September 27th, 2017
The Algorithmic Self: Rhonda Holberton
Rhonda Holberton speaks with writer Monica Westin
Rhonda Holberton’s practice spans sculpture, photography, animated video, and performance, with new work that stages virtual performances of bodies in gallery settings based on motion capture data from the artist’s own body. Her spring 2017 solo exhibition “Still Life” at CULT | Aimee Friberg Exhibitions in San Francisco focused on the translation of real bodies and objects into digital spaces. The entire “Still Life” show will have a new iteration at Transfer Gallery in New York in April 2018. Meanwhile, Holberton has three pieces in the ecologically-focused group show “Coming of Age” at Sector 2337 in Chicago. I spoke with the artist twice, once just after “Still Life” closed last spring and once just after “Coming of Age” opened earlier this month. -MW
Monica Westin: I'd like to start by asking about the video installation /no stats on the same in the “Still Life” show. Is this the first time that you've used motion capture data from your own body in your work? What got you interested in using this technology? And what was the impetus not just to map your movements onto an avatar but onto a different person's avatar—and a professional model's at that?
Rhonda Holberton: The video installation, /no stats on the same, utilizes motion capture data recorded from my body transplanted onto a scan of a male model. I rendered the animation through a virtual pane of frosted glass placed in front of the camera in the rendering program. In the physical gallery space, the video is rear-projected onto a frosted acrylic sheet covering the entrance to a small room. I taped out the dimensions of this room in the gallery in my studio, and then performed within the perimeter I mapped out. Also, the room was recreated to scale in the 3D modeling program. So, the physics, movement, and models are all sampled from elements of the real world, but interpreted algorithmically within the render.
You are correct, /no stats on the same was the first time I introduced sampled motion into my animations. The first animation I made was applied to a 3D scan of my own body. I hand animated the mesh through a Vinyasa yoga sequence. I didn’t really know what I was doing and the movement was really complicated—I ended up more or less keying every frame. I used my own body as a model because it was available and didn’t want to make choices about the figure’s identity. After several projects that made use of sampling my body, I was starting to realize that “my body” as a kind of default was in and of itself a choice—an expression of an algorithmic self, a self defined by digital choices and lines of code. Using another body was a way for me to foreground a kind of hybrid or fantasy identity that I think we all perform to a certain extent, especially in digital space where identity is separated from the body. Because the body I scanned was that of a professional model and because I was paying him for the scans, the performance fit into a logic of capital exchange in ways that highlight questions of value of labor, identity, and expressions of control.
Much of my recent body of work was inspired by the vignette in Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus where they use the relationship between the wasp and the orchid to illustrate the kind of rhizomatic hybrid relationship I was interested in; "not imitation at all but a capture of code, surplus value of code, an increase in valence, a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp.” The model’s body is data represented as form; my body is data representation as motion. I was thinking about this piece as the performance of a hybrid body presented in a way that uses technology and is located in a third space (the site of installation and more importantly the space that the viewer occupies), to unite the two bodies and the two spatial or temporal locations.
I got into 3D modeling as a medium for my studio practice while working as a mechanical engineer. When you are immersed in the virtual space for hours at a time, you end up feeling connected to the space of the screen in a very physical way. At the same time I was in a long-distance relationship where the screen mediated the majority of my intimate experiences of the person. I was feeling this intense expression of virtuality as both a space of frictionless, empirical geometry, but also as a place for messy projection of complicated emotional entanglements.
In Dust to Dust, you created a seemingly closed ecosystem in the gallery with mosquitos, mesh, and sugar water. You also fed the mosquitoes with your own blood by putting your arm inside the net. How do you conceive of your body in relationship to this system? Did you consider this process a performance? How did it differ from the process and labor that went into your project, also titled Dust to Dust, in which you were literally panning for gold?
