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Massy Interviews / Vitória Monteiro + Hân Phạm + Paige Smith + Kaila Bhullar

May 10 – July 07, Massy Arts will host Digital Interventions, a two-part group exhibition featuring the work of seven emerging interdisciplinary artists: Kaila Bhullar, Debbie C, Sena Cleave, kathy feng, Vitória Monteiro, Hân Phạm, and Paige Smith.

Exhibited at the Massy Arts Gallery from June 14 to July 07, the second part of the exhibition Digital Interventions, called Mediating Vessels, examines the relationship between digital outputs and the reception and distribution of information. The artists unravel the layers of digital archives, thus problematizing the institutions that claim to safeguard knowledge, while also acting as a basis of our understandings and internalizations of them.

Through this investigative lens, the works speak to ideas of permanence, sexuality and identity, and surveillance technologies — while subverting underlying expectations and forming new avenues of meaning.

Click here to know more about Part I – Heterotopias

Click here to know more about Part II – Mediating Vessels

Click here to register for the Opening Event

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To celebrate Digital Interventions, Massy Arts presents a conversation between artists Vitória Monteiro, Hân Phạm, Paige Smith, and Kaila Bhullar, addressing the expanding presence of technologies and complexity within digital spaces in contemporary life, particularly in terms of the distribution of knowledge.

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Vitória Monteiro + Hân Phạm + Paige Smith + Kaila Bhullar / Digital Interventions

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Kaila: A digital intervention can be anything that is filtered, mediated, and/or influenced by the presence and use of digital mediums and outputs. This is a complex and multilayered topic that has a number of definitions, effects, and positions. Can you explain what a digital intervention is to you, and how your current work made for the exhibition is in conversation with these ideas?

Hân: My work stems from the frustrated and overwhelmed feeling towards our entanglement within surveillance technology, particularly Bluetooth beacons technology that is commonly used to track customers in stores and public spaces. As our corporal bodies are constantly engaged unwillingly and unknowingly with this network of digital technology, our information laying vulnerable and bare moving up the data chains, digital interventions through artmaking thus become a way for me to actively question, engage, and interrogate the Beacon technology and reclaim the positionality of the self in this network. My digital intervention processes entail exposing my bluetooth location in drug stores, capturing ads that are catered to me according to my locations, and then using various digital art techniques of scanning, altering, reprinting and rephotographing these ads – sometimes [using] my hands, to visualize the process of engagement with such a network. In that sense, digital interventions give way to articulate a tangible conversation with this network that I often don’t have agency over. It gives visual shape to this spectral entity, as well as centralizes the personal bodily experience against the stale anonymity in which data is often processed and portrayed in the information world.

Vitória: The way that I am contextualizing a digital intervention through my work in the show is [by creating] an intervention within an intervention. I’m thinking about the saturation of knowledge production and knowledge consumption within a digital space, as well as the detailed categorization needed to make a plethora of information functional to an audience. I want to take the functionality of that database away completely. I think about the “blue screen of death” (BSoDs) and a threshold of information. In the past, The BSoDs have been caused by poorly written device drivers or malfunctioning hardware, such as faulty memory, power supply issues, overheating of components, or hardware running beyond its specification limits. This intervention acts as a silent, inarticulate pulpy space of information that can not be accessed. As a break or a pause. As a response to an oversaturated environment where our brains and bodies are the “hardware” running beyond its specification limits.

Kaila: The participating artists in both part 1 and 2 are working with a wide range of varying materials for the exhibition (from printmaking, paper-making/sculpture, lightbox, video, to mixed media). How do you feel that the materiality of your work expresses and connects to topics concerning the digital world?

Paige: My artwork directly engages with digital materials, using glitches and video. Displayed on a computer monitor, Tethered Connection explores the aesthetics of the contemporary digital strip tease with webcam footage, a bedroom setting, and direct eye contact. Throughout my practice, I’ve always been interested in viewer perceptions and interactions with art, especially the reciprocal power between viewer and artwork in the context of representations of sexuality. Tethered Connection’s materials address how sexualities are seen in the digital world, and how we may subvert those expectations.

Vitória: I collect scrap paper and text from various spaces around the city. From office shredding machines, old sketches, shopping lists, notes from school, and old journals, I have become a collector of unwanted paper, of discarded information. I see myself and my practice of collecting as a type of anti-archiving, as I am taking in all this different information and creating no system to categorize it, rather, I break it down and destroy it. A nonfunctional database.

Hân: While the final visual of [my] piece has a very digital feeling, the making process in contrast plays a lot with materiality – specifically through actions of folding, of scanning and rescanning prints, or even the act of photographing my own hands. Through such processes, I hope to insert a sort of indexicality to subvert the invisible way that surveillance networks operate. While surveillance networks, such as Bluetooth beacons and data collection technology, are often invisible and silent processes happening in the background, there is in fact real infrastructures that are attached with such processes, and real materialistic consequences. As I try to engage with portraying the materiality of the technology, even just from a consumer standpoint, I hope to draw tangible attentions towards the materialistic position in which our bodies occupy, as well as drawing attention towards the materialistic reality and power that these technologies hold, which often times aren’t really paid enough attention to.

