Luke Robert Mason: You’re listening to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.
On this episode I speak to American artist and Assistant Chair of Digital Art at the Pratt Institute, Carla Gannis.
Mixed reality I think has so much potential but again, how do we deal with it?
Carla Gannis, excerpt from interview
Carla shared her insight into the world of emoji, using augmented reality for creativity, and the current state of digital arts in New York. This episode was recorded on location in London, England, where Carla was exhibiting her work The Garden of Emoji Delights at the Children of Prometheus exhibition at Furtherfield Gallery.
Luke Robert Mason: So Carla, you’re in town to work with Furtherfield. Could you tell me a little bit about the pieces that you’re exhibiting whilst you’re here in London?
Carla Gannis: Sure. So, I have The Garden of Emoji Delights, both the video version, which is an animated version of the original Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, and I also have a print version of the piece which is thirteen feet by seven feet. So a kind of huge phantasmagoria of emoji.
Mason: So you have this phrase that you use so wonderfully, “the emojification.” Could you explain what emojification is?
Gannis: Well I don’t think it’s entered the lexicon yet. But I describe what I did, which was basically repainting—digitally repainting—this Bosch piece. It took me a year to do this. And I think anyone who thinks you’re kind of just pressing a button to produce even digital print work is mistaken. So I rezzed up all of these emoji, and also made some new Bosch emoji/Carla Gannis chimera in the process. And the most apt description in terms of creating a verb for it was “emojification,” or to emojify, yes.
Mason: So where did this interest in adapting this piece of work come about? where did the initial idea come from?
Gannis: Okay so it was an emoji lightbulb moment. So, there was a call for an emoji art and design show at Eyebeam art and design center. Or art and technology center—Eyebeam art and technology center. And I’d already started to incorporate emoji into my work. I’m really interested in digital semiotics.
But I was in a quandary. I was in my studio, and I said well, how am I going to apply emoji in some way that is really kind of interesting but also I think could extend the lexicon outside of just, “Oh! These are just happy little symbols and shorthand emotional expressions.” And Bosch has been a favorite painter for you know, eons, like since I was a kid. And particularly The Garden of Earthly Delights. But it was also something that I’d never seen in person. So I only knew it basically through the Internet, and so that seemed like a perfect collision.
I also have been doing this Google results project for quite some time. So I’d search “the garden of earthly delights” and it basically returned as many results as emoji. And so that was the other thing that was really interesting to me, that this work of art still resonates 500 years later, and what about it makes it resonate like that. And one thing is that it’s so enigmatic. Because he really had or developed—Bosch, the planer developed—this very personal kind of iconography.
And so I just got the idea. Like, literally within like ten minutes. And I decided to just…do it. And so I stayed up all night, which I tend to do. And so I did Hell first, which I have to say is the most fun. It’s a triptych, and the Hell panel is really the most fun. And so I emojified Hell first. And 6:30 a.m. rolls around and I’m like, “I can’t believe I did this. I don’t know how people are going to respond to this. But…here it is.”
Mason: So what have some of the responses been to this work?
Gannis: It took on a life of its own, I must say. It’s been shared quite a bit online via Instagram and Twitter, Tumblr, etc. And one thing that’s kind of fascinating is there is the animated version and then there’s also the physical version. And both of those have kind of taken on lives of their own. There’s one thing about how dynamic the animated version is, and it actually gave me latitude to kind of expand the narratives and talk about kind of 21st century things? The middle panel is depopulated of animals and humans, so kind of a nod to the Anthropocene and potentialities and things like that.
So there’s been a lot of popular response. And a lot of younger people particularly have really responded to it and written me emails and these kind of things. And I’ve appreciated that. Some people—currently the piece is also on view at Sotheby’s in New York, which is a kind of established fine art institution, and actually an auction house. And it was interesting when they posted it on their Instagram to read some of the comments. And some people were really outraged that I’d done this to a Bosch and felt like I had debauched a Bosch.
So it’s fascinating that you know, I think if you make a work of art that people love and hate that means that you’re actually doing something. If everybody’s just kind of middle of the road about it maybe it’s not really effective. But if people have strong emotional reactions, whether it’s positive or negative, maybe that means something. Because we definitely can’t all agree.
Mason: You said in your presentation something with regards to how do you make an artwork ubiquitous? But at the same time scarce.
Gannis: Yeah! So that’s something fascinating that I think a lot of new media or digital artists have to contend with. We really straddle two models. I mean, for those of us who choose to still work within a more traditional art market, which is kind of a gallery market where your work is sold to collectors. And with digital work, which can be reproduced infinitely, like past Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the work of art in the age of digital reproduction we know if it’s produced digitally can be reproduced infinitely. But when you’re working with a gallery or with museums, or particularly with a gallery, you still are working with scarcity. And so you limit your editions. Because collectors want to feel like they’re purchasing something or they’re investing in something that isn’t just going to be shared like movies or television or music. It’s a totally different model.
