The Digital Abstract

Troy Innocent, Pattern Recognition

Imagine we are living late in the 13th Century. Our leader and spiritual authority is the Bishop of Lincoln. Let’s call him Robert Fathead. He has just completed his treatise on the nature of light, elaborated from sources as seemingly diverse as the antique Hellenism of Aristotle and the Persian philosophy of a thinker known to the Latin-speaking world as Avicenna, but whose full name was س يناب نعليب نالحسنب ن اللهع بدب نالحس ينعليأب و. We are permitted a swift return to the present, recalling that Fathead had described a ‘world-machine,’ a machina mundi. This is a mechanical system built by God.

With the arrival of the personal computer, a space was opened between the histories of our material effects and the apparent perfection of a bodiless screen. This has also meant that the conditions for what constitutes the work of art today are rapidly changing. For close to three decades Troy Innocent has been concerned with exploring new possibilities for this state of flux. A technophile engaged with the potentially liberating expressions offered by the arrival of the digital arts, his work is principally aimed at retrieving a precise image of the artwork from the frontier conditions presented by our technical innovations. In this way, the colonising effect of populating the virtual environment means Innocent has mostly directed his work towards a perceived utopia that exists at the threshold of language. This is a project that at its foundations requires the programmed control of light.


Focusing his practice on the possibilities for technical emancipation, abstraction offers itself as the necessary gateway for pointing to this utopia, both generalising and narrowing the scope of the work to a specific set of graphic indicators: triangles and circles, tessellated into unfolding parallelograms. It may at first seem odd to find in new media art this reference to antique schemes for representation. However, Innocent’s use of abstraction in both the physical and augmented environments reveal them to be one and the same – the visible and the virtual are collapsed via the use of compositional motifs translated into musical markers. This furthermore suggests the transcendent quality shared by the works, in series, across time. If these opportunities lie in new modes for expression, Innocent points to what happens to language against such complex, man-made systems for pattern recognition. Scanning Quick Response (QR) codes involves mapping the grid to the environment, laser-cut plastic and timber pieces are read as symbols by the camera. The picture plane perceived and ordered by early modern cartographers is now as imperceptibly refined as the pixel resolution of a high definition television. Science fiction is often understood as oriented towards some not-quite improbable future. Here it must also derive its principle terms established in the past, where it is always possible that any future may come to exist. By using the gallery as a laboratory for testing the possible, Innocent gestures to a particular future, a vision directed to the question of labour, of work, as it relates to planometric space, arriving at a mode of communicative abstraction long thought obliterated by the organic quest for a post-industrial, metropolitan centre. With Pattern Recognition, our particular future is bent by the implications of these remnants of historical thought. Nevertheless we are here, and today everything is a game, let’s call it General Semantics.

In his story about an expanded and utopian consciousness, The World of Null-A, published soon after the end of the Second World War, A.E Von Vogt developed the paradigm framing modern science fiction for the subsequent generations. If the Aristotelian tradition suggested an economic totality, identity is formed only by capitulating to the sum total of memory. Extended from Alfred Korzybski’s humanology, the opposite is the goal: self-annihilation. The players of Null-A strive to obtain through obliteration a pure access to a mythical totality, and as such operate against abstraction. Now appears what may be at stake in the work – as it removes us from this extreme limit. Innocent’s objects trouble the purity of obliteration by their curious presence. Between language and abstraction, a new territory has been opened up in the eye itself, in the place where floaters are usually found. You have chosen this augmented vision and provided it to yourself.


Innocent has modelled his work through the formalist strategy of defamiliarisation, which sets up the gallery as a common space for the recapitulation of the everyday from the place that is exempt from it. These are the laboratory conditions which scrub this zone of any unnecessary effects through refinement, not obliteration. Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg provides a contemporary take on the pseudo-scientific meaning of this art-world notion of defamiliarisation as it relates to abstraction. Articulated by the revolutionary Russian circle of literary theorists, Viktor Shklovksy published ‘Art as Technique’ (or device) as a 24-year-old iconoclast in 1917. Ginzburg’s addition to the idea that something will lose its mundane certainty when placed in the spaces dedicated to art is the sense that ‘to understand less… may lead us to see more.’ But can we still trust what we see today, exactly one century later? Or has the invisibility of algorithmic productions led the histories of our visual organisations of perception to the point of their dissolution, to a place where light disappears?

