How Should I Know?
“…truth, as an image, is examined in relation to daily experience, either as a psychologically determined phenomenon or as simply the byproduct of culturally produced cliches. Truth is not a timeless given but a socially constructed fact.”
- Mike Kelley, The Uncanny, 1993
Our relationship with truth has always been uneasy. Truth holds an abstract nature, to be talking about truth would mean to be talking about something so ambivalent that individuals can have their own versions of it. It is fascinating how, regardless of its fluctuating nature, we constantly seek truth in our daily conversations, internet searches, commutes to work, personal relationships, religious beliefs, traditions and so on. Considering the present conditions humanity is facing, it is not surprising that seeking and questioning truth goes beyond an unconscious necessity and develops into a conscious desire. Truth seems to be spiralling into the depths of coding, information and data as we are operating across both physical and digital realms in our contemporary times. Truth acquires an even more unstable state, as these dimensions differ in existence, accessibility, experience, navigation, behaviour, perception and are run with different regulations. Our surprising unfamiliarity with the digital is what makes truth’s place within it undefined. This exhibition is a showcase of digital artworks which frame the instability of truth caused by the uncanniness of the digital realm. In doing so, it offers an insight on the presence of the uncanny within the contemporary, digital era.
Considering the multiple types of truths constructing today’s society, the relationship between the uncanny and truth is explained by Mike Kelley by specifically considering truth as an image. Kelley initially shows how notions of truth changed when the art movements of Surrealism and Pop Art emerged. The artist’s essay focuses on exploring inner human feelings, such as memory, anxiety, reminiscence, and dread. When mentioning Surrealists, Kelley explains the way these artists proposed absurd representations of what may be hidden within the human unconscious mind. Finding interest in depicting dreams and irrationality allowed for the uncovering of truth from its reputation of being a permanent certainty and started to identify its existence as a construct of society. Absurdity, being the protagonist of Surrealist compositions, shows the desire artists, belonging to this movement, had to move away from mundanity and in projecting what was happening within the human mind. Consequently, there is a reshaping of truth as something which resides within us, which we can shape, rather than a fixed external entity. The considerations about truth within Mike Kelley’s text were written in 1993, ten years after the internet was officially launched. Although people were already witnessing technological advances and handling the idea of “the digital”, they could not imagine the extent to which they would have started to operate both online and offline. Around thirty years later, we now have a critical dependency on existing within both dimensions and began to theorise the meaning and possibilities around this condition. Take for example Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell. As her argument focuses on gender, the theorist’s important reflection on how both AFK (away from keyboard) and online identities can coexist within the same person makes us revaluate “the glitch” as a place where we can operate more freely. Due to this, the digital might be considered as a place with no limits, where the truths of the real world do not necessarily apply. Kelley’s considerations on the relationship between truth and the uncanny within the image are revitalised by the five artists featured in this exhibition as they extend this discourse into the digital realm. By considering the digital as a space where reality and fiction merge, the uncanny might be overturned by the idea of the digital as a space where truths belonging to the physical world are forgotten.
How is the instability of truth explored in the contemporary digital image? How does the uncanny within the digital image test our trust in the world? Does the nature of the digital realm as a space of unlimited possibilities subvert the uncanny, making it become the norm? In How Should I Know? seven digital artworks and a sculpture are shown, where each artist demonstrates different ways of approaching the uncanny through CGI (computer-generated imagery) creation. In doing so, an opportunity to investigate our potential numbness towards the uncanny and its role in the dismantling of truth within the digital realm is possible. Oscar Cannon, Eduard Fadgyas, Louisa Potapchik, Mateo Santos Monje Shefford and James Sibley address the instability of truth through the subversion of mundanity. They do so not by contrasting absurdity and mundanity, but by making them coexist in the attempt to recontextualize this relationship within the digital realm. In fact, all artworks presented in this exhibition share two main features: the appearance of “ordinary objects” which are estranged, and a sense of spectrality. These elements are respectively Mark Fisher’s definitions of “the weird” and “the eerie”. Fisher’s distinction between these two terms explains diverse facets of the uncanny, simultaneously embodied by the artworks featured in How Should I Know?. To Fisher, the weird and the eerie both address the “strange” as a preoccupation for an outside presence which “lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience.” (Fisher, 2016.) The desire to go beyond standard cognition is a way to reject truth as a given which keeps us fixed into our conventional beliefs, therefore the weird and the eerie also begin to surface truth as a socially constructed fact that can be dismantled - as suggested by Kelley.