But most artists who like myself are really engaged with social networks and network culture in general, and that actually plays into a lot of the work that I produce, you know, I want to share my work online. And that ubiquity is really important. And online the value of the work actually increases the more it’s shared, right? So the more ubiquitous it becomes, the more times people share it or repost it, the more valuable it it becomes. So it’s an inverse relationship to the scarcity model.
And so I try to kind of negotiate those. And one thing I mentioned the other night at a Furtherfield talk was one way that I can do that is through resolution, right. Hito Steyerl has written a great essay about in defense of the poor image. But posting poor images online— And when I said earlier that The Garden of Emoji Delights has taken on a life of its own. It’s been shared and shared and shared. It’s been made into dresses, whether I wanted that or not—that’s another story. But anyway, it has been shared, but it’s a low-resolution image, right. Then, for the scarcity model, for the gallery, I have a 13 foot by 7 foot—I’m sorry, I’m bad with the metric system—but you know, a large piece that the file for that is several gigabytes. I would never release that online. I mean one, who could even downloaded it; it would take forever for them to even see it.
But that is kind of something that works with— You know, that’s the authentic, original piece, super high-rez. But then I can share these lower-rez versions of it online, without in any way challenging the scarcity of the authentic large-scale, large-rez piece.
Mason: But doesn’t the original painting have that challenge anyway? So I know where it’s exhibited in Madrid you can’t photograph it. You can’t be seen to hold a phone up to it. And I know that was a particular challenge for the second part of this work.
Gannis: Right. So I then augmented The Garden of Emoji Delights—or I augmented The Garden of Earthly Delights. So I went back to the original again and I turned certain details of the original painting— Of course they were reproductions; didn’t go into the Prado and cut parts of the painting or anything like that. So I had reproductions that I found high-res photos online, of course, of the original. There are high-res photos of The Garden of Earthly Delights online.
So I then turned those into AI markers. So they’re basically the image tags that then can release an augmented experience. So then I programmed an augmented experience for five different markers. And so I finally got to see the original last year in November. It was actually for another Furtherfield show in Spain. And I go to the Prado and I have this wonderful person who’s giving me a tour. But then she lets me know that no photography is allowed. And I’m flummoxed. Because I’d been planning for months, created these augments to go up to the painting to one specific location, hold up my phone and get my augment.
So I took the tour with her and then I returned to the painting later and surreptitiously raised my phone really fast, made sure that I already had the app launched, the AR app, and got my augment. And it was just fantastic because I finally had my 3D version overlaying the original. And there’s something about that. It is kind of a museum hack, I suppose.
But also, I’m kind of demoralized by the fact that certain museums haven’t really kept pace with the culture and time that we live, you know. And I think in New York for example, in New York museums, I did a project at the Metropolitan last year. They allow photography now. There are actually some pieces in the Metropolitan museum that are augmented. A friend of mine, Claudia Hart has done a project with her students where they augmented works of art in the [Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago] museum. So some museums are starting to get on board with this and understanding that there’s no way you can really in the digital and Internet age… You know, it’s going to be really difficult to police that.
Mason: You were already coming up against folks who wants to legislate people from putting a virtually layer onto a physical painting or artwork or object.
Gannis: That’s a really good question. And so far I actually was teaching AR last semester. And I was working with Blippar, and that’s when I first realized. Because I’d been working with them kind of carte blanch because all of the work that I was augmenting— Until The Garden of Emoji Delights, which is in the public domain at this point so there is no kind of intellectual property; it’s a 500-year-old painting.
But before that I’d augmented fifty-two drawings, the Selfie Drawings project. And all of that was my work and was my intellectual property and so there was no issue of my kind of subverting something else. There are things within the drawings that I made that could possibly be subversive, and then when I augmented them I kind of expanded those things. But I wasn’t appropriating from anything.
But when I started teaching this semester, some of my students were really interested in doing that. And Blippar has an approval process for their blips and there were some that they wouldn’t approve. And I understand that. And it made me realize, though, why artists traditionally have either built their own apps… And I mean, generally that was kind of the early net art days, the 90s, early 2000s, that’s what a lot of artists were doing just because the technology wasn’t out there, so build your own thing.
Or there are artists like someone like Man Bartlett, who’s done all these kind of interventions using these proprietary networks. But the challenge there is that they will try to legislate that. Or what happens to your art if those networks go down? I mean, that’s the other thing that tech artists have to deal with all the time, is obsolescence.
And so it did give me pause when I realized oh wow, some of my students’ blips can’t get approved. Like one, she used a Barbie as one of her trigger images. That’s…you know. I mean… Also, though, you have to understand Blippar is a huge corporation. So this is not a slam on them. I mean, they run a company, you know. And if one of my students decides to use the Barbie image and then someone else, someone who—
Mason: Mattel, or Hasbro, or—
Gannis: Mattel or something, or Hasbro, right? There’s going to be an issue if that exact same image is programmed to release two different blips with two very different messages, right? And so I can understand that. And so what that means, and what I’ve been thinking about, is returning to something like open source AR toolkit and working with Unity, and kind of working with a platform where I feel like I have more latitude or my students have more latitude in terms of subversiveness, if that’s the intent, right.
