The Digital Copy / The Immaculate Artefact

I think of my head and the choices I have made around it.


I upload a photograph of it to Instagram and Facebook acting as my profile

picture, like an alias identity for myself as well as being a representation of my

work. I’ve gotten into the habit of using artists, such as Gillian Wearing, whose

work comprises of masks or heads as my profile images. The outcome of my new

sculpture is possibly a result of making this decision. Referring to it as “my head”

rather than “the head” makes me wonder if I am intentionally trying to substitute

something for myself, or unhealthily treating it like a pet. The head itself is like so

many artefacts I came across on institutional online archives, dozens of open

source images on metmuseum.org, pinterest and google that you are welcome to

download, remix and re-post. It’s unnervingly easy to rewrite history when it’s

digitisation is so tangible on your desktop. The meaning of my head, after I began

to research these nationally prized possessions, started to transform and opened

into a multitude of possibilities. They all had history attached, cultures,

movements, necessity and nicety, all coming from an unknown place we coin as

“history”. My head no longer has an origin, the foam maquette was destroyed by

the mold making process and now I entirely depend on the silicon shell to retain

the form. The absence held within the cast shape is the only truthful monument

left for the time being, it is the elusive and invisible cavity my head comes from.


The writer Laurence Scott talks about our digital spaces in a similar way through

recalling a story; whilst on holiday he spent hours wondering what was behind

the only locked door in the Air BnB he was staying in, a gap in his knowledge of

the house he was temporarily inhabiting. It turned out that the room was

connected to the master bedroom via a small passage and therefore the owner

of the house stopped using the main door into the little room from the landing.

He had been using it as a small study and only realised his stupidity when sitting

in it and turning his chair around. “I had been simultaneously inside and outside

that room.” sums up our relationship with the invisible digital world; a fourth

dimension, an ether, an unconscious, a duration in time or as time itself.


Rachel O’ Dwyer has an essay on the website “Ontology of the Artefact” that

discusses the concept of digital space as an “ether” and the possibility of digital

artefacts appropriating a similar imagined medium. An artefact that is believed to

exist and operates thus whilst having no material “thing” associated with it. As if

it’s an ooze that gushes through the stream of fibre optic cables and sprays out in

radial patterns through our homes, from our pockets and portable computers.

There is no ether, but we continue to act and transact exactly as if

there is. We map it and sell it and even trespass in it.


In 2014 the V&A museum started an initiative called Rapid Response Collecting,

where they commission the retrieval of contemporary objects that represent

significant current affairs to become part of the museum’s wide variety of

historical artefacts. The current collection includes objects such as the Pussy

Power Hat which was worn by over 500,000 people in protest to President

Trump, an IKEA brand soft toy called Lufsig that became famous in China after

being thrown at a political official, Louboutin’s “Fifi” shoes that redefined the

colour “nude” in fashion to be more inclusive of race. Yet one particular object

caught my eye, not the android mobile phone that appears in the image online

but rather what’s on its screen; the downloadable mobile application “Flappy

Bird”. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s production is Vietnamese and still available

for free download online yet is retained by the Victoria and Albert Museum in

London, England.


The silicon womb I birth each of my heads from, represents an idea of

knowledge, perception, and technology I suppose. The silicon looks much like

nothing on the outside yet encapsulates a fully formed physiognomy that

remains permanently in the dark like a roll of undeveloped film or documents on

a hard drive. The human brain requires complete darkness in order to have

information uploaded, re-interpreted, reproduced and stored. I fill this space

with raw plaster material and it collects the prescribed data in the details to

result in an equational outcome, possibly more like a computer rather than a

human brain capable of spontaneity. The algorithm must operate successfully in

order for the process to complete successfully and for the results to be

successful.


I recently attended a performance by artists Alice Rekab and Jenna Collins, where

they animated two sculptures through the use of light and recorded voices, as if

the two objects were having a conversation with one another. They talked about

their origins, personal histories and projected meanings. The “Nomoli” which was

a hand carved copy of a treasured artefact from Sierra Leone, was talking about

being too afraid to be sent away to be carbon dated for fear of being replicated

and the fake being sent back, thus the historians can only rely on their theories

as to its purpose and timeline. The other sculpture was a hand carved rendition

of the bottom half of Ronald Reagan’s face as seen from a badly taken video of a

hologram by the artist. The top of the nose to the bottom of the jaw was visible

and set on to an upturned clay pot. It claimed to be as meaningless as the

“Nomoli” (despite its obvious connotations) it had no definitive purpose, it was

based on a vague memory, necessarily sexless and carried little or no historical

significance.


Artefacts have the potential to become digitized and thus another form of

artefact, which makes me think of the Nomoli’s fear of having its identity stolen

or how Reagan’s identity has been stolen, metamorphosed and almost

obliterated yet still carrying a relationship with the source.


I look at the plaster cast head in my hands and the empty silicon carcass I have

just plucked it from. It’s intentions and history only exist for myself and the

spaces I inhabit both physically and psychologically, even unconsciously. I reopen

my closed tabs, looking at my Facebook and Instagram profile pictures as

well as it being on my artist website. It has also become present in an

inaccessible space, a residual mark made on the collaborative digital landscape

that’s both in here and out there all at once.


I consider the effect of this, I consider how the image is another work, I consider

how it represents the work, I consider who can see it and what they might do

with it, I consider how easily it could be copied, I consider the millions of pieces

of code that supply it, I consider the two pints of plaster I make each time for it, I

consider the endless versions that could be made of it, I consider the

practicalities of making copies, I consider the materiality of copying, I consider

how a photocopier takes an image and produces a fresh new one every time that

appears the exact same, I consider the politics of this, I consider my head

travelling through the fibre optic cables, I consider it being trapped behind a

locked door, I consider it being institutionalised, I consider it being digital and

existing all at the same time.

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©2018 Tara McGinn