The subversion of the ordinary and the failure of presence are approached from different perspectives by the artists as they dismantle three different truths. Oscar Cannon reflects upon truth linked to self-identity, as the artist explores personhood and their manifestations through technology. Eduard Fadgyas and James Sibley tackle the truth of the ordinary through the misplacement of everyday objects within digital landscapes. Louisa Potapchik and Mateo Santos Monje Shefford introduce scientific truth, by using scientific visual language to depict unreal scenarios to destabilise the credibility of a knowledge-based subject which studies our universe, human condition, and surroundings.
Dismantling Truth in Self-Identity
Having always and only lived in the digital era, Oscar Cannon experiences the dynamic between self-identity, technology, and falsehood first-hand. Cannon explores how technology impacts the idea of the true self. To illustrate their ideas about personhood in our digitally driven society, Cannon composed a new model of the Holy Trinity built by three aspects of being: selfhood or identity, technology, and artifice. According to Cannon, these are the three aspects of self-awareness where one cannot exist without the other. Inherently, it is impossible to represent the self through technology without a degree of falsehood. Cannon’s idea of the new Holy Trinity shows a clear link with ideas presented by Legacy Russel in Glitch Feminism. While not fully complying with Russel’s argument about “the production of these selves, the digital skins we develop and don online, help us understand who we are with greater nuance” (Russel, 2020). This is because to Russel, physical and digital identities coexist without one being more credible or real than the other. Therefore, Cannon’s proposition about a subtle presence of falsehood in our digital self-manifestations creates a separation and distinction between physical and digital identities, suggesting that there would be falsehood in our manifestation of identities overall by operating online.
The inevitable exaggeration that creates a non-entirely true representation of our thoughts and feelings through the digital is shown in Cannon’s work I Climbed To The Top Of The Tree And When I Looked Out I Saw Nothing. This artwork shows manipulated video footage of situations and locations lived within moments of downtime in the daily routine. These moments are subverted through a manipulation of the images which are shown in the work, alongside the text appearing and narrating the feelings of the artist themselves. The artist’s personal experience is projected in this artwork as the desire to share an intimate view of the world from the artist’s perspective emerges from the piece. Taking Fisher’s consideration of the eerie as being “failure of presence” (Fisher, 2016), Cannon’s work holds an eerie quality which extends beyond the absence of the artist (until the very end of the piece). I Climbed To The Top Of The Tree And When I Looked Out I Saw Nothing is defined by the artist themselves as a piece of self-portraiture. The spectrality within the work is consequently amplified, as the work aims to represent personhood through the absence of the body, dismantling the manifestation of self-identity linked to the traditions of self-portraiture and doing so through the lens of Fisher’s eerie. Choosing to remove oneself from the screen in trying to depict oneself within it shows a practical application of Russel’s “digital skins” which we develop and manifest online, opening new and infinite possibilities of self-definition that go beyond our bodies. Meanwhile, this choice also enhances the idea of deception within the manifestation of digital identities as the notion of absence raises a sense of eeriness within the viewer.
Cannon approaches falsehood, within the manifestation of a digital identity, through the juxtaposition of images of their everyday life that would not go together to create different ways of looking at the world. The “presence of that which does not belong” (Fisher, 2016) is an evident feature which runs through Cannon’s piece, making it embody Fisher’s notion of the weird. This makes both the element of the weird and the eerie coexist in a digital artwork where self-identity is not only expressed through absence of the identified, but also through the disruption of the everyday. Cannon, therefore, extends the uncanny within the digital as a lens through which Legacy Russel’s suggestions of the dismantling of the body, gender and ultimately self-identity, is possible and at the same time disputed. The uncanny here pushes scepticism linked to the stability of self-identity within the digital, as the acceptance of the digital allowing for endless possibilities linked to identity seems insufficient. Cannon’s work shows the persistence of the uncanny even in a context where its presence seems amiss considering the acceptance of endless self-identifying possibilities, thanks to the digital realm.
Dismantling Truth in Science
Louisa Potapchik and Mateo Santos Monje Shefford show a shared interest in exploring scientific theories. They both toy with the reliability of scientific information, discoveries and subjects, and their role in our understanding of our surroundings.
