BY Ed Atkins in Features | 18 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 23

Data Rot

Abjection has gained renewed currency as art looks to the body and states of digital and physical decay

BY Ed Atkins in Features | 18 MAR 16

Olga Balema, Cannibals, 2015, Installation view, Croy Nielsen, Berlin, courtesy: the artist & Croy Nielsen, Berlin

Any resurgent interest in abjection in contemporary art might correspond with the ubiquity of an experience mediated by technology – an experience wherein vast swathes of the world are calmly abjected with a swipe of the finger, made to disappear over material distances that are collapsible solely by those technologies that rendered them there. This trajectory extends similarly to incorporate (disincorporate) the body, most explicitly apprehensible in the infinite reams of images of bodies that abound online – always seemingly in lieu, eternally deferred. Here, abjection as the sloughing off of the intolerable in oneself – and the concomitant and essential experience of that (self-)rejection – is counter-intuitively dematerialized, expedited by that intercessional technology and its bewildering of reality.

By eliminating the proximity of abjection, its horror is also eliminated, along with the possible potent conjuring of empathy, humility, even a sense of mortality. Abjection, it seems, is the sole prevail of its victims, the forcibly abjected. It is the privilege of a contemporary, wealthy, western subject to be able to avoid abjection as an experience of self to self-not-self and, instead, to abject an other. Social media seems to excessively allow us to abject others, while its anonymity seems to pretty obviously spoil abjection as an essential process of identity construction. Despite the monstrous image of trolling, it depends on distance from the abjected – so abjection’s confounding of difference between self and the self-as-other seldom occurs. My recent writing and videos are expressly concerned with confronting – outstripping, perhaps – the experience of the me-that-is-not-me: my own personal, publicly sought, confessional abjection. This began by looking at the ways in which the very matter of the moving image has changed in recent years with the advent of digital technologies; how material has shifted into image – images that conspicuously attempt to hold material, to perform as material, even as they turn to code and are spirited elsewhere. High Definition digital video, with its exorbitant and grotesque depictions of surface, feels in a particular, peculiar way – feels, that is, repulsive and excessive. Something about the paradoxical relation of a dematerialized media that privileges corporeal imagery and its fidelity makes for a sensation that might in turn conjure ‘abjection’. But the problem of mistaking a sensation for an experience is a central tenet of the critique I hope to lodge. The figure of the cadaver became the key to understanding this paradox for me – oscillating, as it does, between a terrible heft and a soulless, spiritualized absence, between the revolting spurned and its tender recognition.

Mathis Altmann
Mixed Media
18 x 15 x 15 cm
courtesy: the artist,
Freedman Fitzpatrick,
Los Angeles

The fascination for me was that digital technologies, at whatever millennial juncture, were working incredibly hard to rematerialize their substance while maintaining the economy of their fundamental digitality – albeit in the forensically shot skin of a movie star in 3D, or the sub-bass rumblings of a 7.1 surround sound system, and not by methods more familiar from analogue technologies or, say, the critical imperatives of structural or materialist film. This rematerialization, especially in the case of cinema, has been, clearly, in response to dwindling revenue. How to repeal this, to revivify the experiential in cinema – to shift emphasis back towards something wholly incorporated? The appeal and bank­ability of cinema was to be restored by monetizing the experience of uniqueness – a reason to lug your body away from the couch. This now-booming experience economy, which might include the flush of performance in contemporary art, is a direct response, albeit one at least partially begun for financial reasons, to the de-centering and dematerialization of media. These experience-oriented markets are models that disappear the discrete commodity, only to make it reappear in the form of the audience – in their bodies, in their lives. It strikes me that although these processes appear to approach the conditions of abjection, crucially there is no horror, no breakdown of consistency, no opposition. The sight of a 4K wound at IMAX scale remains an unreflexive representation, despite its gratuity. Abjection requires a holistic sense of reality in order to be broken, to be queasy-experienced. This break, which might best be understood as a kind of anti-edit, a caesura, an arrhythmic gesture – like a riotous belch midway thru an acceptance speech – is what I’ve been pursuing recently as a means of elucidating and simulating abjection. This mode itself differentiates itself from something like a ‘glitch’ by maintaining its intentional status. A deliberate decision rather than a permitted accident, it sustains the difference between the technology and its analogue forbear, the body. The model begins with the recognizable, with the firm distinction between oneself and whatever other – the imagery tangibly distant. Using computer-generated imagery means that structural apprehension is never far away, along with a symptomatic distance, even if the realism of such imagery creates the slight suck of the uncanny.

