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Machine Melancholia

Machine Melancholia


Machine Melancholia

In “Get Life/Love’s Work,” his exhibition on view at the New Museum in New York through October 3, Ed Atkins considers the subject of distance—particularly in the Covid-19 era—via the medium for which he is best known: computer-generated, high-definition figurative videos. The British-born, Copenhagen-based artist and poet has created a new CG animation using footage from an interview between himself and his mother that he recorded during lockdown. This video, along with an accompanying installation featuring embroideries, paintings, and texts, continues and expands Atkins’s signature interrogation of relationships between contemporary technology, affect, and personhood.

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Atkins’s early 2010’s splash was heard on both sides of the Atlantic. The phrase “post-internet art” was being trotted out at every opportunity, and a critical cottage industry had sprung up around the term. A major subject of intrigue at the time was what I’ll call “soft evacuation”; artists and writers were exploring how it might look and feel if traditional sites of heartfelt emotion, such as figurative representation and lyric poetry, were taken over by software, crowdsourcing, and other machine-related means of generating content. Images and language created this way gestured toward humanist tropes, even as they originated with an algorithm rather than a painter’s brush or a poet’s pen. In a sense, this was nothing new, given the strain of anglophone Conceptualism that was interested in the evacuation of the semantic and referential capacities of language in favor of material and grammatical particulars (see Dan Graham’s 1966–70 “Schemas,” which note the frequency of the use of various parts of speech in a given text, for example). Yet, “softly evacuated” works of the post-internet era by the likes of artist Cory Arcangel or poet Josef Kaplan were more nostalgic and personal than the systems-based works of the 1960s and ’70s to which they were sometimes compared. These artists mourned the fact that images and words—and the artistic labor associated with them—seemed now to belong to machines rather than humans, given machines’ notoriously superior memories and computational abilities.

Still from Ed Atkins’s Ribbons, 2014.
© Ed Atkins. Courtesy the artist; dépendance, Brussels; Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin; Cabinet Gallery, London; and Gladstone Gallery, New York.

Atkins’s videos and poems placed him at the forefront of this cohort. His two practices are not entirely distinct; his video scripts, for example, are often later published as poems. His 2014 three-channel video Ribbons features a computer-generated character named Dave—an abject white guy who drinks, smokes, and croons self-pitying ditties through a computer-generated haze replete with lens flares and dust particles. Dave’s Ace-bandage-beige skin is decorated with what appear to be stick-and-poke tattoos or perhaps Sharpie drawings that might have been made by drinking companions while he was incapacitated. With his shaved head and lean, muscular torso he looks like a soldier or gym-obsessed soccer hooligan, someone ready for action and not exactly in a good way. As Atkins said in Artforum, “Ribbons is, really, like some unholy demo for an occult videogame.” Atkins had shown videos before: Death Mask I and Death Mask II (2010–11), A Primer for Cadavers (2011), Us Dead Talk Love (2012), and Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths (2013). There was something particularly fascinating about Dave, who with his mumbled songs parrots the petty resentments and despair long associated with bar culture—and more recently available via social media platforms like Tumblr and Twitter. Dave is a sort of rubbery fuck boy, eloquent in his melancholy but easily deflated. He resembles both the owner of a sex doll and the doll itself. Moreover, Dave was associated with something deeper in Western culture. For those who, like Atkins, read poetry, Dave did not merely evoke the exploitative nature of contemporary technology and the fleshy detail of HD, but served as a commentary on the traditional I-speaker of lyric poetry.