Potapchik’s background in scientific studies fed into her interests in overlapping science and art to make space for a junction where questions about the generation of human knowledge and truths can be explored. Beyond My Control focuses on theories linked to metaphysics and the possibility of other dimensions existing beyond our perception. The artist selects and manipulates objects belonging to our real world, such as trees, gates, a train, billboards and more, to create a different dimension which leaves an open-ended narrative and interpretation, allowing an individual experience. In this piece, a strong search for knowledge through the creation of experience emerges. By constructing alternative dimensions, Potapchik dissolves the frames of the screen while dragging the viewer into disorienting landscapes, stimulating their curiosity, and triggering the human crave for knowledge. The strong connection between science and art as zones where humanity’s truths can be unpicked links to Donna Haraway’s considerations about “figuration”, where she states that “we inhabit and are inhabited by such figures [small set of objects into which lives and worlds are built] that map universes of knowledge, practice and power. To read such maps with mixed and differential literacies and without the totality, appropriations, apocalyptic disasters, comedic resolutions, and salvation histories of secularised Christian realism is the task of the mutated modest witness ” (Haraway, 1996). Through CGI technology, Potapchik constructs alternative worlds which hold an openness towards their interpretation and experience from the individual viewer’s point of view. The artist’s manipulation of objects belonging to our real dimension leaves an open-ended narrative and interpretation which allow for an individual experience. Beyond My Control accepts a multiplicity of interpretations, viewpoints and navigations, through the misplacement of everyday objects. Here, Foster’s definition of the weird and the eerie are noticed again as the abandoned scenarios, built with misplaced ordinary objects, shape Beyond My Control. Potapchik’s artwork requires the “mutated modest witness” which Haraway describes, allowing them to become the protagonist and main agent in the dismantling of preconceived truths within scientific structures.
Mateo Santos Monje Shefford addresses Haraway’s “mutated modest witness” in a different manner. His approach to digital media shows a crossover between science and art which focuses more on the scientific “rules” which govern our reality. Factidia, Sequence 01 and Sequence 04 show a scientific visual language, as well as an auditory element which reminisces scenes belonging to science fiction cinematography. The planets moving within the screens hold a reliable aesthetic while showing an unrealistic behaviour of these entities based on our preconceived truths of science (specifically physics) such as gravity, for example. Monje’s Factidia, Sequence 01 and Sequence 04 are another example on how reality and fiction are overlapped in CGI practices. By embodying this contrast, these artworks activate Haraway’s “mutated modest witness” within the viewer by questioning what we deem as reliability of scientific visual information when recognizing a particular aesthetic. The way Factidia, Sequence 01 and Sequence 04 make the audience question the truthfulness of scientific visual aesthetic allows it to embrace Fisher’s concepts of the weird and eerie in a particular way. At first glance, there is no room for the weird, defined as the misplacement of the everyday, as the artwork presents the universe with swirling planets, as well as the eerie, since it makes sense that this scene would be deprived of humans. However, in Factidia the dotted satellite trajectories, the pulsating planet, and the science fiction-like sound evoke a sense of uncertainty in the observer. Additionally, Sequence 01 and Sequence 04 show more abstract forms emerging from an experimental approach towards digital manipulation of similar footage used to create Factidia. Therefore, these three videos both contrast each other whilst being connected, with Factidia showing the illusion of an apparently reliable scientific aesthetic, and Sequence 01 and Sequence 04 revealing the non-representational nature of scientific knowledge. Although these both realistic and abstract images do not belong to our daily lives, they do belong to our daily understanding of our human condition. Therefore, Fisher’s identification of the weird is proposed from a different viewpoint, through the lens of Haraway’s concern where knowledge became one and the same with science enterprise.
Dismantling Truth in The Everyday
James Sibley and Eduard Fadgyas share the common intention of using CGI to create landscapes and settings which narrate a story. They both explore the way human consciousness behaves when encountering the subverted everyday within the digital dimension.
