According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study from 2010, kids between the ages of 8 and 18 consume nearly 11 hours worth of media (mostly on personal devices) in close to eight hours of phone-gazing (there's a lot of multitasking going on). That figure rose by more than an hour from 2005, and it's probably even higher by now. From the connectivity facilitated by smartphones to the covert cyberwars happening all over the world, the way humans interact with technology is both amazing and terrifying. Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) New Orleans has mounted a pair of painting shows by Jacqueline Humphries and James Hoff (on view through Feb. 28), two artists whose works address our increasing dependence on technology.
In a previous body of work, New York-based painter Jacqueline Humphries made pieces about the lighting in noir films, creating dark, moody abstractions inspired by the shadowy underbellies of urban life explored in these mysteries. But her recent work has been based on the premise that screens have taken over our lives. "There's always something well outside of painting that I'm thinking about," she said in a phone interview with A.i.A. before the opening. "I'm thinking about the exposure to screens in our environment, and how we interact with them, and with each other because of them."
But Humphries is not as critical of our chronic exposure to devices as she is interested in its long-term effects. "Instead of thinking that things should be different, it's about coming to terms with what it is," said Humphries, who was born (in 1960) and raised in New Orleans.
Humphries' first solo museum exhibition in her hometown—which was originally mounted at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh—features a series of reflective silver paintings on the ground floor and an immersive environment on the second floor with paintings made to be seen under ultraviolet light. Humphries says the works in the black-light series, in particular, perform as glowing screens. "They really dematerialize," she said. "There are no palpable material dimensions." Both series are attempts at reproducing that flat-screen glow: the reflective emanations from the silver canvasses, while the black-light paintings have a halo analogous to the blue light that comes from a laptop or smartphone. "The paint actually lights up; the paint itself is making the light," she said of the works, which she makes in the dark.
Hoff, also a New Yorker, takes a novel approach that incorporates digital processes into painting. Hoff first photographs his canvas (usually an aluminum panel), creating an image file, and infects the file with a computer virus. He then prints the results onto the same aluminum panel. His audio pieces employ a similar process. In the series "I Just Called to Say ILOVEYOU" Hoff takes ubiquitous iPhone ringtones (crickets, sonar, marimba, etc.) and "contaminates" them with the ILOVEYOU virus, a worm created in 2000 that spread by accessing a user's contacts and sending the virus in an attachment with the simple subject "ILOVEYOU." The results introduce unpleasant glitches, skips and scratches into the recordings.
At CAC, Hoff's exhibition, titled "B=R=I=C=K=I=N=G," features a series of paintings made with the sKyWIper virus, a particularly nasty piece of malware allegedly developed by the CIA, the NSA and the Israeli military to infect Iranian intelligence computers and nuclear facilities. "sKyWIper is part of the Stuxnet family," said Hoff. "Stuxnet was one of the first warfare viruses. It was certainly a watershed moment when it was introduced." At the time of Stuxnet's detection in 2010 (sKyWIper was "discovered" in 2012), it was considered extremely sophisticated compared with the garden variety malware Russian teens have used to hack corporations like Target and Neiman Marcus. Five years later, it's likely that many countries are engaged in some sort of virus-based espionage.
Hoff, like Humphries, is deriving his painting and audio works from the increasingly technological world around him, but Hoff's true interest lies in modes of distribution. Hoff publishes out-of-circulation texts and periodicals (as well as first edition artist books) under the imprint Primary Information, leading him to recognize similar types of distribution present in viruses. "Jussi Parikka, a Finnish media archaeologist, wrote a history of the computer virus called Digital Contagions," said Hoff. "That's what pushed me over the edge and gave me a lot of direction in terms of understanding how viruses developed in the last 30 years." Hoff explained that two of the earliest computer viruses were used to distribute a video game and a poem.
Hoff, like Humphries, uses abstraction as a way to connect with contemporary concerns. "It's important for me that the work I'm doing in the studio reflect what's going on in the world around us," he said. "It was a very conscious decision for me to use that virus as a way to bridge that gap between the studio and the rest of the world."