You are what you do. You are what you eat. Let’s face it, you probably are what you google. But for your sake and mine, I hope you don’t end up resembling Jason Salavon’s “Spigot (Babbling Self-portrait)” video and sound installation that, through software the artist devised, reduces a list of search terms into a flat, dizzying array of colored squares.
I face a digital projection of methodically pulsing blocks containing searched-for phrases (“best Smartphone,” “afterlife”) while an adjacent projection shows the terms encoded as nested concentric squares that grow outward in a nauseating, rainbow-hued rush. Meanwhile, from behind, overlapping computer voices recite the terms aloud in an indecipherable jumble.
This piece rather eloquently expresses the sense of garbled displacement we now contend with every day on this world-wide-web encased planet, but I’m pretty sure that, as a portrait, it doesn’t really resemble Salavon. It more accurately represents the internet itself: placeless, depthless, centerless and reaching beyond the edges of the computer screen. This is the work’s real strength, and it shines as such in nuanced variety throughout the show.
Salavon created the digital C-prints, light-box fixture and 374page book that contains nothing but colored rectangles from digitized processes that parse, encode and scatter information from sources such as a baroque painting and an IKEA catalogue. The images range from beguiling, nested squares that evoke color-field stars like Gene Davis to portrait-style human forms so pixelated they’re unrecognizable—not only as individual people, but as the work of well-known artists. It’s impossible to tell “Portrait (van Dyck)” from “Portrait (Velasquez).” The old masters have become little more than footnotes to an indistinct present.
As a whole, the show comes off as a sort of anti-portrait, which obscures rather than reveals the humanity of its subjects. It’s a look at the way reducing and propagating experience via bits of electronic data separates us from the tangible world. These artworks make blatant the extent of that separation. But in living through the portal of the computer screen, we tend to be unable to see it. Instead, we confuse mediated experience with the real thing. We watch a clip of a tiger killing an antelope and we think we’ve witnessed death. We read a headline about Stanley McChrystal and think we know what goes on inside the White House. We forget that everything we sense through our portal has been cut from its context, angled, edited, retouched, remastered and unceasingly reiterated.
Salavon makes the cogent point that our digital network has the power to absorb us into its massive movement while it also separates us from our own self-understanding. He offers an update on Karl Marx’s concept of modern alienation. Rather than a man alienated from himself by his disconnection from his work, Salavon’s subject is alienated from himself by his disconnection from unmediated reality. In this postmodern variety, man’s relationship to his self-obliterating information system becomes the source of his angst.
This, however, oversimplifies the relationship between humanity and pretty much everything, and the show falls short of revealing substantial insight about the nature of our involvement with all those information bits. Salavon’s one-directional process fails to account for our counterbalancing capacity to humanize—to insinuate ourselves into even the most alien environments and reshape them in our own image.
However fragmented our identities become, our minds doggedly insist on constructing unifying narratives. Even when those narratives are incomplete, off-base or flat-out wrong, we embrace them and rely on them. Here lurks a more insidious danger, marked by our apparent need to produce misinformation rather than accept an informational void. This is the ghost in Salavon’s machine.