never come to pass—but even the fundamental philosophical implications of such a leap have hardly been opened to debate. Above all, what sort of self would we be immortalizing at this point? Certainly, there is a great deal of mental fragmentation in our own time; identities become palimpsests and disordered collages of lifestyle, politics, a saturation of images that we are compelled to emulate or obey. What is to be preserved of that?
This culture is somewhat psychotic, and postmodernists (especially authors) have long reveled in the freedom of the madness while also trying to find a way back to sanity, or at least a self-awareness in spite of insanity. A particularly potent example of such a work is JG Ballard’s novel The Atrocity Exhibition, which was a source of inspiration for this series of work by Willis. The title of the book and its opening lines inspired the title of the show, Catastrophe Museum, and those opening lines are on display at the gallery and are worth reposting here:
“Oh The Disneyification of museums: All over the world major museums have bowed to the influence of Disney and become theme parks in their own right. The past, whether Renaissance Italy or ancient Egypt, is re-assimilated and homogenized into its most digestible form. Desperate for the new, but disappointed with anything but the familiar, we recolonize the past and future. The same trend can be seen in personal relationships, in the way people are expected to package themselves, their emotions and sexuality in attractive and instantly appealing forms.”
It’s as true today as when it was written in the 60s, long before the advent of social media and online dating, where the commoditization of self has reached a new level of isolating abstraction. There, you are your profile picture, your yes-and-no answers, your income bracket. And as Ballard suggests, this categorization extends into the most public and hallowed institutions of high culture, and is the animating force of marketing and pop culture as well.
But rather than being dour about it, Cait Willis’ work draws awareness to this syndrome and fixes it in physical form. The medium is the message, as she combines gold leaf, layers of paint and resin into works that absolutely cannot be flattened into a digital form, cannot even be easily photographed, works that change with the light and the angle one views them, but are objectively lovely. Rather than “recolonizing past and future” Willis preserves in amber (resin) the fleeting artifacts of the digital age, the nuisances that remind us that nothing is immortal, the wrench in the works of a ghostly machine. Through the image of a face rendered unrecognizable in a broken iPhone screen, characters from the book are recalled, including a bomber pilot whose face seems to be broken into facets that cannot logically, spatially resolve themselves.
Willis works wonders this way, taking a fragmented book about a fragmented world, making works of her own that are fragmenting themselves at first glance, and in doing so finds a cohesion. Rather than reveling in destruction, Willis finds the melancholy beauty in it and allows one to gather a new picture of wholeness, beginning with a sense of autonomy and awareness—something that has always been elusive, throughout history, and which only art can provide.
Catastrophe Museum, new works by Cait Willis is on display at Ghost Gallery through Sunday, July 6.