We’re pleased to present a spotlight of new works by Paul Kneale. Read our interview with the artist below.
Could you explain the process of the making of your scanner paintings?
These works are made with consumer grade printer/scanners; cheap machines that can be bought almost anywhere, like the 24 Hour Tesco Superstore near my studio. I use quite a few different models, and at the moment I’ve probably got 5 or 6 in the studio. They each have their own visual personality, and I also break them pretty regularly in the process of making the work, doing things with them they’re not designed to do. The images are made by using the scan function with the lid open and nothing on the bed, making an image of the surface of the glass, the space above, and the light conditions in the studio at the time: daylight, darkness, neon lights.
The image is also affected by the resolution of the scan. A 72dpi scan looks different than a 1200dpi scan, and continues to change in combination with other factors (such as light). The different resolutions, the exposures times necessary for them, also take different amounts of time, from a few seconds to maybe half an hour or more. I sometimes use basic substrates, low grade office supply materials like printable transparencies, to run through the print function simultaneously while the scan is being made, which makes a transparent print from the commercial RGB inks. These transparency prints can be fed back through with another scan on top, or themselves can be scanned. With this layering, and the different exposures used, you get a kind of time sandwich. A fast, low resolution scan over a slow high resolution. So the image of time that is represented becomes complicated and multiplied. Also, the cheap scanners can’t really handle this stuff, so they will wrongly interpret the colours they have just printed, producing wild acid tones and neons in the scan of it. Or the machine will jam when passing the plastic sheet back through again, ripping or even melting it. So some marks of the physical body of the machine can become visible, in addition to its image-making disposition. In the final works the files are used to embed the image into the surface of an archival canvas at a large scale. This material, aside from its historical use in painting, allows an amazing depth of colour and detail from the inks used.
Does your use of the scanner aim at questioning the sacredness of the artist’s gesture, the importance of the artist’s hand? What do you find most fascinating about the machines?
With these scanners I like that on the one hand, they’re incredible, technological, image-creating devices. They can transfer an image by scan from a physical object with an incredible amount of detail, far beyond what our eyes can see, and they can also reproduce images by print in seconds onto anything that you can manage to feed through the print tray. On the other hand, they’re designed to be trash — the really cheap ones, that I buy for around £40, have these brittle plastic cases, parts that don’t quite fit properly together, missing screws, that kind of thing. But they’re somehow still really beautiful objects in their complex fragility. They’re not designed to last, so you have to keep buying a new one. It is essentially high-tech garbage. Already corrupted in its brand new state. In relation to the artists hand, I don’t think there’s ever been a moment when the process of representation wasn’t aided by some device. Even if it was just a hollow stick to blow berry juice around the outline of your hand onto a cave wall, or a camera obscura to transfer a figure onto a gridded block of marble for carving. The technological object is always a prothesis of the will of the person who wields it. The thing might have characteristics that are inherent to its structure, what we might call a disposition. This would be like the particular kind of image that you get out of the different scanners, or how oil paint looks different from spray paint. What is interesting is the play between this disposition in the technology, however advanced or not, and the artists will to use it for an unanticipated or unintended end. Productive misuse is a way to understand things.
In a way, one may say you use the scanner as a sort of camera; you capture a fleeting moment in its light and passing visual qualities. The result is a visual recording of the space surrounding you. In this regard, how does your practice relate to photography?
Well I think everyone’s practice relates to photography because everyone is a photographer now. There are billions of camera phones on the planet today. Facebook alone can upload six billion photos a month. So on the one hand, photos today are a kind of trash. A digital excess. And a lot of this excess is very aesthetically considered! The idea of editing the colour cast or sharpness of an image is something that everyone is familiar with on Instagram etc. and performs intuitively now, shaping their images to correspond to aesthetics of advertising, fine art and countless other identifiable styles. In relation to this scenario of aestheticised excess, I also think that a digital photo is always already a painting. What I mean by that is kind of technical. The way light is recorded by an RGB sensor in a digital camera has a fundamental ontological difference from film. With film you could say there’s a causal trace. A transfer from the light reflecting off an object(s) which imprints onto the negative. Barthes wrote a whole book about that. But with a digital camera sensor, the light is immediately interpreted into a binary code that’s then used to recreate the image on a screen, or multiple, maybe unlimited screens. There’s no trace at all, but rather a system of points of colour and pixels. This system is an approximation of what we think the old-type image created by the light should look like, it is how we generalise about photographic perspective and light recording. This is programmed into the digital cameras software, and it approximates both how our vision works, and how we’re used to seeing photographic images. Its already a radical form of interpretation that relies on complex frameworks and aesthetic choices to arrive at a ‘naturalistic’ construction. To me this is definitely all in the realm of painting. Its 100% interpretive on the side of the technology. So the scanner is to the digital photo what a photogram is to film. Its a more direct way of producing the image, according to the technology’s inherent dispositions. It doesn’t use a lens to collect the light onto the sensor, but instead has a flat glass plate, and produces its own light via an LED strip that passes below the plate, bouncing the light from whatever is there or above it down onto the sensor, which moves with the light as a unit. So there is a spatial element to the capture system. A distance travelled by the device back and forth. So the image making element has to traverse across the surface to make the image — not that unlike a brush in the former painting!