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Kaila: Part 2 of Digital Interventions exists in tandem with ideas surrounding mediated vessels. As technology and digital mediums act as a mediating presence in how they translate and communicate information (visual, archival, news, etc.), what effects do you think this has on everyday life? Can you expand on what a mediated vessel is?

Vitória: As I am physically breaking down this collection of information that comes from different realms where information dwells, be it academic, familial, somatic, land-based, or otherwise, I think about the sculpture as a vessel that mediates all these spaces. Spaces, in a colonial lens, have been structured in a way to exist within separate containers. Now within this new space, the information coexists, they are confronted with each other in a way that would not have happened outside this vessel of knowledge.

Hân: Given the way that technology has played into our reality, whether through social media, surveillance, communications, I think we’ve reached a point where information is not merely mediated, but also simulated – mediated vessels can create a simulated reality where they not only function to reflect our material reality, but also generate very real consequences, perceptions and feedbacks into our world. Which, I think, are both a little scary and also liberating, since we are still trying to figure out how such processes work and who gets to own and operate such vessels. It is hard to get a clear picture of the full potential when so much of digital technology now is corporate and state owned and controlled. But there is also hope and comfort in understanding that the process of mediating information is non-linear and we can always inject ourselves into any point of such processes, with potential to generate positive changes and disrupt what is going on through new simulations.

Kaila: It is a bit strange (even somewhat impossible) to imagine everyday life without easily accessible technologies in western societies. How do you feel about this? What do you think the future looks like, and what role does art play?

Hân: As mentioned in the last answer, I do feel both intimidated and also liberated by the infinite potentials that digital mediums offer. I think the future will only be bright when access to media and data is liberated from private control, capitalistic exploitations and censorship – I hope for a future where digital reality will be rooted in accessibility and transparency. Which, I know is a big dream since our reality is so hard to grasp to begin with already, let alone imagining what this alternative reality can look like. I am not 100% positive that art alone can change the world, but I do think of art as an entry point – to ask questions, to examine the different ways to engage/disrupt what is going on, to re-embody ourselves, and to imagine alternative solutions for the future.

Kaila: How do you understand and interpret visual information through the lens of the digital?

Paige: Digital materials like video are prolific in our everyday lives, and are constantly transmitting new information to us. I’m interested in examining our visual perceptions and playing with assumptions of an objective point-of-view within lens-based mediums. There is a prevalence of new digital technologies that attempt to deceive our perception, such as deep-fakes, beauty filters, or augmented reality. My artwork, Tethered Connection, appropriates this trend of digital deception, not in an attempt to fool or trick the audience, but instead to subvert expectations of particular outcomes, to withhold complete transparency in favor of presenting an alternative vessel for transmitting from.

Kaila: As Walter Benjamin outlined in his widely recognized writings on art in the age of mechanical reproduction, the more you supposedly replicate and reproduce an artwork, the less of an aura it possesses. What are your thoughts on this, and what sort of effects do you think digital mediations have had on today’s art world and within these processes?

Hân: It is interesting since the question of reproduction was one I thought about in the process of making my piece, as I took screenshots of ads that were fed to me. Who owns an image? What space does an image occupy? As an advertisement image floats around aimlessly from phone to phone, it has no corporal body to begin with, and thus no aura. So the process of physically printing them and engaging with these prints also give them a physical space to take shape. In a sense, my work gives such images a new aura to live in, questioning ideas of ownerships and authenticity in the consumer-surveillance relationship. With relations to Walter Benjamin’s ideas, the way that artist injects a new aura into images in an age of mechanical (and digital) production gives us a tangible way to reassess such images, and acknowledge the reproduced images as agencies that do enact and operate, despite the fact that it has no aura. An artist that I can think of with a similar process is Sara Cwynar, as her work also directly addresses the mechanically reproduced images and plays with questions of materiality and how images operate.

Paige: What interests me about Benjamin’s idea of the aura is his suggestion of the political potential of artmaking in an era of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin’s writing on the aura of the artwork at the time focused on the work’s relationship to tradition, religion, and ritual. He argues that a work’s embeddedness in the context of tradition is equal to its aura, and follows that technological reproduction allows for a detachment from this sphere of tradition. He follows that this detachment through mechanical reproduction frees the purpose of art away from ritual and towards the political. I agree with Benjamin and think that the detachment from tradition and demystifying of artwork has a potential for revolutionary change, however it is also important to remember the assumption that technological and social progress go hand-in-hand often can allow for the triumph of suffering under the guise of progress. I believe we must not only strive to make artwork that can connect, move, and embolden our viewers, but we must also avoid creating work that is ultimately subordinate to political life. Just as the emphasis of the artistic aura limited the potential political powers of art, so too can a singular-focus on politicizing art limit the aesthetic and affective powers of the work. Benjamin wrote his essay in 1935 when mechanical reproduction was a new technology. I wonder how new digital mediations may allow for their own new detachments and reframing of the purpose of art.

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