Science Fiction, from H.G. Wells’ Time Machine to William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, is awash with technologies gone awry, usually with startling and dystopian results. Such was certainly the case when Melbourne-based artist Stephen Haley embraced a new image-manipulation software called photogrammetry.
The technology allows users to input hundreds of images into the system in order to replicate a virtual 3D model. The catch here, as Haley discovered, to his delight, was that the more he manipulated some fairly mundane photos he took in Canberra last year, the more they began to degrade. Inspired, he pushed the imagery to a point that, while The Aboriginal Tent Embassy seems to stand defiant against the decay, Parliament House is essentially reduced to smoking rubble while the lifeless Australian Academy of Science has been overgrown by surreal, tropical plant life in what might be an illustration for a J.G. Ballard novel. “Of course, there would be people that argue that at a social metaphorical level, this is what these places look like now!” says the artist. “Science fiction set in the future is always fundamentally also about the present.”
“They are photos, but they are photos of what these places will look like in the future when we have succumbed to climate change and the general inevitability of time.”
“It is in the nature of artists to be enquiring and experiment – at least, I think that is what it should mean,” says Haley, who also teaches art and art theory at the Victorian College of the Arts. “We live in a restless age, the singular self of the 19th and 20th C has dissolved, we are far more multiple than we were and I don’t hold to some eternal, fixed notion of being (although this is being impressed upon us). Yet there are fundamental ideas about space, power and the environment that remain preoccupations.”
For Haley rapid global urbanisation and the emerging digital era are two fundamental shifts that are unique to this era “and are centrally changing everything.”
“They fuel such things as climate change and dramatic species loss (scientists speak of us entering the Anthropocene era and the sixth extinction). And on a fundamental level, I think we live in a much more conservative, controlled, subjugated age than ever before. Even in my own lifetime, I have seen a closure of possibilities, an unwillingness to question fundamentals, rather than opening up. People speak of the failure of Modernism but what of the failure of post modernism? The much-vaunted heterogeneity of our era seems to me to be a surface effect of a rigid underlying system of control and surveillance that digital technologies accelerate.”
While Parliament House has been trashed, The Aboriginal Embassy stands strong against that seems to be a White Apocalypse. Heley is quick to express his admiration for the Indigenous initiation. “I greatly admire Aboriginal resistance to white invasion and the humour and chutzpah of them setting up the Aboriginal Embassy right outside Parliament House. I first saw it and went and spoke to the mob there in 1972 when I was travelling on holiday with my family as I was shocked and confused that Australian citizens should set up an embassy. They set me straight. You can see in the background the original parliament house, graffitied and in ruins. The point was, these people will still be here, still going strong, long after our little blip on the landscape has passed.”
Ruins, per se, are new for Haley’s oeuvre. His work, which embraces technically tinkered photography, has typically been crisp and futuristic with almost hallucinogenic colouration. Works created concurrently with the Future Photos were featured last year in a survey exhibition of his work, ‘Out of Place’, at McClelland Sculpture Park+Gallery. In his essay for that show, curator Simon Lawrie noted that: “Stephen Haley’s paintings, videos and digital photographs chart this contemporary experience of dislocated space, to confront the two defining movements of our age – rapid global urbanisation and the dawn of the digital era. His artistic process mirrors the themes in his work; as the virtual increasingly takes precedence over the actual, so Haley’s uncanny simulations blur the line between reality and representation.”
However much of his recent work has become, if anything, more abstracted than ever before. “Those recent paintings look quite abstract, and they are to an extent, but all my work has had quite abstract geometric aspects, he says. “It is because contemporary Western space (and life) is now very abstract. These are the structures that underlie surface appearance, they are structures of power.”
In fact – all those abstract looking images are images of city buildings or other forms but by carefully controlling the tonal values of the colour, they flip – the figure ground relationship becomes reversed – and in the negative space between the building forms look like malls, or factories seen from above. The buildings themselves also resemble bar graphs, blocks, other geometric forms. Likewise the Contested landscape work where the pitched roofs of the houses become saws. Or the houses could be spears.
“I know I jump around a bit stylistically,” Haley admits. “But that is because I am always experimenting with new mediums and technologies – these suggest new ideas and approaches – indeed, demand new responses.”
One reason Haley is fascinated by the digital, apart from it being unprecedented, is that it is more than just a just a new method of communication. “The digital literally digitises – that is, turns things into numbers. Once this is achieved they may be calculated and computed – which is a very powerful idea, as it happens.” This means though that there is an attempt to give everything a numeric description. “It’s an astounding idea,” he says. “Especially when you think of artificial intelligence. Making a robot that care for the elderly, for instance, means you have to give a numerical value to things such as concern, kindness, love itself in order for these to be part of a program. A care program. Such levels of abstraction, such algorithms and programs are likely to miss a great deal in the process though, something that no amount of greater computing power is likely to return.”
“Further, and in this sense, the digital is a fundamentally new way of seeing and describing the world. Like Erwin Panofsky’s argument that perspective itself introduced not just a way of picturing the world but a whole psycho-social mentality – one that was essentially rational, reductive and mathematical – so too does the digital introduce a social psychological state very different than way it has gone before, one that by necessity is reductive, abstract and rational. The abstraction and stylisation in the paintings are an echo of that world view. And the flips between figure/ground are meant to reveal that hidden state. Like the binary system of the digital too, the state is either/or – the two views cannot be held in the mind at once but oscillate between states, like the 1s and 0s of a digital pulse.”
Amongst the reasons Haley’s work tends to radically shift stylistically is that has been powerfully influenced by the writing group the OuLiPo which was headed by Raymond Queneau and embraced such writers as Italo Calvino and George Perec. “Rather than self-expression, they focussed on establishing a suitable set of largely arbitrarily – but suitably so – sets of rules to generate work. They would then pursue these to their logical and illogical conclusions. Not surrealist but focusing on structures – a ludic, conceptual game playing with forms that resulted in not a dry formalism but an imaginative, un-self-centred exploration,” Haley says. “Queneau for instance wrote Exercises in Style where he took a three-paragraph story of an inconsequential nature and retold it in 100 different styles.”
Haley notes that in Calvino’s story, ‘The Castle of Divided Destinies,’ the Italian master of magical realism makes use the Tarot Deck for his traveller narrators, who meet by chance in a mysterious castle and are struck dumb, to tell their stories by laying out the major arcada. “Thus I tend to take a structural idea – like the recent painting with their plays between figure and ground that turn cities into factories and so on, and work in series. Each series, exploring and being initiated from a particular, structural idea. Thus, too, the City Print series that have been the longest running – since 2004.
“So the works are very conceptually driven,” the artist says. “But I decry dry literalism, so I am very engaged with the materiality that emerges from the work.”