Mason: Do you think we’re going to see that extended even further when corporations like Apple are releasing their AR kits. I mean, the dream for Blippar was always, in my conversations at least with the founder of Blippar, is to turn AR into something like a tweet. So you tweet, and to do AR you would blip. They wanted to turn it into a verb, almost. That was the dream for them.
Gannis: Which they have. I mean, again it’s [crosstalk] not in the lexicon.
Mason: So it was going to be synonymous with you know, blipping a piece of content. It’s not in the lexicon. But I mean, the dream for all of these AR companies, especially early on in about 2012, was to become part of the OS. So you would be on the camera app. You wouldn’t have to open multiple separate, different apps and do an AR activation from a very specific app. I wonder with Apple’s AR kit, where it is going into OS, it is going into the operating system of the phone, we’re going to see almost those corporations, whether it’s Apple or Samsung, policing the virtual space. Are you working with ARKit at the moment, or is it slightly too early for your students?
Gannis: Yeah, it’s too early for me to talk about AR Toolkit, but I am fascinated by that in terms of Apple because it’s interesting, I think back to that 1984 ad where Apple is basically like, defeating Big Brother, right? And now they have this closed-box system. And you know, it is alarming to me. It’s alarming to me about Adobe and that all of our software is now cloud-based. And you know, if you don’t pay your monthly bill, you no longer have access to your intellectual property.
And those things are alarming to me, particularly as an artist who’s been working with digital technologies for over twenty years. And so what does that mean for us? And we already see this on Twitter and Instagram in terms of nudity. I mean, you go into any museum and you’re going to look at a Greek vase painting and there’s— Or you’re going to look at a Bosch, and there’s some kinda crazy stuff going on, you know. Provocative nudity and…I won’t describe some of the scenes here. Go to the museum, you’ll see them.
Mason: Do you know if Instagram’s blocking those sorts of images, the classical art images?
Gannis: Courbet, “Origin of the Universe” was blocked on Facebook several times. One user—probably more than that, I don’t have the statistics or articles here with me, so—his account was deleted. Instagram, there’s been this issue about the nipple. So lots of women have been posting things on—
Mason: Hashtag #freethenipple…
Gannis: Yeah, #freethenipple and these kind of things. And I mean, it’s just puritanical. I mean, coming from America where we’re rooted in these kind of puritanical extremes, I’m fascinated that in a technological age we’re so fearful of the body. And so that’s something I’ve been seeing a lot on these proprietary networks, and everyone’s like, “Well, they’re free so you know, what can you expect?” But like, they are our main method of communication. And so if they’re going to continue to close down like that and censor, and if AR also censors if there’s nudity and you can’t post that augment, that’s really a shame. I think.
Mason: Or it would auto-pixelate certain environments.
Mason: I mean, I’m thinking especially with regards to galleries and using AR and your camera app inside of galleries, I almost wonder if they’re going to buy the virtual space around that gallery? So they’re going to buy this geolocation around that gallery, and any activation that’s triggered within say the Tate Modern’s… You know, the mile that makes up the Tate Modern on bank of the River Thames, they’re going to police what goes and what doesn’t go into that gallery in the same way that One Canada Tower in Canary Wharf has bought all of the airspace around that building so that nobody can build a building higher than One Canada Tower. I wonder if the Tate Modern is going buy the virtual geolocated space so that they get to control what sort of—
Mason: —AR activations that— Content control, essentially. Driven by something like geolocation or RFID tags or something that’s going to allow them to actually make decisions on what content is allowed and isn’t allowed within their gallery space. Because right now it’s the Wild West.
Gannis: I was about to say, right now it’s the Wild Wild West. There’s Manifest.AR, you know. They have in the past— Now they’re getting invited to do legitimate installations and exhibitions at museums and institutions. But in the past you know, they have installed their work at the Venice Biennale. They’ve installed their work in the MoMA. They’ve done these things, these interventions, right. Because you could place AR tags or geolocated tags anywhere, right? And it’s the Wild Wild West and if you go to Wikipedia you’ll see like a hundred different applications you can use right now.
And so all these different AR applications— I’ve used Vuphoria and Blippar so where I have the same tag, but if you use a different app you get a different experience. And that was fun to just kind of experiment with. But what happens if they really start policing that?
I remember reading recently about at the advent of airplanes, when you owned property it’s like what you were just saying. When you owned property—this was in the United States at least—you owned it all the way up to the sky, apparently. And so when airplanes started flying over, people started filing lawsuits saying, “That is my land and that is my sky, and you’re not allowed to fly over it.”
