Art as a social and political dashboard

In an article published in Life Times some issues ago, your writer attempted to debunk the notion that art was a rarefied domain of production and appreciation, and ended by saying that “Art is… far more than a few make it out to be. To discover art is really, to discover oneself”. A few weeks after, Saskia Fernando Gallery and your writer brainstormed on how a curated exhibition could take the kind of social and political issues in post-war Sri Lanka we usually turn our gaze away from, and bring them, through art, into the gallery space. The idea was to unsettle those who frequented the gallery, but not to the extent patrons and visitors were repulsed. The aesthetic had to engage and pique interest, giving rise to what in Sinhala is called ‘kuthuhalayak’ – a gnawing curiosity to explore in greater detail what one would see framed or displayed in the gallery space.

There are, of course, precedents in creating art and an aesthetic based on and inspired by hard data, but not to our knowledge in Sri Lanka. For a number of years, complex mathematical algorithms ‘drawn’ on the web at The Gallery of Computation – complexification.net – have enthralled even casual visitors to the site. Jared Tarbell, the artist behind the mesmerizingly beautiful canvasses, is not really one. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from New Mexico State University, and the site is testimony to his ability to see formulae as art, and render them as such. Each visualisation is unique, and though the palette is limited, the patterns are rich, and mesmerising as they are rendered on screen, in one’s web browser.

A similar site can be found at rhizome.org/artbase/featured. There is again algorithmic art, and also a focus on art which the web itself has given rise to. The curated selection titled ‘Tactical Media’ is particularly pertinent. As noted on the site, “Many of these works explicitly turn technology back on itself with the aim (and sometimes with the result) of revealing hidden social and political systems programed to shape and influence human behaviour.” Here’s an aesthetic that deconstructs the very media through which they are often viewed and in part made out of or reflect.

But it’s not just the domain of pure art that is now using a more visual medium to communicate hard socio-political, religious and cultural issues. smallmeans.com/new-york-times-infographics is a collection of information visualisations by the New York Times. Called InfoViz in the industry, individuals who can create compelling visualisations from large, complex datasets and long-term processes are in high-demand by the mainstream media. The old cliché reinvented for a digital age – a data visualisation speaks a thousand words. The collection spans vital issues ranging from changing demographics to environmental pollution, natural disasters, voting trends and job security in a recession hit America.

And if these examples are largely contained, even confined to paper and the web browser, there are other examples of art that goes beyond, and is located cheek in jowl with complex issues they choose to engage with.  TED Prize winner JR’s street photography is a compelling example. As noted on the TED website,

“JR is creates (sic) what might be called “pervasive art.” Working with a team of volunteers in various urban environments, he mounts enormous black-and-white photo canvases that spread on the buildings of the slums around Paris, on the walls in the Middle East, on broken bridges in Africa, and across the favelas of Brazil. These images become part of the local landscape and capture people’s attention and imagination around the world.”

There’s also art that sits sort of halfway between the real and the virtual worlds. Not unlike the secret platform 9¾ in the Harry Potter series, which serves as a gateway to a different world, this is art with a pleasing aesthetic that serves to point to more information, but only if a discerning viewer chooses to engage more fully with it. In April this year, commuters in the White City Underground station in London was confronted with QR codes, normally used only in marketing and advertising. Much like a barcode, a QR code is made for mobile devices. After scanning it, instructions embedded in the code instruct the device to go to, for example, a websites or fire up a mobile app, which gives more information about a place, product or service. Artist Anna Barham took this form to create very large QR codes as installation in the White City Underground – qrcartist.com/2012/white-city-tube-station-art-uses-qr-codes. As noted online,

“[Barham’s] work is in two parts: a series of posters at the station and a series of directly related video works to be viewed online… Barham has exploited the functional aspect and the form of the QR code, but has inserted images in place of the solid colour of which the codes are usually made up. The effect has apparently been to ‘corrupt’ the images, though it is still possible to discern the range of scenes they depict.”

Taking this further, qrcartist.com/2012/mark-of-beauty-qr-code-art. Trevor Jones, artist and Director of the charity Art in Healthcare based in Scotland, was so inspired by QR codes, that he’s using them to “improve patients, staff and visitors experience and understanding of artwork in hospitals”. In places that the appreciation of aesthetics and art is possibly the farthest away from the mind, it’s interesting how new technologies are in turn creating new opportunities for engaging with art, no matter where one is.

Post-war Sri Lanka, sans war but with deep structural violence, is ripe for a new aesthetic that embraces aspects of all these examples. In an exploration of Sri Lankan memes earlier this year – self-replicating patterns of information, from James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood­ ­– your writer discovered a groundswell of creativity and art addressing some of the most pressing political and social issues of the day, including incisive criticism of the incumbent government and its policies. The previous issue of LT dealt with the art of Bansky and Fairey. We are seeing their digital equivalents emerge in Sri Lanka.

What is the potential of all this? This is where ‘Mediated’ comes in. In late August, the Saskia Fernando Gallery will be a dashboard of some of the most challenging issues of governance facing post-war Sri Lanka, but merely looking at the art on display, you’ll be hard pressed to know it. A website will complement what the artwork in the gallery will focus on, with creative ways for those who visit the gallery to access the online content through their smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices. For those already involved in it, the exhibition seems to be the beginning of a new, interesting conversation – a new template for art to engage with what ails us still, post-war.

Sri Lanka’s had, for example, in and coming out of the 90’s, an aesthetic and art that’s responded to bloody social violence and political upheaval. It has never had art which has responded directly to or been inspired by hard, complex data and the representation through art, the ideational space of, for example, constitutional power sharing. That will change this year, and one hopes will spawn many more compelling examples in the future.

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Written for and appearing in Life Times, August 2012 issue.

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