A digital rendering of human skin used in Ed Atkins's videos, courtesy: Ed Adkins 

It’s been important since the beginning that the goal of my videos was not immersion, but rather a kind of perspective on immersion. The techniques of verisimilitude, of fluency, of representational virtuosity are all there, but held inelegantly – in a way that makes suspending disbelief both implicit and immediately annulled, rather than the performance of magic for ignorance. It remains important that a body before the work is incapable of resigning itself to the work. I want to determine the media’s rematerialization according to the audience’s agency, rather than the audience as recuperable commodity. This distinction is key, I think, to why abjection as a figuration of a process encountered within oneself is something that might be worth rehearsing, or replaying: it is a way to resist the commodification of our bodies, ourselves – a way of encountering ourselves in opposition – a way of re-incorporating ourselves as mortal, corporeal and abject.

If part of the condition of abjection is the irruption of corporeal reality, then by comparison the incorporeal aspect of the CGI in the videos is part of that return. It also posits a place from where corporeal reality might return. Verisimilitude, the crisp cusp of the realistic, underscores the separation between real body and representation – a separation that becomes more acute the more excessive the attempt at realism. The CGI characters that lonesome populate the videos are surrogates – recognizable in their homogeneity as such, these figures stand in for bodies in the diegesis of the CGI world. They, like the media itself, are incorporeal – more so for their explicit corporeal attempt and failure. That they look realistic, that they even engage with the idea of being like bodies, makes them less than incorporeal. There is a pathos in this that contributes to a ground primed for the emergence of abjection. If abjection is a break, then the establishment of a consistency to break is essential – all the more so if that consistency burlesques the need for the irruption of a corporeal reality in the first place: a world reduced to representation, imagery and distance. From this foundation, the videos quickly lurch into heady proximity, coming too close, breathing heavily, demanding too much. They uglify their worlds bathetically, teasing a sublime hem that glints with the kind of ‘poetic catharsis’ Julia Kristeva adjured in so much art, before it crashes into the toilet or the earth or simply thuds bluntly into unmoved body. Sentences peter out; grandiose advertising slogans read as banal nothings; demands are made for empathy, sympathy or emotional fidelity – which are repulsive and more or less intolerable; organs refuse to rise, or more likely, deflate; dysmorphia is cartoonified, body parts perform their deviance, their abjection, through impossible plastic caricature. These are the parts of life promised to be expunged by the medium itself and its very formal meaning as embedded in the paradoxical formlessness of the form – yet here they are, irrupting forth, blooming in the no-ground of CGI. The excesses, errors and annoyances are so at odds with the immortal, skinned nothing of CGI that, to me, they create a rupture that might afford the rehearsal of abjection proper – not in spite of their peaking unreality, but because of it. Given a context of ever-increasing digital mediation, it seems like the space for abjection sought as a means of re-engaging with a corporeal reality might be a means of extending oneself, empathetically and vulnerably, outward, to make contact with an abjected world of similarly corporeal, mortal people; technology’s remit as an extension of self better understood and applied as a means of empathizing.

Wilful sabotage within an artwork is a gesture, I think, to model and essentially encourage similar elsewhere: a reflexive kind of sabotage as demonstration. Or rather, the work might ultimately be to elucidate a morphology of irruptive masochisms that are possible to undertake – deeply unattractive, pathetic punctures, akin to that wretched fart, to ruin whatever determined consensuses are formally contained and materialized in our disappeared bodies. And what bodies!

Ed Atkins is an artist based in London, UK.