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em—bracing

It’s Spring 2022 and I’m in my parents’ house surrounded by the detritus of a pre-teen self. There is talk of a roadmap out of this pandemic. In Ireland the route is cautious, seatbelts firmly in place, yet proclamations of “Freedom day is here!” ring around the UK. Numbers continue to be tracked and traced – it’s testing for all of us. I connect back to the grid, once, twice, more times an hour. I can’t say it’s quieter (t)here, with impending threats of political unrest globally, environmental crises and the hum of 5G towers masquerading as Trojan horses. However, the glow of the screen beckons me, like it always has. I can only just recall a time before its lure and gaining entry to my quotidian online fix, through which new possibilities and pluralities for my identity became available. The exciting prospect of what beyond Y2K would bring for me, slowly downloaded as pixelated phantasmagorias onto my device and retina. Then we were warned of the impact of the millennium bug, two decades on another virus has created an even more perplexing and sinister angst.

Entwined with both hardware and software, warm bodies are often contrasted with the coldness and detachment of technology, but are they really in opposition? Now more than ever, digital technologies have their own agency, impacting on our behaviours and interactions with others in temporalities or modulated spaces. However, the use of ‘space’ within the digital realm is contested, making us consider where spatiality may be situated, how we exit and orientate inside or outside. Adding to the complexities in expressing the polarities of IRL/URL, the inherent performativity of online engagement – such as the scroll, the pinch of the screen, the hand of the cursor, and terms such as ‘follow’, ‘user’, ‘disconnect’ – all intersect with our physical ‘real’ bodies and mentalities, our online personas, communications and experiences. Online platforms and digital infrastructures have become instrumental in how we approach education, debate, critique and interaction across physical, temporal and cultural distances. However, the ways in which we are brought together through interconnectivity can also have a profound effect on how we understand both others and indeed ourselves. Difference can amplify diverging characteristics and positions, roused by the sound of a click or a swipe.

Screenshot from a Twitter Feed, April 2022

The once utopian notion that through digital means we are offered neutral access to a networked and interconnected society is increasingly complex. We don’t have to be reminded of the hyperbolical belief that online-ness creates a sense of discordance – voyeurism, exploitation, mining, misinformation and proliferation of conflicting stances are all entrenched in our daily doom scroll. Both neural and digital networks are required for the transmission of data and the establishment of social relations. What happens when these networks are undermined by anomalies that interrupt, corrupt, degrade or become obsolete? Are these emulated in the individual?

Three years ago, I curated the exhibition ‘Scaffold’ which explored how digital technologies can lead to a sense of detachment and manipulate our sense of self, with my generational peers Kate Fahey, Adam Gibney and Jonathan Mayhew. Continuing our dialogue through email, Zoom, WhatsApp and memes, we aimed to present another, newly imagined iteration of ‘Scaffold’. However, like everything our plans were delayed and when finally realised warranted a reconfiguration. Our new exhibition, titled ‘em-bracing’, was to be an erratum of sorts; as during its development an ever-mutating and meshing of in-person and on-line ‘realities’, remotely controlled experiences and psychological distance, we were all forced to get on with ‘a new normal’ and our relationship to digital technologies became more palpable.

‘Scaffold’, installation view, The Bomb Factory Art Foundation, London 2019; photo: Tom Carter

Increases in online (inter)activity during the pandemic have revealed the potential for (mis)connection that video conferencing, social media and streaming platforms may bring. We have become more acutely aware of how technology permeates our bodies and has become part of our social, cultural, physical and perceptual entities – or what Don Idhe describes as a symbiosis of the experience of being a body and a virtual body: ‘I use or employ a technology, therefore I am used and employed by that technology as well.’i Framed and mediated by non-human and non-haptic forms of communication, the complexity of our corporeality is confounded by the caution associated with physical contact and proximity to others since the outbreak of the C-19 pandemic. Social distancing, isolation and quarantine all became prescient in our lexicon as we increasingly understand ourselves as porous and malleable frames. In her text Glitch Feminism, written pre-Covid, writer and curator Legacy Russell compares computer viruses and describes them as similar to other viral contagions, where ‘once we have been infected… we want to touch everything, caress every-fucking-body, twist the machine.ii Our recent times have made us more aware of the interrelated parallels between mutating variants of viruses that can contaminate machines, systems, societies and even selves.

I see each of the artists presented in ‘em-bracing’ as having exploratory rather than prosaic responses to how we create and recognise identities and temporalities in what we may have referred to as the hermetically sealed ‘post-digital age’, wanting to offer propositions rather than illuminations. Playing with structural and amorphous forms, Kate Fahey links bodily viscosity with geological or technological phenomena, and specifically looks at processes that make us aware of how time is mediated materially and digitally. Fahey is interested in the slipperiness of self-recognition and the contradiction in striving for permanence. In ‘em-bracing’ she presents a dome structure, that encases two screens of geographical and biological vortexes, reminding us of protracted or cyclical online time. Also included are sculptural forms, including an archipelago of reliquaries, that offer timeless totems of substance to their hosts. Through technological, ocular and thermal machines, Adam Gibney refers to surveillance capitalism and forms of self-identification and self-enlightenment. The research for the works included in ‘em-bracing’ makes specific reference to spiritual gurus and philosophical mantras found online. Gibney’s experiments are enquiries into knowledge-building through machine and/or scientific learning and metaphysical questions of being. Jonathan Mayhew in turn grapples with elusive concepts of digital materiality and the effects technology has on us and wider society. He uses an ouroboros of rhizomatic metaphors that challenge boundaries between autonomous selfhood, actuality and fiction. Mayhew presents photographic abstractions in the form of lenticular prints that allude to our field of vision. In addition, there is a lingering invisible scent with ‘Where are you now?’ etched into stone and a moving image work that considers the correlation between being and the internet and its ecological, systemic and individual effects. As footnotes to the exhibited works in ‘em-bracing’, Fahey, Gibney and Mayhew have also each created an online work (available to view here), inviting us to consider both modes of viewing. These works, and indeed this guide as a whole, assimilate the ‘real-life’ experience of the gallery with the experience through the lens of digital devices.

These artists all consider how we experience embodiment differently and how orientations and individual positions can affect relations between human and non-human thought. Each of them explore the (a)symmetry between the virtual and material by questioning how technologies can transform individual personhood and perception. ‘em-bracing’ highlights how our corporeal selves, voices and identities are perpetually in flux within the complexities of an accelerating and ever-evolving landscape of technological encounters.

Séamus McCormack

i Dohn Ihde, Bodies in Technology (Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 2002) p. 137.

ii Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism (London and New York: Verso, 2020) p.113.