And so are we going to start getting lawsuits, right, or something like that because people are trying to own geolocated space? I mean, I think that that would be really appalling, actually. Because I really like the idea of AR as well as the Internet, too, still having that kind of free rein for personal expression. But I’m sure institutions like a major museum will want to control what kind of content could be released when people have a particular app. I’m sure that could happen in the future.
Mason: Do you think it’s not of immediate concern right now? Because it still requires the need to guide the user to trigger an AR experience. So Blippar, on at least a lot of the work that they produce, especially for advertising, there needs to be that little logo “blip this content, download our app here. This is how you discover how to release an AR piece of content.” Do you think that issue with regards user experience is the reason why it just isn’t in the public consciousness yet? It still requires education to know that this stuff even exists out there.
So for example, you go and see the painting that you’ve augmented, the Earthly Delights painting that you’ve augmented. There’s no trigger.
Gannis: There’s no trigger. It’s a big secret. I’m the only person who really knows that right now. I have actually done an exhibition where I did exhibit the four different small pieces from the original that I reprinted out as AR triggers. And so in that context in New York people know, but yes, it’s not ubiquitous. (We’ve been using those words “scarce” and “ubiquitous.”)
And I really discovered that recently. My students have an exhibition on view right now at the Pratt Library in Brooklyn, New York. And we were all really excited because they were augmenting the entire library. So they created all these different applications and games. And it takes you, as you start to interact with their different pieces, you are kind of asked to travel throughout the library, you find out different things that you might not have know before, you go into the stacks, you go into these areas, you find out the history the library—very exciting, you know. This is kind of…
I can just see such future potential for this, you know, that having this other overlay for a library. I mean, in 1997 already at Columbia, they’d created an AR app. You had to wear it on your back with a visor, where you have to HUD, basically, and you could find out all this information at Columbia. I remember going to that talk and I was like, “Amazing! I can’t wait to have one,” and it’s taken twenty years, right. And so that’s the other thing, that it is still nascent, when this technology has been in development for decades.
But anyway, getting back to the point. So my students and I install this— And we have a little bit of signage, we have the thing about the Blippar, and we’re just like oh, people are just gonna go to town. They don’t.
Gannis: You have to handhold, still. Even with the popularity of something like Pokémon Go, which that’s…anybody who’s a parent, they know their their kids are doing it. But they’re still like, “Oh, that’s something my kids do,” so they haven’t really taken it seriously. Kids are still kind of utilizing it more as a game space. And so when there’s this research-based project at a library, with these different image tags—and some of them are really fun, and some of them are like speculative fictions, so you have time-travel clocks that take you on this AR experience, all these things—people don’t engage.
And that’s still a real hurdle. So I think you’re correct that it’s not something that’s really imminent in terms of institutions really kind of policing what space or what kind of augmented reality can kind of exist within a particular physical domain. So I don’t think that’s imminent.
But you know, even talking to the director of the library, we used at the front facade of the library as a tag on the poster, and it like, now how do you feel about that in perpetuity, right? In perpetuity for that particular image of your library, that will always trigger this one thing. Do you want me to deactivate it at the end of the exhibition? Or do you want that to go on in space? Or some of the students who, in their projects have actually augmented certain books in the library, that if Blippar for example is still around ten years from, now somebody might take this book off the shelf and discover something. And I said how do you feel about that too, you know, and really thinking about that.
But we really don’t know, for one, having been someone—I used to teach flash for example. I’ve taught obsolete technologies. Director, Flash, these kind of things. We don’t even know if that content will be accessible in the future, or what apps will actually last, so.
Mason: This is the the concern with the larger players getting involved.
Gannis: Yeah, like Apple, yeah. Tim Cook loves AR! More than VR.
Mason: Yeah. And we’re beginning to see some of the playful interventions that’ve been done with ARKit, and it’s mainly manipulating the current environment. So what they can do very well because they bought Metaio was they can take and capture the real world, reprocess that, and then place AR content back onto the world.
Mason: The thing that at least I think that Apple is going to launch is RGBD, so they’re going to understand depth before anybody else understands depth.
Mason: And that’s based on 2013 technology? Metaio had that, and it was surreal to witness, but a whole bunch of audience members in Germany got very very excited over the fact that you could put IKEA furniture behind physical tables. Because for AR that was an impossibility. You’d trigger something and it would not understand where the ground is, or where other 3D objects in real space were. And I genuinely believe it’s going to be a case of we’re going to be buying virtual land. In the same way that [crosstalk] you could buy Second Life space—
Gannis: Second Life. I mean thinking about you had an economy and you were buying virtual land and real estate and those kind of things, and now it’s just going to extend
Mason: But then who’s the real estate agent for that? Is Apple then the real estate agent for say this square mile of Russell Square? I mean, who polices Russell Square? Do we give London the entire virtual map and go, “Alright, you guys can workout which council looks after this area and what can be triggered within this area?” [crosstalk] Here’s the British Library, so the British Library.