Lyric poetry has always had a fraught relationship with authenticity, making it a fitting if unlikely vehicle for Atkins’s concerns about the effects of contemporary technology. A lyric poem usually takes the form of a private expression of emotion by an individual speaker. In the classical era, lyric poetry took its cues from impromptu songs performed by trained bards at symposia. Originally a way of imitating virtuosic live performance, it became, in the Renaissance, a means of expressing romantic love. The Victorians rendered it sentimental, and high modernism added an educated, ironic take on the form. The state of lyric poetry in the 2010s was, in experimental circles at least, affected by the rise of algorithm-related doubt regarding the source of written speech; language online might or might not have a human author, and might be more or less earnest, which is to say, more or less affected by the anonymity of message boards and comment sections. Atkins, who authored two collections of poetry—A Primer for Cadavers (2016) and Old Food (2018)—and whose videos play with conventions of lyric address (Dave: “Help me communicate without debasement, darling”), was clearly aware of contemporary trends in poetry. Among the poets he has cited or worked with are Joe Luna, Keston Sutherland, and Ariana Reines. Yet the texts and books Atkins has published alongside his video installations tend to be deeply steeped in the muckiness and transience of organic matter, and therefore weirder and messier than much contemporary poetry, even as they have stylistic ties to a sensual Neoclassicism.

Still from Ed Atkins’s Safe Conduct, 2016.
© Ed Atkins. Courtesy the artist; dépendance, Brussels; Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin; Cabinet Gallery, London; and Gladstone Gallery, New York.

Atkins’s frequent references to “dead men” can be understood, as he has himself maintained in many talks, in relation to the non-indexical quality of computer-generated imagery. In other words, the human figures he manipulates are similar to cadavers in that they are inanimate, entirely digital entities. But the severed heads we see throughout his work might also be a reference to the mythic poet Orpheus, who was torn limb from limb by wild beasts and whose head supposedly kept singing, even after death. In Atkins’s Safe Conduct (2016), for example, we see the bodiless head of the video’s beaten-to-a-pulp CG protagonist lying in an airport security checkpoint bin, mumbling along to Maurice Ravel’s 1928 orchestral composition Boléro. The cliché of the suffering poet, whose melancholic verse struggles to express authentic, original emotion since hampered by the well-worn conventions of the lyric tradition, is consonant with the inauthenticity of CGI, which strives for lifelike detail but reveals its artifice through excessive fidelity.
A Primer for Cadavers and Old Food, meanwhile, showcase Atkins’s verbal inventiveness and his interest in our tactile and olfactory associations with words and the things they describe. These writings have a sort of unmediated, logorrheic feel to them, which is a welcome contrast to the artist’s videos. A Primer for Cadavers explores literary address and the physical body, questioning whether suffering described in language is mere imitation. It asks, in effect, if a kind of linguistic flesh can be produced through accumulation of details, or through correlations between seemingly unrelated things, such as “fixing myself a jam sandwich [and] pissing into a wastepaper basket.” In Old Food, meanwhile, french fries, aka chips, are, in one of the best descriptions of the beloved dish I have read, “hot and golden and / flashing with fat, all crisped tips and / scalding lint cores.” These “perfectly direct batons” are subsequently “spumed” by lager. It’s as if eating is happening in another, semi-psychedelic world; the commonest of foods is plumbed for carnal particulars with a devotion that would have made proud the poet John Keats (1795–1821), who was capable of phrases like “the “thrilling liquidity of dewy piping” or “a breathless honeyfeel of bliss.”

Still from Ed Atkins’s The Worm, 2021, video projection with sound, 12 minutes 40 seconds.
Courtesy the artist

Atkins has sometimes called the white male body “the default subject,” and his focus on the one-size-fits-all, exclusionary construction of software and other tech products and environments is one of the most intriguing aspects of his practice, even as his exact critique can be difficult to pin down. In a charged passage in a piece titled “Elective Mute” in A Primer for Cadavers, Atkins writes that “numbers” are a way of “vocably shitting on women.” Presumably, Atkins indicates here the transformation of the continuous physical, so-called natural world into discrete data and commodities via acts of digital representation and quantification—referring to a long history of patriarchal domination of the material world and women’s bodies. Yet, as Atkins’s artworks are also, if not primarily, valued for their use of recent technology, itself dependent on “numbers,” there is a way in which these videos glorify the very digital sphere they purport to critique by revealing the biases inherent in its construction. That Atkins’s new work involves his mother is an intriguing and potentially vulnerable-making move: it’s a pivot from hypothetical CG versions of Atkins or, in the artist’s words, “dead” images, to living, feeling people.
This story is the latest in Lucy Ives’s column on artist’s books.

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