People often talk about the Internet’s ambivalence to geography as fulfilling Marshall McLuhan’s prophesy of a Global Village. Yet in the video Climbing, a hand-shaped cursor pulls itself through a mountain range of seemingly infinite expanse. Also, the flattened perspective of the digitally collaged mountain range creates a persistent anticipation that the cursor’s destination is just beyond the screen. Do you think there is a kind of fatigue and banality found in traversing digital spaces?
I think people can travel quickly on the Internet and consequently get lost easily. You begin with a simple quest or search and end up in the rabbit’s rabbit hole, and an hour or more has passed and all you meant to do was respond to an email. The Internet offers so much and I’m happy it exists, but I constantly question the effect it, along with portable technology, is having on people, including myself. It enables a kind of relentless curiosity that is occasionally useful but often meaningless. There is always somewhere to go, something to take in. The endlessness is fantastic and tiring. There is no end, you can just keep going and going, scrolling and clicking. I have an admiration for those people who search deliberately and don’t just wander around. But I might be romanticizing a bit, I imagine most people can’t help but scroll, the graphic interfaces encourage this kind of experience.
Cultural theorist Sianne Ngai coined the term “stuplimity,” an affect similar to the sublime that is experienced in interaction with finite bits of information in repetition. She suggests that the stuplime, in confounding our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form, results in a mix of both awe and boredom. Do you think our perception of the world through technological mediation has affected our scope of vision?
I’m new to the term “stuplimity” but a mix of awe and boredom seems about right for the majority of Internet experience (I write this as someone who is online most of the time). The sublime creates awe and fear because there is this compelling threat of the great unknown. But, despite its endlessness and vast quantities of data, the Internet experience is mostly known, mostly risk-free and readily available. Perhaps more importantly, the design of most web browsers enables a multi-perspective kind of vision that enables an inattentiveness (it also levels banality and extraordinary media). How can I look here and become overtaken by this article/image/whatever when the link for ‘Child Stars that Grew Up to be Unattractive’ is blinking at me on the left? How can I look forward when all the time I’m being tempted to look left, right, up, down, everywhere at once.
In much of your work text plays an important role. In Climbing, however, any sort of narrator is foregone, as if to suggest the perspective in the video is that of the viewer. What led you to leave this particular video narrator-less?
I tested out different iterations, never with text or voice-over narration, but other audio sources that guided the piece in other directions. Everything seemed to bring the piece down. I work often with collaged sources and concepts, and when you have an idea like this, that is so simple and effective, it’s hard to just let it be. Not to imply that it doesn’t work to put it together, etc. but I had to allow the piece to breath on its own. This piece seems to be one of my more popular ones and I think that is because viewers relate so easily, to the interface, the concept, the little hand striving upwards. If I made it more specific, forced the work to carry more, I believe it would lose that accessibility, which I embraced. This isn’t to say I’m not thrilled that you are relating it to the sublime, because I was thinking about strategies used in German Romanticism when I made this piece, so it’s nice when that content carries through, too. I do like to play with viewer involvement, often the text is a narrator that is never seen, so the viewer can become that narrator, too. We are watching the hand but we are also the hand. German painters like Caspar David Friedrich did this kind of role-doubling all the time (rückenfigur is the painting term, for the compositional device of including a figure with their back facing the viewer) and I am still influenced by this strategy.
Creating empathy between the viewer and seemingly unrelatable figures is a common theme in your work, and yet in Climbing there is no identified figure with which to relate. In your video Somewhere only we know you create a sense of empathy between various figures on reality TV and the news through the shared experience of an earthquake. Do you find that the shared experience of navigating interfaces creates a similar sense of empathy?
I think it creates a bond, something to relate to but I’m not sure empathy is generated by the shared experience of web-surfing. My interest in empathy coincidences with my interest in spectatorship and my work is often navigating the slippery line between the two kinds of responses to media. The difference can be slight and is often poorly delineated in vast areas such as the Internet and most of mainstream media culture, where you can both participate and observe in equal measure. Commenting on social media sites could possibly be indicative of empathy, though this is not navigating but more of a landing point.
Throughout “Anti-Grand” is a theme of how artists relate to the landscape as both an experienced space and as a tradition of viewing. The idea of viewership is different in your work since most of your sources are appropriated from mass media. Within this context of digital culture, how do you think viewership of the landscape has changed?
I think viewership has changed in that everyone is looking down at their portable device and scrolling or clicking and posting immediately into the world. This is one of the more massive changes; people don’t look around as much because they have a phone or whatever to look into. You can be somewhere else more easily and always. This ties into the idea that both experienced space and a tradition of viewership has been radically altered. Then again, we’ve been bringing cameras along for a while to spectacular vistas, and the need to document these places had, arguably, already become paramount to the experience of the present, of being in the place and looking without aid of any device. It’s the shareability that is really novel, because now you can see it, too. Right away. And we may never even meet.
Jesse McLean (American, born 1975) is a media artist whose research is motivated by a deep curiosity about human behavior and relationships, and is concerned with both the power and the failure of the mediated experience to bring people together. She has presented her work at museums, galleries, and film festivals worldwide, including the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Netherlands; Rome Film Festival and Venice Film Festival, both Italy; Transmediale, Berlin; Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow; Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis; Interstate Projects, PPOW Gallery, both New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit; Gallery 400, Three Walls, both Chicago; and Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, among others.