Both the labor of goldpanning and the labor of caring for mosquitos is challenging and requires discipline. I titled both works Dust to Dust and I’m not sure if they are one or two pieces. I collected larvae and raised the mosquitoes in my studio. I wanted to insert my body into a local system that indexes a much larger system—what Timothy Morton would call a hyperobject—something too large and complicated to be understood by a single human processor. The works represent my attempts to engage corporeally with a global metabolism represented in concept of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene—to pull value out of the system through direct physical labor. I definitely think about the works as performances; both in terms of my actions that produce them and as a kind of material performance after production. Unlike the grueling physical labor associated with hand panning for gold, the labor of raising and feeding the mosquitos felt very domestic. The feeding process was psychologically challenging at first, but the actual performance felt more like a durational exercise. It became something like an active meditation, an hour of boredom punctuated by real and imagined feedings.
Both the gold and mosquitos connect back to corporeality, to the body The metaphors and histories of these very material things can’t be divorced from globalized networks of digital technologies, climate change, religion, and politics. Today, the technologists in Silicon Valley are frequently compared to the pioneers of last century’s gold rush; both activities belong to a similar narrative of positivist masculine entrepreneurial ideology. Alternatively, it’s hard not to think about the mosquito without thinking of the virus, currently circumscribed by femininity and fertility, or of the mosquitos migration to new territories as an index of Climate Change—something that’s shifting the narrative of a benevolent “mother earth.”
Many works in “Still Life” take up the translation between real and digital objects. I'm struck again by the way that the form of the tapestry functions in your practice as an act of translation between one type of image and another, and one that seems to be analogous to the other digitization and rendering processes you work with. What happens when an image, for example a sneaker, is translated from a digital advertisement into a tapestry?
I think that’s a really good question, but I’m not sure I have the answer for it. I was thinking about the currency of digital aesthetics; how platforms that circulate images of images seems to be accumulating wealth at massive rates. Where is the value in these “free” models of aesthetic exchange and who is producing it? I wanted to tease out some of these questions by recreating images I found on these platforms using 3D scans of my own objects placed in virtual environments. The images tend to reduce or neutralize the object they represent. The question was then, how do the recreations circulate? I have a hunch that there is something in the triangulation of post-capital abundance of stuff (cheap labor/production, abundant digital storage), the new materialism (object-oriented philosophy, reconciling of environmental limits), and a new brand of posthumanism that rejects abject corporeality. The tapestries were ways to remove the images from the context of their original circulation by making them physical. The tapestries are strange objects, both image and material in a way that printed photographs are not.
Of course the material history of the Jacquard loom was another locus. The punch cards used to store the earliest computer programs (conceived by Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in 1837) were inspired by the wooden card used to make woven patterns with looms as early as 1725. There’s a connection between textile and certain assumptions of gender roles in the West that I wanted to connect to the history of writing code. In the early days of computing, programming was thought of as “women’s work." Women would translate programs onto the punch cards and the men who operated the machines would run the cards through the machines. I think there’s a throughline we can trace between the way repetitive labor is viewed as expendable in capitalist cultures. So where does the value go in the exchange of images when an algorithm can identify, produce, and distribute valuable images?
One of the most unsettling aspects of the exhibition is the way that it translates objects from the realm of the analog/handmade to the digital via modeling software and back again into some new quivery, neither-here-nor-there hybrid form. I'm still thinking about those truly uncanny mugs that are both literally molded and stunted by material and technological (and, maybe, ideological) apparatuses. Can you talk about the process by which you take a single object across these kinds of mediums/boundaries and back again, and especially when such media become "social," as in your Instagrammed pieces? And what do you make of how popular these images are on Instagram?
The mug was one of the first objects to become virtualized in the series but the last in the show to take form. In some ways the porcelain mugs are the least resolved for me, or at least the work that is still asking me questions (which I take as a good sign and will probably be the thread I follow for the next body of work). I like the word you use here, “quivery;” it does a good job of describing the oscillation of these objects. I made a 3D scan of a beautiful hand-thrown ceramic mug by artisan Eric Bonnan. The mug was the survivor of a set I bought for my partner and not something I would normally allow myself to purchase. It became a talisman of sorts and makes an appearance in a few of the images in the exhibition. I 3D printed the model and used it to make a mold that was then slip cast in porcelain, returning it, as it were, to the original material. Unlike the original mug that Eric made, the 3D scan is heavy, burdened by the inaccuracy of the scan. The awkward forms of the casts I made are familiar; they look like something a child would make. I think what makes it so uncanny is that they all look very handmade, irregular, and lumpy, but slowly you realize they are the same kind of lumpy. The work starts to reveal itself as a product of a process of creative digital computation still in it’s infancy.
