The philosopher Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, argued that ‘the medium is the message’ — in essence, that the mode through which content was communicated could be as important (or even more so) than the content itself.
This ‘medium-as-message’ principle can aptly be applied to the work of American digital artist Tabor Robak, whose use of computer-generated imagery displayed on digital screens conveys messages about the increasingly inextricable relationship between the digital and the physical. The artist’s work is propelled by commentary on the vast amount of time we spend staring at screens, wholly absorbed by glowing blue light — a commentary revealed to an audience staring at screens.
This relationship between people and technology is not merely surface-level, as Robak’s work hints at a video game aesthetic and the complications of engaging with the multidimensional worlds therein.
The visuals of some works (‘Dog Park’; ‘Blossom’) are akin to brightly-colored, pop-esque late-20th-century games; others (‘Colorwheel’; ‘Quantaspectra’) hearken to contemporary, intricate multi-world games. These visual similarities here are not purely coincidence. Tabor Robak himself plays a wide variety of video games that range from handheld Gameboy games to three-dimensional role-playing games for Xbox, as seen in a 2015 video featuring the artist for the Swiss Institute’s ‘SI: Visions’ series.
Video games are not the sole influence on Robak’s work, as he also cites consumerist culture and the subconscious among other inspirations. But these other concepts already have a storied history in the art world; by evoking the aesthetic qualities of video games — undoubtedly a prominent element of his practice — Robak’s video-works are made distinctly contemporary and pioneering; video games as a medium for both artistic and philosophical exploration have only recently entered into the zeitgeist.
In ‘Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association,’ a 2011 case in the Supreme Court of the United States, judges ruled that video games — like other works of artistic expression, including literature and film — were entitled to protection under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution permitting freedom of speech, thereby establishing legal precedent for video games as art. Yet despite recent games like the oft-cited ‘Braid’, which was praised for its artistic style as well as its allegorical messaging, some critics still reject the idea of the video game as its own art form.
Robak’s work, by incorporating the aesthetic of the video game into his own widely-praised contemporary digital art, offers a strong argument in favor of the artistic merits of the video game while also critiquing the relationship between technology and the body often fostered through the medium of the video game. As we become increasingly connected to technology with which we interact, so too does that technology become increasingly intertwined with artistic and communicative endeavors.
Tabor Robak likewise articulates the philosophy and complications of embedding oneself in video games — and digital technology at large — through his work. Metaphysical concerns take precedence particularly in Robak’s latest video-works, including a soon-to-debut series (‘Endo’, ‘Nervo’, ‘Skelo’, ‘Cardio’). The series makes explicit the artist’s commentary on the relationship between technology and the body, often mitigated by consumerist messages that promise technological advances will satisfy human needs.
An awareness of such relationships may come in part from the artist’s own experience playing games like ‘Myst’ and ‘Riven’, and from his hyper-awareness of how that experience fosters a connection between the artist and the digital world of the video game. By evoking a medium that prompts players to spend extensive time interacting with a digital, manufactured world, the artist realises the intertwined connection between mind, body, and technology.
But for Tabor Robak, the digital-physical relationship is further heightened by the fact that his medium for communicating this message is also digital; the artist spends countless hours in front of enormous glowing screens as he meticulously designs each pixel and shape of his work. Robak’s own relationship with technology is in part an influence on the messages about that dynamic he aims to convey.
Just as the artist embeds himself in his computer screens in order to create, the viewer must likewise envelop themselves in the blue light of Robak’s glowing panels in order to fully absorb his message.
Here, the audience’s engagement with the digital becomes as much a part of commentary as the technology itself; the medium, its aesthetics, and the viewer together become the artist’s message on the relationship between the three.
Several of the artist’s latest works will be on display at ARTUNER exhibition ‘Crossing the Borders of Photography’, part of Photo London 2019’s official public programme at Deadhouse, Somerset House. The exhibition — featuring Robak, Ana Elisa Egreja, Paul Kneale, and Des Lawrence — opens May 15 for VIP Preview Day and will remain open May 16-19 to all Photo London 2019 ticket holders.
Tabor Robak is currently featured in ‘New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century’, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City through June 15.