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Digital Waste: The Sweet Smell of Burning Prologue by Ju Underwood

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

The digital age has unveiled many avenues of activity that, before its dawning, were not available to the majority of people. For example, we can now all be highly skilled photographers by simply capturing a multitude of images, then selecting the ones that please us most from the batch. Technique has moved on from being the eye involved in setting up composition, and lighting, and all the other elements that have traditionally gone into the art of photography, and has shifted to being the eye that edits an array of more random, and less thoughtfully conceived, information.

We rarely consider the leftover images, the ones that did not make the cut. The usual fate of those is that they are pasted into a computer file, and then abandoned. Billions of image files are held in suspended animation in this way, and, most likely, never looked at again, a massive waste mountain inhabiting the virtual world. It is estimated that 3.93 trillion images were stored digitally in 2017. It is a number that is almost impossible to contemplate, and is, of course, constantly being added to.

The downside of this culture of overproduction is the devaluing of the material involved, or in this case, what we can term material:digital. We tend to value what is rare, unique or hard won, and conversely undervalue things that come too easily, or are effortless to produce.

This is a concern, since it means that certain elements of our daily lives are not appreciated in the way they were pre-digitally. They are too easy to gain, and therefore have become disposable. Our experience, as we travel through life, has also depreciated as a result. Which leads to the consideration of how this effects our human interaction, and ultimately Society. Digital platforms have given us access to much more of everything than the analogue world could provide, generating both positive and negative outcomes, depending on the context, and the use we make of this potential.

Artist Madhvee Deb is fascinated by these phenomena, that have only arisen in our daily lives since the advent of domestic digital technology. She regards them as a metaphor for issues that extend beyond the digital realm. A mass production, selection, rejection, and archiving, not just of images, but also of other facets of our daily lives, such as interpersonal relationships. She is concerned about the excessive exchange of worthless information found on social media, and that our over abundant access to anyone and everything will wreak havoc on us emotionally and psychologically in the long term. For her latest exhibition Digital Waste: The Sweet Smell of Burning, which debuts at the George Town Festival in August 2018, Deb sought to subvert the notion of the discarded image by viewing it, not as an element thrown on a virtual rubbish heap, but as a resource for further exploration.

The form of this body of Deb’s work was influenced by the early pioneers of photography art, namely Man Ray, Edmund Kesting, and Gjon Mili. These artists, working in the first part of the 20th century, were the first recognised to be exploiting the potential of photography as an art medium, and not just a means of capturing direct images of a scene. They played with every technique available at the time, creating double images, experimenting with exposure, and using light on photographic paper to produce innovative effects. They ventured into new territory, which led the way for future generations of photography artists.

Deb was inspired by these role-models to create a series of photographic works that use discarded images from her own files. To this end she sought out photographs she had previously rejected for not being aesthetically pleasing enough, and reinvented them as artworks in their own right. In effect, she took a second, searching look at the forgotten photographs, and exposed another kind of aesthetic beauty, one that was dormant and unrecognised until her process of re-examination was applied. In a manner akin to the sensibility of Man Ray et al, she overlaid multiple images, and played with changes of scale and multiplication, until a new aesthetic of the image was created. The result is a series of works that are visually entrancing and stimulating, but which contain an underlying message that addresses the issue of throwaway digital culture.

There is also humour in the production. Deb is not necessarily condemning human nature and its misuse/abuse of digital means, but rather she accepts that we are what we are, and subtly illustrates what we are missing out on by being so. She asks the questions and picks up the details that others dismiss, and returns them like a mischievous throwing down of the gauntlet. She challenges us to re-examine the things we overlook or discard, and to find the new forms of aesthetic beauty inherent in them.

As well as photography based works in her latest exhibition Digital Waste: The Sweet Smell of Burning, she also shows an intriguing series of sculptures, that sit alongside, and commune with, the 2D works. These are made from the rejected photo prints from the process of compiling the 2D works, which are worked into 3D forms, and then set using a resin substrate. There is a sense of irony in this action that is consistent with her overall ethos of recycling the rejects that many would find un-recyclable. There is also a witty acknowledgement of the cyclical, and somewhat telescopic, nature of the reuse of discarded material. In performing this further intervention into the process new detritus is assuredly created, ironically the problem turns back on itself in endless reiteration.

In creating the physical forms of the sculptures Deb drew on memories from her childhood. The artist acknowledges that it was, to some extent, a self-indulgence to take this approach, a trip down memory lane. However, it seems a highly appropriate response to the chosen media. Photos are always, to some degree, trapped memories, and the most direct way of connecting with this aspect of photography is to use your own. The personal association the artist has with the forms is not explained, but it acts as a further overlay of meaning/history onto each object that gives it presence and resonance.

Deb also shows a video work in the exhibition. In this the viewer is taken on a hypnotic journey that simulates the effect of prolonged exposure to social media. The work is lighthearted, but this masks more serious concerns about the excessive amount of time contemporary people spend gazing at a screen, how addictive this occupation is, and how the virtual world never really gives us what we need, but only the ghost of it, the fake, instant, digital facsimile.

Digital Waste: The Sweet Smell of Burning is an exhibition that is both whimsical and serious. Our use of digital resources, and the unknown damage these may cause us in the long term is clearly a concern, however the work is not nostalgic or retro-thinking. The artist is not passing judgement on the current state of play, rather she is illustrating a side effect of contemporary activity that may have been swept under the carpet. Her objective is to raise awareness, provoking people to be more mindful of their digital interactions. In her reinvention of rejected elements she is proposing one type of alternative strategy, and in doing so acknowledges the changing landscape of human behaviour.

The work also bridges the gap between the tangible and the intangible in a charming, non self-conscious way. It serves as a comparison between what is real:physical, and what is unreal:virtual, a boundary that in contemporary existence is increasingly becoming blurred. The inherent question is, which provides us with a better quality of life? Perhaps the only answer to this is that there is no answer. They both provide us with something we need, but the important thing is to keep them in the optimum balance, to find homeostasis. The subject matter of the work, the digital world, is an intangible entity, however Deb’s works are real, physical objects. We can look at them, touch them, we can walk around them, we can display them in our hallways, we do not have to press a keyboard in order to bring them to life.

Scottish artist Ju Underwood originally gained qualifications in architecture from Glasgow School of Art, and subsequently a Degree and Masters in Fashion in London. Working as an architect, but fuelled by the compulsion to have a more creative life, she has been cultivating an art practice over the past 15 years that has run in parallel with, and functioned in counterpoint to, her design discipline.

Underwood’s artwork is inspired by contemporary psychoanalysis, most importantly the writings of Slavoj Žižek, and the writings and art of Bracha Ettinger, and is focused on revealing the obscured layers of human psychology that transcend boundaries of place, time and gender. Her mission is to examine the existential condition, and explore it in physical form. Read more about Ju Underwood

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