In the world of Null-A, the Machine itself overshadows every other object in our field of vision. The technophilia at the core of Innocent’s work comes up against the possibility of our domination by the lightning trapped in the wires. At the beginning of her book Architecture or Techno-Utopia, Felicity D. Scott writes that the wishful thinking for “lines of flight” supposedly open to us all could otherwise create a more complex reinforcement of existing techniques of power. Her interpolation of the emancipatory belief in a dispersed identity, held by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as ‘a movement of deterritorialisation or destratification of codified systems,’ in fact leads into a new era of colonisation, where these embedded structures become more and more difficult to see even as we approach them. Every deterritorialisation is also a reterritorialisation, however, and it seems Deleuze and Guattari understood this. Herein lies a socio-political counterpart: the perceptual disorientation often produced by the encounter with artwork, especially in its abstraction, is also responsible for our orientation (or re- orientation). Innocent shows how these immersive environments we visit today still figure within this effect, with a political gesture against totality. The poetic activity of this aspect to the work reveals to us the new conditions for its possibility, not so much lines of flight, but a fall through the web of predetermined, networked relations.


The idea of poetry in the realm of language is not conceivable until a system of writing has been agreed upon. Seeing comes before words, however, as the late John Berger was eager to point out. But even as attempts at a global language were well under way by the time networked computing began to establish protocols for the ideograms of the digital age, it seemed poetry had faltered. Let’s not forget the parallel developments of alternative, gestural communications like Auslan, or the now-familiar sheets of Emojis, which also relate to earlier attempts at a universal language like Esperanto. There remains a utopian element to the alphabet. Today we have Google’s proprietary interlingua (its parent company ridiculously christened Alphabet Inc.). One could also recall the alphabet Sir Thomas More surreptitiously revealed over 500 years ago, as a singular utopian trajectory charted by a science fiction embedded in the everyday. Today we can see that it was not the printed word which was revolutionary for modernity, but the printed image. Innocent plays with this mode by presenting physical models which point to the visual observation of what are now called autopoietic systems. In our time of technical images, the theories of cybernetics provided for new models of the world-machine, relying on recursive notions of productive observation – giving rise perhaps to the contemporary possibility of today’s ‘pro-sumers’ of culture.


In this way Innocent’s new series of work can be seen as an attempt to pin-point something about the new conditions of labour mediated by screen-time. Work is the modern equivalent of a praxis, although not just the kind of alienated labour analysed by Marx. Increasingly our contemporary experience, as Giorgio Agamben has noted, bears witness to this change: that art and work are becoming increasingly indeterminated. Efforts at distinction fail, and as defamiliarisation becomes harder abstraction again becomes political. Maybe this should not be so surprising, this is about the artwork after all. But where would this labour power go if it was no longer attached to possibilities presented to the artwork? Now the work is to be activated, performed in fact by you, the spectator and producer, who must struggle to view the work within which you are standing. Innocent’s digital mode of abstraction points to the impossibility of this totality. Where once the figurative demonstration of the gamification of everyday life served to mark the arrival of the new media that underpinned Innocent’s work, now the stakes have been raised. The units of measurement expected of all forms of life have been abstracted and realised as complex tessellations, collapsing and re- establishing the boundaries of physical and virtual space, scanned by the techno-deities of the contemporary world-machine. This means you, the figure. If this game takes place under controlled conditions, what can we hope to see when it never ends?

Troy Innocent: ‘Pattern Recognition,’ Anna Pappas Gallery, Prahran, March 24 – April 28, 2017
Giles Fielke is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Artist Film Workshop.


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