Gannis: I know. It’s simulacra and simulation. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this is really again… You know, I was saying simulacra and simulation, where the map actually takes on the proportions and dimensions of the real city, right. And then the map actually covers the city and you don’t know if it’s a map or the city that’s real anymore, right? And I think with AR we could get to that. Or HoloLens. I had someone come in this semester and demo HoloLens to my students, and that was really fascinating to me. Mixed reality I think has so much potential, but again how do we deal with it?
I mean, when you were talking about systems like the Library of Congress in United States. They’ve had…like, there was the Dewey Decimal System and then there was the Library of Congress— They’ve had these codified systems. And right now everyone’s making lots of different systems. And none of them really are coalescing into one single thing. And we don’t have that yet and so that can lead to chaos.
And I think that’s what a lot of people are are losing sleep over right now. What are we going to do? How are we going to one, still attract people to come to physical locations like the British Library? Because there are things there in that physical space worth actually interacting with, right? And everything doesn’t have to just be an interface. Or everything isn’t just from a virtual territory.
And so yeah, I think people are trying to develop these strategies. And that’s why in a way AR mixed reality has more potential, I think, that’s why Tim Cook might be interested in it, is that the physical space is still a component, right. With virtual reality, you’re just somewhere else altogether, right? And VR is all the rage right now. But in terms of disseminating information, in terms of keeping us in touch still with physical, you know. I mean, it’s all real life now. I don’t even distinguish IRL/URL now. I mean it’s all real life. But like, how do we maintain a foot in both simultaneously? Both the virtual and the physical.
Mason: I’m so worried it’s going to become a real estate game.
Gannis: Yeah. No, I mean, I could imagine that. I mean, I remember thinking about Second Life— Do you remember that film Second Skin, where people got married in Second Life—
Mason: This couple in Life 2.0 and they had this whole story…
Gannis: Yeah, quite a few of those films that came out where people just kind of lost themselves in Second Life. Which I mean if you think of it now it’s so rudimentary, right, compared to what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the Holodeck, right. But something more than the Holodeck, because the Holodeck was kind of still an escape. Which maybe in a VR world that’s something. A place for storytelling or whatever.
But what happens if we get Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, that 2006 novel he wrote about an AR universe where everybody is wearing—and there is no time where AR is turned off. AR has become—you know, it’s the IoT. And your entire waking experience is augmented. And what happens when that becomes reality? And I can see that as a real possibility. We’ll have you know contacts and those kind of things, but how are we going to kind of control these different domains? And is it going to become something that is controlled and dominated by the one percent? Ugh, again?
Mason: There was a futurist in the UK who very offhandedly said it’s going to be wonderful when we get ubiquitous AR because we’ll be able to walk down the street and pixelate out all the homeless people. [crosstalk] And you sit there and go, “Oh God no…that’s not what you’re supposed to do with this.”
Gannis: Are you kidding? That’s so classist. Not at all. And that’s a real danger. Because we’re already talking about— I mean, given the current political climate… There’s been a lot of talk at least in the States about bubbles, right. And because of these bubbles, we currently have an orange-skinned, blonde tyrant as our president. And a lot of liberal, left-leaning intellectuals were not in touch. They’d kinda pixelated out people in the West or in the Southern parts of the United States. And they weren’t aware of this strong nationalism that was arising. And a lot of that was due to their social networks and this kind of bubbled environment where you’re getting your news source and you basically are perpetuating your worldview based on the friends that you choose and the things that you read, and you have no idea about the homeless people. You have no idea about coal miners who think that we’re all intellectual elitists in New York or California or these kind of things. And en masse, they were able to vote this guy in.
And so that’s a real danger. I’ve actually had a student who made a film about that, where in her film she created this future kind of augmented technology where yeah, you put on these goggles and you know longer see the homeless people and everything’s Wizard of Oz. And interestingly enough, it was the writer of Wizard of Oz, he imagined— L. Frank Baum is his name. In 1901 he wrote another book The Electrical Fairy Tale—I can’t remember the exact title of it—where he imagined augmented reality. But his was rather didactic. And so in his augmented reality world, you put on a pair of goggles and you basically are able to understand or see the personality of a person based on letters that are projected on their forehead. And so you can intuit things that you wouldn’t see with your physical eyes through these goggles. And so they’re just letters and so “S” is smart and “D” is detestable or something like this—I don’t remember what the system was. So it was really didactic, but then we see Black Mirror, for example, that popular British television series where this is really playing out. And it’s no longer science fiction, it’s just a step behind what is quite possible and imminent.
Mason: So, I wonder how your students are engaging with this technology. Do they see it as something very very exciting, or are they making those sorts of challenging interventions into what this technology may give birth to accidentally?