I used the Kinect Sensor to scan objects from my domestic space and then use a 3D modeling program to recreate images from Instagram feeds of lifestyle magazines that popularized a contemporary branding aesthetics, what I call Instagram aesthetics. The renders of the 3D scans recreate the kind of non-specific placelessness that is what I think is so appealing about these types of images. The images tend to reduce/neutralize the object (object out of contextual reference, only one shoe is shown on an all-white background—it’s facing away from the viewer and cropped).
I then repost the recreations to Instagram and use handles that are common to the types of source images I use like #handmadeceramics and #sundaybrunch. Since most of these images circulate on the small screens of mobile devices, the imperfections of the scans that are obvious at desktop size aren’t legible on the platform. Most of the renders “pass” as real and I developed a following from the bespoke craft movement that I hadn’t anticipated.
I’d like to hear more about the impetus for the “Still Life” exhibition's title. It's not obvious that this show would consider its immediate reference to be art historical still life paintings, and I'm really curious about where you see your work, especially the work that explicitly references classical forms, in relationship to art history.
A good place to begin might be with the namesake of the exhibition title, a still life I create from a collection of the objects from the Instagram piece and a 3D scan I made of myself wearing a mask taken from a 3D model of a Greek sculpture. I started calling the 3D renders I was making “vanitas” out of some vague recollection of the Dutch Vanitas paintings of the 17th century that depicted beautifully rendered flowers, fruits, and silks on tabletops.
After doing a bit more research, the similarities between the vanitas paintings and the source images I was recreating became really obvious to me. The vanitas painting style coincided with the height of Dutch Colonial Empire a period of accumulated capital largely based on slave labor. The paintings were popular with the mercantile class and are some of the first examples of images circulating outside of the church and noble classes, so in many ways they were examples of the first “social images.”
This piece most overtly engages this classical art history, but most of the work I make is very aware of the system of capital and cultural exchange it operates within. This self-conscious engagement is obvious in the gold and the Instagram works where the works’ value can be compared to empirical measurement (the spot price of gold or the number of likes/shares) but is also true of works that use mannequins I acquired from the American Apparel bankruptcy liquidation.
I’m curious about the Fallen Pixels series in the current Sector 2337 exhibition. What was the original context for these pieces?
The rock forms of the sculpture, A FALLEN PIXEL, manifest a complete cycle of anonymous and physically distributed production. The rocks are made from a single model downloaded from a 3D library used primarily by game designers. The file was then carved by a computer-controlled router in foam in three different sizes and hard-coated. Because the model was free, the rock was a popular download; it’s populated countless virtual landscapes.
I was interested in the ways current technologies aid in the production of purely imagined things and wanted to circumscribe the physical realization of these digital apparitions. I like thinking that someone I will never know sat in front of a screen and used a mouse and keyboard to manage electronic impulses within the machine that then ultimately manifest what, in many ways, could be considered a hallucination. Networks of metal culled up from the earth connect me to the labor of that anonymous person and allow me to download the virtual product of their labor for free. I sent that product over the same network to a CNC machine that translated the virtual into physical reality. The marks of the hand left in the plaster covering reflect a human interface layer that is becoming increasingly obsolete. The paint “re-skins” the physical object in the way the screen “skins” bio-digital translation.
Rhonda Holberton is an Oakland-based artist. Her multimedia installations make use of digital and interactive technologies integrated into traditional methods of art production. Holberton received her MFA from Stanford University and her BFA from the California College of the Arts. She is currently a lecturer in experimental media at Stanford University. Holberton was a CAMAC Artist in Residence at Marnay-sur-Seine, France and awarded a Fondation Ténot Fellowship, Paris, France.
Monica Westin is a writer and critic based in San Francisco. Her writing on art and aesthetics has appeared in Frieze, Artforum, BOMB, The Believer, Art & Education, The Brooklyn Rail, Art21, Raw Vision, Art Papers, SFAQ, and SFMOMA's Open Space, among other places. She teaches in the Graduate Program in Fine Arts at California College of the Arts, where she leads the MFA written thesis seminar.