Is it right to say that your “scanner paintings” in some sense translate a physical environment into the abstract language of the digital?
As they are a record of the conditions in the environment, I would say yes. But the digital is also a material realm, and I think we are just getting comfortable with this idea now. It is the intersection of these two material environments which is particularly interesting; translations of matter and form are both happening here. And we have a new hybridity which we are also developing a language for. But I also don’t necessarily think of them as ‘abstract’ in the ‘art history’ frame. To me abstraction is about starting at something thats definable, an image or narrative, and moving away from it into gesture and symbol. I think the Post-post-post production works are about an attempt to more directly represent something which is at the boundaries or limits of what we can label as a thing: time, and also light and space in a given place and moment. The images produced do represent those things, but these things are in themselves abstractions! The physical thing is preserved, but it shows it to you in a way that you probably didn’t notice it in your environment. Like for example on the very long scans you can see the flicker of the neon lights, which happens at a wavelength we don’t perceive. So there are some parts of the visual universe that can be revealed in their strangeness by this crappy, wonderful Chinese plastic scanner.
Your practice is concerned with the transformation language has gone through since the advent of the Internet. Can you tell us how your SEO & Co. project at Tank.tv last year addressed this issue?
SEO & Co. began with a talk I participated in at the ICA in London, organised by Lunch Bytes, that involved me, Boris Groys, Wendy Chun, and Ben Vickers. As you would expect, the ICA made a video of the talk and uploaded it to their YouTube channel. YouTube is of course owned by Google, and Google makes all its money from online advertising.They obviously want to know exactly what’s contained in the things you’re uploading so they can display relevant ads alongside. With a text heavy content this is easy, but with something like a 2 hour video of a lecture, they need to transform that. So they use a speech to text translation on the uploaded videos to turn all of whats said into #’s and adwords. You can see this text they create simply by clicking a box below the video. Because the purpose of the translation is a kind of content skimming for ads, they’re not concerned with it being 100% accurate, which would be wasted energy. It’s more like 60%. So the transcript of the talk produced is pretty abstract and distorted, and omits any names of the various speakers, running the whole thing together in one flow. I wanted to reappropriate this content back from Google, to make some part of it mine again, but also to return it to a real place, after the opaque and diffuse place of it existing on servers. So I used the text to create a screenplay, and had friends of mine who are also artists, poets, musicians, read the scripts in various locations around the abandoned library in South London that I use as a studio. The recordings became the basis for a 5-channel video installation, which was presented on screens I made from materials that were extracted from the studio building. In some scenes the script becomes like a group recital of poetry, going back and forth between the characters, while in others its a single reader. There’s also a little non-sequitur extracted from the YouTube version and incorporated into the work as a performative element: when I finished watching the original ICA upload of the talk, YouTube gave me a ‘watch next suggestion’ of a clip of a CD being zapped in a microwave (I had been watching similar stuff). So in one channel of the work the characters are destroying CDs in a microwave while delivering their lines. There’s another channel of the video that just focuses on this. The little lighting storms and fires it produces!
What do you think is the effect of new technologies upon creativity and imagination? Do the ways in which they make our life simpler have a negative impact on the human ability to create something new? Or, on the contrary, do technological innovations spur creativity?