Gannis: Yeah, yeah. Promethean, again, the title of Mark’s show. Children of Prometheus is actually the title of his show. But you know, we are at this point, to reference myths, Pandora’s box or the Promethean fire. And when we had the HoloLens demo, for example, that was so exciting. I was actually the kid in class that day. I was jumping up and down. I was like, “Since I was a kid I’ve been imagining this, Princess Leia and the holograms and being able to map an entire world that obeys the laws of physics. My God this is amazing.” And some of my students actually, when they were writing their blogs about the experience, some of them actually were questioning what these implications could be more than me. I was the happy happy futurist that day.
But a lot of them in their work— And I was wondering if this was a product of using Blippar, which was a fantastic experience and they were really supportive. They came to the show the student show, some people from Blippar New York. but I wondered if they also, knowing that certain blips couldn’t get approved, like certain markers, if that was something that they self-censored, in a way. And also because they were doing a research-based project in a library. And I think a future classes and where we could actually do public interventions and things like that. Or just taking it out of certain institutions where you feel like, “Oh, well I want to make sure I don’t rock the boat too much.”
But definitely in a lot of the writings that my students were doing this semester, quite a few of them were questioning issues of privacy, for example. Which comes up again in Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge’s piece. Privacy when you can start to you know see through walls and these kind of things. Which Ivan Sutherland predicted in 1968 when he produced The Sword of Damocles, the first head-mounted display—he’s kind of the father of AR and VR.
And so they were talking about privacy and also what’s going on with…what is it called? In China… And it played out on a Black Mirror episode, “Nosedive,” right, where they have these personal apps, and your credit rating actually increases or decreases based on how you behave publicly and your interactions with people. And so there’s this one-to-one virtual/physical correlation, and it’s kind of frightening, right? And it’s an app, and kind of like what we saw in “Nosedive,” which is a kind of a rudimentary AR app, you have a HUD again that’s overlaying everything, and then you can rate people and rate things. And what are the implications of that in the future, especially when you can’t turn it off?
And Vernor Vinge, again in Rainbows End, you can’t really turn it off. Or if you do, if you don’t “wear,” so to speak, you’re a pariah. That’s the other thing, you know. What about the people who decide to not engage? I mean, we already know we can’t really go off the grid and participate in culture these days. I mean, I’m saying this particularly as a Westerner. There’s still tons of people around the world who are not networked. So I should definitely balance that comment. But speaking in terms of of you and I and people who are kind of engaged in this rhetoric and in art and technology, we kind of can’t go off the grid now, right, to be engaged.
Mason: Well, I wonder if there is almost an implicit filter bubble of doing a digital MA. I mean, you don’t see the other side of the coin. You’re a digital arts MA student. Your life is digital arts, you’re surrounded by digital arts, digital is kind of core of what you do, you don’t actually see the other side of the coin. But I know your background isn’t necessarily digital, though.
Gannis: No, no.
Mason: Your background is fine arts oil painting, is that right?
Gannis: Yes. And half of my family— I used to, when I first moved to New York and was trying to assimilate, I lost my very thick Southern accent because I’m from the southern part of the United States and often did not reveal that half of my family is from the mountains of North Carolina. So I can now reveal this. But for a UK audience this might not mean anything anyway. But the mountains of North Carolina, the Appalachian Mountains, growing up there as a child it was like growing up in the 19th century.
And I visited there, I didn’t grow up there. So when I’d visit the family homestead, so to speak, it was still a wood-burning stove, my family members made these musical instruments and sang these classical mountain ballads that were hundreds of years old and actually dated back to Ireland, and these kind of things. And so it was a very traditional, old culture. So that is something that probably still plays into my practice and why I’m so interested in history and also finding collision points between past, present, and speculative future.
And so that’s part of my childhood. And then I was also a classically-trained pianist. I was out playing piano and teaching piano by the time I was 14, and it was all classical. I was also classically trained as a painter. My dad, though, was really into computers, taking me to SIGGRAPH conferences… And I rebelled by being a classicist. And it wasn’t until after I obtained two degrees—a BFA and MFA, I got them back to back—in oil painting that I moved to New York, and what got me to New York was building a database for the John McEnroe Library.
So computers brought me to New York. And my dad sent me a computer and sent me a database and it was all DOS, and I learned that on the fly, realized that I had an aptitude—I didn’t realize but I inherited it from my dad. And I got to New York, I started assisting artists who were working with digital technologies, I threw away all my paintings and kind of started anew. It was a John Baldessari move. He lit all of his paintings and had a funeral pyre. But I just threw mine away. And it’s funny because my dad still picks on me to this day. The first computer arts grant I got, he said, “See, I told you so. I told you the future of art would be in this.”
But, I do think, back to your original question, the fact that I have that background does give me a different kind of relationship to technology. Because I do have— I mean one, I’m not born digital, for one. And because I have this relationship and this history with the analog world and actually because of my family roots, a very very 19th-century kind of traditional world, it always kind of plays into my philosophy or my perspective on things. So I’m always kind of counterbalancing, and I’m weighing things, and I’m looking at the digital world and I’m getting very enthusiastic about it, but I’m also remembering and I have real experiences that I can draw from. And remembering that there’s this other road, and how do we kind of balance our perspectives? And I think that balance is always really important.
