Is our technology-saturated culture a bit too obsessed with the divide between analog and digital, old and new, virtual and physical? It’s certainly a major theme in the marketing of new technology. And many new media artists often navigate the analog-digital and real-virtual divides in their work, or prioritize one over the other. But artist Phillip Stearns believes this is not only a technological error, but a conceptual one. In his latest solo exhibition, ADC/DAC, presented in partnership with Diagonale as part of Montréal's BIAN (International Biennial of Digital Art), he explores these divides as being far more interconnected than we imagine.
Stearns’ exhibition has three aspects. In the luminous video installation A Consequence of Infinitely Recursive Vision Technologies, Stearns pairs neon light and scanned images of glaciers. For Vestigial Data, he presents three tapestries woven on a Jacquard loom using algorithmic processes, with each acting as both storage units and transmitters of data lost in a computer crash. And in Smooth and/or Striated, Stearns created two panels of computationally designed, woven fabric on wood stretchers, presented with neon.
“The show is a collection of works completed between summer 2014 and spring 2016,” Stearns tells The Creators Project. “The broad theme of this exhibition is the interplay between the virtual and physical. ADC/DAC refers to the processes Analog to Digital Conversion and Digital to Analog Conversion. It's more of a tongue in cheek reference to a lingering cultural obsession with the differences (and artificially instituted divide), rather than their mutual dependencies.”
Stearns says there is a dynamic interplay between the tools we create and what we create with them. He also thinks that these processes result in the recreation of ourselves. To create the installation, Stearns has been using Blender to mock up and visualize the space, including its lighting. He believes this process is more 'the work' than the resulting works assembled and arranged for the installation.
A Consequence of Infinitely Recursive Vision Technologies first came together as Stearns' response to the theme of a group exhibition he took part in at Fridman Gallery called Landscape with Devices, curated by Naroa Lizar and Cia Pedi.
“I created created video material from found images of sunsets and glaciers from locations north of the arctic circle and south of the Antarctic circle using software I wrote in Processing,” Stearns says. “Frames of the video are created by scanning the image row by row or column by column and stretching each line to fill the whole frame. It's a very simple technique with a very recognizable effect, but one that is able to present how a computer takes in the world.”
For ADC/DAC, Stearns arranged the piece’s projectors, images, amplifiers, speakers, and neons to create a landscape of devices, while the projections formed a flat background. The piece is about landscapes—how people now see them through heavily mediated situations, and how this influences how we look at things in actual physical reality.
To create the Vestigial Data tapestries, Stearns used computerized Jacquard looms. (Jaquard looms, which traditionally use binary punch cards to automate complex textile designs, are considered a prime influence on computing.) Stearns designed the tapestries by rendering binary data as a 64-color bitmap using custom software Processing. (An earlier version of this software was written in C++ by Paul Kerchen, and co-written with Jeroen Holthuis in Processing.) The data set came from hidden crash recovery files which mysteriously appeared on Stearns’ drive following a “lost struggle” moving files between Mac and Windows.
With Smooth and/or Striated’s two panels of computationally-designed, woven fabric on wood stretchers with neon, Stearns explores the digital age’s foundation in binary states: off (0) and on (1). The panels’ gradients are designed to highlight the spaces between binary extremes. These gradients, and the neon gradients, act as quantum components that cannot be bound by binary.
“From previous projects, I've become invested in this idea that technology is simply people—it's external and alien to what we conventionally view as human, but it is a distinctly human product and we invest so much of ourselves into its production and use,” Stearns explains. “We literally pour ourselves into these devices. Our traces are left behind in the patterns of data littering everything from flash cards, thumb drives, RAM, and hard drives.”