Well I think first of all they reframe the question of ‘creativity’ in general. What does it mean to be able to so powerfully yet so easily produce images, forms and sounds from a set of prefabricated aesthetic templates? Who’s responsible for these output forms? And when is the thing fixed and final? We’ve become incredible replicators. So it makes us more in tune with flows and instability, loops and variations, which have always been closer to the spirit of human culture than closed eternal forms. I think it also shifts the idea of ‘new’ from the thing never done before, to the simply new in time. New shoes rather than New Age. This has a flattening effect on our perception of ourselves in history, but maybe this is the really final stage of our deconstructed understandings of the myths and narratives of human progress and a post-capitalist sensibility toward materials. Flat Cola set to boil. We’re really having to grapple with these types of objects now. I think of this as like a-historical materialism. A deep affinity to understand a substance outside of a narrative that gives it a social reason, or the social reason being quite sociopathic. Like Pirandello’s characters searching for an author. The relationship with imagination is harder to parse. Consciousness is a toss up. Mis- and dis-information at the same time. Creativity is ultimately just a label for things we don’t understand the process of that manifest some spontaneous seeming meaning or structure. So its a retrospective label for idiosyncratic processes.
You often talk about the “new abject”: can you explain this concept and how it relates to your work?
The New Abject is a way of thinking about the psychological relationship one has to certain material experiences in contemporary globalised and network culture. I’ve written an essay about it recently which was published by dreamingofstreaming.com. It was parasitically hosted on craigslist.com — I broke the essay into chunks and posted it in the London Arts section — which is otherwise some kind of shady nude modelling and hookup forum. So the posts expired after the standard 45 days, and now its being made into an ebook by Dan Solbach, which I’m really excited about and should be launched very soon. To really try and turn the concept into a soundbite, I would say that the more well known paradigm of ‘abjection’ involves bodily excrement and decay. Blood, shit, corpses. There’s a biological and psychological revulsion, a flight response towards these substances. This is because we have evolved to recognise potential sources of disease and contamination, as well as the mental need to consider ones body and consciousness as distinct from nothingness, which is confronted of course by a dead body. So the new abject is a scenario I’ve been coming to understand for a few years, where one experiences this involuntary compulsion to flee, or finds revulsion in materials, objects and experiences which are not bodily or dirty, but completely new, clean and high-tech. This is because these scenarios replicate the ontological rupture that is the signal to trigger your abjection response. Many of the subjects and materials I work with can be discussed in this realm. The cheap but high-tech scanners, the digital distortion of an intellectual discussion to create advertising copy, the trace of the hand morphed into a vector file.
How would you describe the South London art scene? Has this environment influenced your practice in any way?
The South London scene for me has been a really active and important background for my work. I’ve lived here now for longer than anywhere else since I left home at 18! The abandoned public Library, where I have my studio together with Megan Rooney, Raphael Hefti, Harry Burke and Gabriele Beveridge has been an important centre of my South London. We found it just as I was finishing school and it made such a difference to have a huge space to work. We’re also always hosting people that are passing through London to do shows at various places, which I really like, kind of a no-charge Airbnb. It keeps the energy high. We’ve also been able to do some artist-run projects through our space that started here called Library+, which become itinerate when it was discovered we were illegally doing it. Though we’ve also used the model and crew for an off-site project in Paris last year. Having that kind of free space in central London is a real luxury, and I think we’ve made good use and abuse of it, from very identifiable art type stuff to music performances and serving fruit punch spiked with LSD. I’ve also made a series of works from the exterior sign of the building I managed to have illicitly removed by some local builders. There’s a bunch of other really great galleries and project spaces in the area, like Arcadia Missa in Peckham, Plaza Plaza in Elephant and Castle, and more recently Jupiter Woods in South Bermondsey that have been art outposts that I always love to go to and catch up with friends at, and often see great new work. Its hard to generalise about a scene, but its definitely the place I feel best in London. It’s not too uptight and there’s some great things like the giant Surrey Quays mall that remind me a little bit of home in North America. There’s a 24 hour supermarket and a cinema and a casino. Sometimes we go at night and raid the dumpsters of the sporting good superstore for discarded display stands and corrugated plastic posters. One of those that was an advert for £10 trainers ended up as a screen surface in my SEO and Co. show. That great contemporary capitalist no-place is a constant subject of inspiration for me.
Studioscape: Intentions, themes, techniques, new pieces?
Everyday I’m still exploring the Post-post-post production series. There’s so many variables in the materials, leading to new results that I’m pushing to achieve and discover. I’m also currently working on a new series of sculptures that involves compression artefacts, a 3D router and extruded plastic, which will be for two shows in the fall. I’m doing early stage work on a major outdoor/public work which will be presented in January as part of larger event. A free, downloadable library of my text works, originally posted on Twitter, is now available as vector files in my handwriting, ready to be laser cut in vinyl or other materials. A collaborative performance that will take place during Art Basel. And the New Abject eBook…