Mason: How long have you spent in New York? Do you mind me asking?
Gannis: Twenty-two years. I’m a New Yorker.
Mason: You’re a New Yorker now. And have you seen the growth of digital art over the course of those twenty-two years, or has digital art always been part of the New York scene. It strikes me that it’s—at least digital art is allowed on the East Coast, but never felt like it existed on the West Coast. And I remember asking friends, when I first arrived in San Francisco, it was like, “Great! Take me to the digital art shows.” And they’re like—
Gannis: What digital art shows?
Mason: “No dude, there’s no digital art shows here. You wanna go see art there’s SFMOMA but they’re closing that down and it’s going to be redone. But if you’re a computer scientist here, you don’t make art. You go and work for Google.”
Gannis: Yeah, yeah.
Mason: I just wondered, can digital art only exist on the East Coast?
Gannis: There are good digital artists on the West Coast and I think a lot of things are changing. But I also can share you with you some anecdotes about twenty-two years in New York in digital arts. I mean, one thing when I first came to New York, a lot of my friends were painters because I had a degree in painting, you know. And I started databasing this art library at this art school and they were all painters. And then I started to, as I mentioned, move away from that.
But I remember when I first decided to embark on a new pathway. And first I was doing Xerox art, photography, video, all of these things. And it ultimately led me to just producing things with the computer, which is the ubiquitous postmodern art tool, I think. Or art partner, actually. It’s your collaborator. But anyway, I had friends who totally maligned me. They were like, “You’re never going to have an art career. Are you stupid? Why are you not making paintings? That’s what sells.”
And then in the early 2000s…or actually late 1990s, early 2000s you know, with Rhizome, there was a lot of energy and excitement about digital art. I had this digital alter ego, Sister Gemini, and there were some galleries interested in doing some things with her, and she was going to get kind of holographically projected and all these things, then 9⁄11 happened in New York. And there was this conservative backlash, and in the art world it was really really predominant and there was a return to physical objects, paintings, things that people knew would sell. Because also the economy just kinda tanked with that.
And again in 2008, that happened—so a lot of this is tied to the economy, I think. But also I was showing with kind of mainstream commercial galleries. I was going to art fairs and these things, and people were scratching their head. They were— Do you know many photography collections I’m in because people didn’t even— In their museums they didn’t have a label for this hybrid stuff I was doing. They were like is it a video game, is it a—you know, what is it? And it’s a composite. It’s like I embrace hybridity and most digital artists do.
But it took a long time even in New York. There have always been groups, and as long as you could kind of find those people and shows and things going on. But it was kind of an alternative art history. And still there is kind of this digital divide, even in New York. But lesser now, because of galleries like Transfer Gallery, and Bitforms, and Postmasters, who have been really promoting hybrid work or digital work or new media work for quite some time. And Transfer’s kind of young on the scene, four years, but Kelani has just made major inroads to kind of broadening its appeal. And I think a lot people have been afraid of it.
So that said, on the West Coast who’s there? I mean, there’s Dorothy Santos I know. I think things are changing there. I was part of a Silicon Valley art fair like two years ago, and Isabel Walcott Draves who leads Leaders in Software and Art organized this. And the one thing that I think you’re still correct about is all of the Silicon Valley people were just like, “Oh, I wanna buy a Picasso but I don’t wanna buy digital art.”
And I don’t understand that. Like, when this is what you do during the day, you still don’t think of that as art, or art that is collectible. And so I’m still a little baffled by that.
Mason: Is that the major difference between… So the UK and the US, your bias in the US is to think of how does this artwork become commercial or how is it sold? Whereas in the UK we have a little bit of a buffer thanks the things that the Arts Council of England, or—
Mason: —other grants for the arts or grants for digital arts, knowledge transfer networks. And the ways in which we can get access, or digital artists can get access to public money, which makes the impetus on making something commercial or sellable less important. And I wonder what your thoughts are on the difference between say Europe and the US, and how it views digital art.
Gannis: Yeah, I think that is a really good point. And I think it is an issue in the United States and is becoming more of an issue, again, with the people who are in power currently. They’re actually planning to make more and more cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts and support of arts of any kind. And there are not as many grants. And in a place like New York it’s super competitive. And so as a New York-based artist it’s difficult to separate yourself from you know, like it’s kind of the little fish in a really huge pond. And so there is more of an emphasis in terms of when you’re working with galleries or even people who…you know, curators, independent curators, to think about these things in terms of commodifiability.
And most artists I know, particularly who are working with emerging technologies, they just want to have time to make their stuff. They don’t care about selling it. They don’t care about being rich and famous like I don’t know, Jeff Koons. Who by the way is now embarking on a VR project. I don’t know what that’ll be like, but we’ll see. You know, he’s one—I don’t want to malign him. He’s one model, okay. And that’s one model where the artist has kind of worked in the system, they’re very wealthy, they’ve got a studio full of assistants. And they make work that is highly commodifiable. Generally it’s also scarce, it’s one of a kind, these kind of things—sculptures, etc.
