Simon Ingram, Monadic Device, 2020. Courtesy of City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi.
The Algorithmic Impulse
City Gallery, Wellington
Te Whare Toi
21 November 2020–
07 March 2021
Everybody has won and all must have prizes. All too often the Dodo’s creed is applied to artists for engaging with issues, regardless of whether said engagement is worth the scarce and privileged exposure of an institutional exhibition. Simon Ingram’s issue is machine thinking. It’s an area that warrants serious enquiry. The social, political, and cultural implications of employment-sapping automation and the ethical dilemmas of artificial intelligence are well-extracted veins in international contemporary art—the source material for an array of thought-provoking and politically minded practices. I’m just yet to be convinced that Ingram’s is one of them.
The Algorithmic Impulse at Wellington’s City Gallery offers a survey of Ingram’s work since 1996. Prominently featured are works produced by the various painting machines that he has employed as conduits for the physical processes of art-making. The early Automota Paintings see late-Mondrian-like grid-paintings mechanically produced and guided by algorithms. Later Radio Paintings evolved the concept, with the machines’ painterly cues guided by low-frequency radio waves with variances connected to cosmic activity.
Simon Ingram, The Algorithmic Impulse, 2020. Courtesy of City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi.
In one of City Gallery’s upstairs spaces, Ingram has presented some of the projects executed under the aegis of Terrestrial Assemblages, an ‘art-science group concerned to foster awareness of natural systems’. Earth Models (2020) displays regenerative agriculture systems with a low-fi CG aesthetic—flipped into chic ready-made assemblages by openly displaying the computer components that facilitate the model’s function and display. Hyperspectral Camera (2020), the other offering from Terrestrial Assemblages, consists of the titular device, capable of recording light beyond the visible spectrum, honed in on a decaying apple. This is, we’re told, a kind of techno-wink to the Dutch vanitas tradition.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is Monadic Device (2018), one of Ingram’s painting machines that responds to the brain waves of a user wearing an EEG headset. In the original activation of the work at Sydney Contemporary in 2018, Ingram wore the headset while performing menial chores, reading Solaris, and operating a handheld tablet that complicated and interrupted the machine’s interpretation of his brain activity. At City Gallery, we are presented with the machine in situ, stacked examples of its completed labours, and video of earlier performances. Ingram activated the work again on site at City Gallery, and invited others to do the same.
Simon Ingram, Beyond Range Stonewall Alp Cliff, 2020. Courtesy of City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi.
If, at this stage, you’re left asking exactly what any of this is supposed to mean for us, or the politics of the technology at play, curator Robert Leonard’s accompanying wall text isn’t shy about what implications we might take away. In Leonard’s telling, Ingram’s embrace of robotics and algorithmic thinking has the potential to displace the mythic centrality of the artist as a transcendental creative figure. Admirable as this sentiment might be, it repeats a well-worn trope that mistakes the intervention of procedural complexity for the displacement of human subjectivity.
It’s the approach adopted by the Surrealists, who used games of chance, automatic poetry, dream and hypnagogic states to escape the rational subject. And it’s the approach of mid-twentieth-century conceptual artists whose works unfolded as the consequences of pre-established rules. But the introduction of a complication doesn’t flatten the creative process, or erase subjectivity, it just defers it. And all we ever need to do is follow the chain of deferment back to the source for subjectivity and the figure of the mythical artist to reappear.
The unfortunate irony of these claims is that in linking a practice to a search for an art without 'the artist', the work tends to become all about the specific artist in question, not the wider cultural or political questions their practice might pose. Ingram’s artworks—especially the ones that employ painting machines and algorithms—are ultimately about Ingram. They are, in so many mechanistic brush strokes, evidence of an impossible contradiction—an artist’s quest to remove themselves from a process full of their own marks and even their own body.
Simon Ingram, Terrestrial Assemblages Hyperspectral Camera, 2020. Courtesy of City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi.
Likewise, complexity does not automatically imply cleverness—ask anyone who watched Tenet. The intervention of machine systems into art practices can’t be commended for the sake of intervention itself. The justification of including Hyperspectral Camera in a gallery context is an art historical link to the Dutch Golden Age. This link has to do an awful lot of heavy lifting as, without it, the work is an interesting science experiment on a plinth. I’m not suggesting that art and science are impossibly separate and should be kept in their own lanes. Successful intersections of these disciplines make for some of the most exciting and enquiring art that exists. Some vanitas paintings certainly included rotting apples as a part of their moralising still-lifes. But does this mean that every oxidised apple in a gallery is granted an immediate, meaningful, and justifying link across half a millennium? I don’t have the answer to that, but I do know that sometimes a pipe is just a pipe.
At the end of it all, what’s left for the exhibition? It doesn’t take us to a post-subjective practice, and its insistence on attempting to hampers its potential to reach out and embrace the wider and urgent questions this kind of technology poses. The concern is that what’s left in the absence of those possibilities is just formalism and white bread. Ingram’s practice contains the constituent parts of something urgent and engaging, but the context and framing of The Algorithmic Impulse doesn’t meet the moment. Not all have won, and not all deserve prizes.
All images have been sourced from City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi under the Copyright Act 1994 Section 43 (1) for the purposes of this review only.