Eduard Fadgyas emphasises both physical and digital processes of creation which bring to life disturbing and dreamlike landscapes simultaneously. Corporal Landscapes includes both a sculptural work, Hands Laid Down and the digital piece. This installation integrates physical elements within the digital dimension, but also shows the way in which the artist operates in both realms in the making of his work. The artist casts human body parts and subsequently scans these plaster copies to further manipulate them digitally. Through this process, Corporal Landscapes brings forth a way mankind can imprint its human journey within the digital realm. This however is challenged by Jamie Sutcliffe’s considerations about virtual technologies only offering the illusion of freedom. An example of this is how “the user internalises a model of individuality and entitlement that is predicated by the agency that they feel themselves to have been accorded within a digital network” (Sutcliff, 2016). Fadgyas addresses this observation in both the making and viewing of Corporal Landscapes. As the artist considers the restrictions encountered in the creation of the artwork, an emphasis is placed in the dichotomy in the audience’s constraint in viewing the video peace and freedom in observing the sculpture. The audience is guided through the digital landscape following a predetermined specific path, leaving no control over how they experience it. In contrast, the sculptural work inhabiting the same dimension of the viewer, statically waits for it to be admired and navigated around through the viewer’s own choice.
Fisher’s notions of the uncanny, “the weird” and “the eerie” come into play here. The eerie is subtly modified as the observer explores a new territory, making the deserted landscapes not summon a sense of unsettling nostalgia, but rather abandoned novelty. The navigation through these strange lands triggers the human urge to rationalise the unknown. This human tendency calls for Fisher’s idea of “the weird” as the viewer notices the fragments of human hands building the digital landscape. The contrast between the familiarity and purpose of human hands, in allowing humans to operate physically within their surroundings, and the disorientation in an unknown digital landscape, connects Fisher’s ideas of “the weird” and “the eerie” to Jamie Sutcliff’s illusion of freedom in technology. This connection dismantles truths linked to operating freely within our daily digital routines, addressing mankind’s intention to control its imprint within the digital realm, while holding consciousness towards the illusion of freely operating within technology.
James Sibley also bridges physical and digital realms in his method of creation and in the engagement with the viewer. Coming from a distinguished practice involving installations which reside between film sets and haunting experiences, Sibley builds spaces in which the viewer can navigate and discover specific signifiers which tend to reference personal nostalgia. By both building and using found objects, the artist subtly touches upon the abandonment of historicity in contemporary civilization. The audience is free to move within the artist’s installations and discover the elements which guide them in building possible narratives linked to these places. Considering this, different stories emerge within the same settings depending on who the observer is. Quicksand is the first of Sibley’s digital artworks, where the artist translates the intentions behind his installation and sculptural works within the digital dimension. Travelling in and out of different scenes which seem to have been occupied previously, and now abandoned, Quicksand echoes Sibley’s intention of triggering the human brain, stimulating its tendency to jump to conclusions and construct plausible storylines. Psychologist Dr. Steven Sloman calls this phenomenon the “illusion of explanatory depth” (Sloman, 2017). This theory refers to the tendency most humans have of operating intuitively, rather than reflectively. The automatic cognitive activities involved in intuition make Quicksand act as a catalyst in the individual’s mind, generating a storyline or a remembrance within a dimension that does not exist in our physical world.
Once again, Fisher’s ideas linked to “the weird” and “the eerie” are revolutionised. The spectrality of the seemingly lived-in digital space presented in Quicksand shows the possibility of extending the unsettling sense of Fisher’s eeriness within the digital realm. In this case Fisher’s eeriness is not closely tied to an abandoned space which the viewer operates in physically, but rather transferred in a space which the viewer recognises, but does not reside in. A half-eaten cake, laptop, wizard’s hat, gun, porcelain plates, stack of books, carved pumpkin, chains are common objects which are recreated digitally. The location of these objects within a home-like setting and the subsequent absurd misplacement of them in outer space calls for Fisher’s definition of weird. Quicksand demonstrates how Fisher’s definition of the uncanny feeling is brought forth by the human mind’s illusion of explanatory depth, which according to Dr. Solman theory, pushes an intuitive approach in filtering cognitive experiences. Here Sibley proposes a dismantling of truth within the everyday which focuses on the functioning of the human brain, and how it might be triggered by aesthetic representations of Fisher’s definition of the uncanny.
How Should I Navigate?
Exploring the way all artworks in this virtual exhibition dismantle different types of truths offers an artistic and practical plausibility of Mike Kelley’s ideas about truth as “not a timeless given but a socially constructed fact”. By navigating through these different digital realities, landscapes and situations, one appreciates the need for the uncanny feeling to be summoned through digital, aesthetic languages for these artworks to conduct a dismantling of said truths. The uncanny has been explored extensively through art history, here Mark Fisher’s definition of the uncanny, defined through two concepts “the weird” and “the eerie”, have been revitalised by the artworks presented in the show, as they all embody and use this definition of the uncanny to successfully dismantle the three categories of truth.