But a lot of artist I know who are coming out of the the 60, the dematerialized art object, coming out of kind of more conceptual lineages, aren’t thinking about like, “Oh, I wanna make something that I can sell.” But then there is this pressure because how else are you going to pay for your time to produce things? And a lot of us take the academic route. I’m now a full-time assistant chair and professor at Pratt Department of Digital Arts. And many of my friends who—many of us had worked in corporate jobs, too, to kind of pay for our art habit, so to speak.
And you know, after a while you get tired, too. You come in after work, and generally what I’d do is I’d learn a technology if I was working at a game company or doing web design, and then I’d be like oh okay, now I’ve got to apply this to my own art and subvert it in some interesting way, right? And so you have this daytime life and this nighttime life. But that gets really difficult to maintain over a period of time, right?
And so then you do start to deal with these pressures about okay, I applied for this many grants and there are only a handful, and ten thousand other people applied for them too, and I didn’t get them because there’s just a dearth of grant money in the United States. And so what am I going to do? Like, how am I going to kind of kowtow to a market?
And that’s something we’ve seen with post-Internet, for example. A younger generation of artists, particular even net artists, I mean, because post-Internet you know…yeah, post-digital. But post-Internet artists who actually have returned to the gallery, or have gallery representation early on because they are making objects that are inspired by the Internet? But they’re not network-based. They actually exist in a physical domain. And so they can then enter the market.
And that’s been— Maybe post-Internet…I’m not sure what your thoughts are on it, but it has been a kind of polarizing neologism. But I think it does kind of indicate a newer generation’s response to wanting to kind of align themselves more with a mainstream art market and trying to find ways to do that. And not all of them have to mean that you’re selling out, so to speak. But it is a quandary, you know, when you just want to make work. And it would be great if we lived in a country where, like in the UK or Canada, where there was more support for the arts.
Mason: We’ve kind of full circle then, because the other interesting thing about The Garden of Emoji Delights is it does appeal to the Snapchat generation.
Mason: There’s something very viral, something very playful… Although it’s a serious piece of digital art, there’s something that very young kids would find very engaging, because it is emojis and it’s something they’re recognizing within that culture. And we brushed over it very briefly, but I wonder what other sorts of interactions are you having with the emails you’re getting, or the Instagram comments you’re getting with something like that.
And I also wonder if that sort of engagement raises the value of that physical, final piece as well. Do digital artists need to play both those games, make something that will also get enough kind of earned media inside of PR so that it kind of elevates the artist? Do you think it’s because there’s something innately viral and playful about this new piece, this current piece?
Gannis: And perverse, and strange, and a kind of perverse appropriation of emoji, you know, to kind of reinstantiate it as a fine art language, for example, and those kind of things. When I was in grad school I wrote an essay on Giotto, and I did a lot of research on this 13th-century painter and this particular fresco cycle at the Arena chapel. And it was amazing to find out how he was really interested in the vernacular of his day. Likewise, I’ve done research on Bosch. Same thing. It was about the common language of the day, and that’s what influenced their visual iconography.
And I have compared both of them to pop artists from the 60s, right. And that when you speak that kind of language— For example Giotto, he was this hybrid artist, so to speak, because he was still in the Medieval time but like a precursor to the Renaissance. So what he did that is so fascinating to me is he took this Byzantine iconography and took it away or off of the ceiling, right, where you’re looking up at God and Mary and all these people and you have to feel like a lowly human. He brought it down to human scale. So this chapel, this whole fresco cycle, it’s right eye level with you, right.
So he could speak to the common man, the common woman, the person who didn’t speak Latin. But he was also smart enough to encode that work with a kind of intelligence that the people who spoke Latin, the intelligentsia, could also take something from it. And so it was and has been an impactful painting, or fresco cycle, like the Bosch has been impactful for 500 years because it can emanate multiple messages and it can speak to people of many different demographics.
And that’s something that I don’t think is a problem. I think, because I think of my own identity—I’ve done a selfie project which is all about hybrid identity, too, and elasticity, you know. And so I don’t think that’s a problem. Now, for art critics? sometimes that’s a problem, right? Because they’re like, “Oh, that’s too popular.”
But I’m okay with that. I’m okay with my work actually resonating with a 20 year-old and resonating with a 65 year-old art critic. Because if you actually spend time with the work, or you spend time with the animation, there are all these clues, there’s all these things encoded that are like…Walter Benjamin’s text is encoded in this piece if you look in the Hell panel. So there’s all this kind of philosophical stuff in there if you actually spend time. But you know, if you just have one interpretation and you get that and you’re 18 years old, that’s fine with me too. It doesn’t have to be binary. It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Mason: Thank you to Carla Gannis for sharing her unique insight into the emojification of everyday life.
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