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  • Writer's pictureJohn Favaro

What Invisibility Looks Like

Updated: Dec 9, 2018

Terry Winters, Dumb Compass. Fair use,

“People like to say that my work is about making the invisible visible, but that’s a misunderstanding – it’s about showing what invisibility looks like.”

That sentence stopped me in my tracks. Making the invisible visible – the catchphrase we have adopted in GRASP to help us to define our mission of dealing with the increasingly immaterial aspects of life around us through artful thinking, ideally creating new knowledge. We had a good example of that approach recently with our first Knowledge Huddle in Milan, where a group of people from diverse backgrounds used the surroundings of an art gallery and its works to stimulate a shared contemplation of the way in which things appear and disappear over time in contemporary society.

So it was natural to be curious about what the artist quoted at the beginning of this blog post meant with his words, and to discover whether it was relevant to what we are trying to do in the GRASPnetwork. I discovered that it represented a perspective that we hadn’t really explored very deeply yet: the use of art not just as a kind of “muse”, to stimulate thinking about immaterial aspects of our society – but rather as a vehicle for directly studying these immaterial aspects.

The artist quoted at the beginning is Trevor Paglen, who says, “I’ve always been very interested in what the limits of perception are. How do we make sense of things that there are no easy images for? In a broader sense, I’m interested in making work that helps us see who we are now. There’s often a political component to that, of course.”

On the surface, this seems very much in the spirit of GRASP, but that last sentence reveals that something else is also afoot in Paglen’s work – a political element. And that provides a key to what he was talking about in the first sentence of this blog post. He has written, “ … over the last decade or so, something dramatic has happened. Visual culture has changed form. It has become detached from human eyes and has largely become invisible. Human visual culture has become a special case of vision, an exception to the rule. The overwhelming majority of images are now made by machines for other machines, with humans rarely in the loop.” And many of these images are made for purposes of surveillance, for tracking us. Paglen wants to show us what this invisible menace looks like by giving us visible images that help to demystify what’s happening. Rather than art as an external stimulus to knowledge creation as we have considered it (so far) in GRASP, this is art as a weapon to help us to understand and sometimes to combat phenomena that are occurring “right under our eyes,” so to speak – whether that is ever-more surveillance, or our own willful destruction of our planet.

Another artist who works in a way that we haven’t really explored (yet) in GRASP is Terry Winters. Much of his art is about studying information directly, or as Jackson Arn writes in a comparative article on the two artists, “ … by incorporating the excited complexities of data into his paintings … bits of coded information seem to writhe and mutate until they stop symbolizing things and become things in their own right.”

Certainly, this is a form of “making the invisible visible” – of reifying information into objects we can observe. But in GRASP (so far), the “invisible” that we wanted to make visible wasn’t necessarily the information itself, but rather its effect on us and the new forms of social interaction it is producing (think “the future of work”, for example). Nonetheless, as Arn notes, it does bring out some issues that we in the GRASPnetwork have also begun to think about – for example, about how Big Data and machine learning have begun to blur the very definition of an artist. In the recent GRASP Milan Knowledge Huddle, the participants discussed the recent auction at Christie’s (for a lot of money) of a painting made by a machine, and its implications for the authorship of artworks.

Winters actually has a more optimistic view of the role of painting in the information age. “As more and more media develop, painting becomes more like writing, and more connected to literature, because of its capacity to reflect an individual’s vision. As so much art and culture become more multi-variant in terms of the way that the works are generated, it becomes more unique to have that kind of singular lens, as being the aperture through which we see this fictive world.” In other words, from his perspective, painting not only retains its value but even has its value enhanced as an instrument for expressing individual ideas in a world where technology seems to be encroaching on the artistic landscape.

Neither Paglen nor Winters has been employing art in exactly the same way that we have been using it in GRASP. But their work provides an indication that artful thinking may well be useful to us in GRASP in ways we haven’t yet even begun to explore.

Headquarters of the National Security Agency on Fort Meade, Maryland. Photo Trevor Paglen. Creative Commons.


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