Self-identity, science and the everyday have been questioned in How Should I Know? without the intent to ignore further relevant truths which the inner workings of society, as we know them, depend on. These three truths have been addressed in this exhibition due to the vital conversations they hold amongst each other, which commence with truth in self-identity. Self-identity refers to the introspective recognition of one’s being, the way one understands oneself inevitably reflects the way they explore the world they inhabit. Dismantling truth in self-identity is therefore the only way to start unpacking other truths, as for example in science and the ordinary. Both truths speak about the world we live in. Science tries to find answers about the way things work in the natural world on this gigantic, orbiting rock we walk on. Breaking down truth in science means becoming more aware of the ambivalence it can hold, caused by the limitation we, as humans, have in reasoning about what surrounds us. This limitation might also be found in the way one reasons about the everyday. A common human tendency is to associate, pair and categorise things to make sense of our surroundings and to operate within them in an intentional manner. Dismantling the truth in the everyday involves becoming aware of the automatic associations and narratives we impose on everyday objects or situations and understanding alternative ways of processing these. The way all three truths are approached by the artists through the referencing of the uncanny is an important common factor which creates these intriguing dynamics.
Despite the art field’s increasing numbness towards bizarre, surreal, and unimaginable visual representations of the world found in digital art, this selection of artists offers an alternative consideration of the uncanniness found in digital spaces. All artworks, in fact, embody and rethink Mark Fisher’s ideas of the weird and the eerie by addressing them through the recontextualization of a specific construct of truth. In doing so, the artists do not consider the digital as a separate dimension where anything is possible, but rather tackle it as an extension of our physical condition, where the human longing for truth can once again be crushed by the uncanniness of things. By presenting these practices, How Should I Know? becomes a space where every individual encounter, interpretation and engagement with these artworks is valuable. It is in fact through the viewer’s experience of these digital realms that the instability of truth, addressed in this case as a construct of society, is proposed as a topic of discussion. The audience’s response to the experiencing of these artworks is also crucial in understanding the bridging of physical and digital worlds, as done by the artists, as a renewal of Mark Fisher’s ideas of the uncanniness, to be applied to the digital realm. Our trust in the world might crumble as these new realities manifest themselves to us, but it is through these deconstructions that new, unknown spaces allow us to challenge the world we live and operate in.
The screening happening in the physical gallery as well as having a virtual version of the exhibition activates the viewer in different dimensions, making the physical dimension and digital realm equal spaces of both existence and perception. Offering a hybrid framing of the different truths being tackled and dismantled, emphasises the importance of every individual encounter, interpretation, and engagement with these artworks. Presenting a collective experiencing of the artworks through the screening and a more individualistic journey through the pieces in the virtual exhibition comments on the importance of collective wisdom and individual realisation in breaking down the illusion of permanent truths. The audio feature of every artwork being projected through the architecture of both spaces, allows for the distinction amongst these two different interfaces between viewers and digital artworks to be emphasised. Being the analogue feature of most of the exhibited artworks, sound moves through air, increasing the physical presence of the digital happenings. Sound becomes the bridge between the digital piece emanating it, and the physical context which the viewer occupies during these encounters. These framings of the viewer’s experience in both spaces make How Should I Know? reflect the ambivalence of truth even in its curation. Both galleries become a space with constantly open portals which allow the audience to peek within recognizable and disorienting situations which make our certainties crumble.
All the digital artworks featured in How Should I Know? ask to be viewed in a physical space as they combine both dimensions in either their process of creation or aesthetic elements. Therefore, this screening event and virtual exhibition are considered an exclusive preview of the curatorial project, which will be fully installed as a physical exhibition in 2023.
Kelley, M. (1993) The Uncanny. 1st edn. Arnhem: Sonsbeek 93.
Fisher, M. (2016) The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books.
Russel, L. (2020) Glitch Feminism. Verso.
Haraway, D. (1996) Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™. Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge.
Sloman, S. (2017) The Knowledge Illusion - The myth of individual thought and the power of collective wisdom. New York: Riverhead Books.
Sutcliff, J. (2016) Space Wars. Art Monthly, issue 397.