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Tom O’Dea ‘Representations’, 126 Galway, 26 April – 04 May 2014

July 11, 2014

The term ‘Network Society’ was devised in the 1980’s to denote changing paradigms in social, political and economic organisation across increasingly technological networks. The concept became synonymous with the proliferation of New Media, characterised by telecommunications, interactivity and digital code as facets of post-industrial capitalism and burgeoning Globalisation. It is within this discourse – which considers the individual as being inextricably ‘linked’ by networks – that artist Tom O’Dea situates his current practice-based PhD research.

In association with the Arts Technology Research Lab at Trinity College, O’Dea investigates the impact of early 21st century emergent technologies and networked formations on philosophical concepts of ‘the self’. His recent solo exhibition ‘Representations’ at 126 in April 2014, presented a series of new artworks probing human ‘datification’. The artist utilised aspects of his own identity as catalysts for examining ‘our own complicity’ in contributing to the data structures which infiltrate our daily lives, while allowing the myth of ‘efficiency’ to govern how we rationalise this condition (1). Bisected by a partitioning wall, the gallery space housed several collections of the artists’ personal data, loosely categorised across institutional, social and corporeal systems of classification. A glass vitrine displayed an assortment of documentation pertaining to the ‘State of Ireland’, including medical correspondence, tax details, academic certification and parish records. O’Dea’s passport was casually strewn on a nearby shelf, causing some to question the precarious treatment of such a valuable document. The inter-related issues of identity theft and border control were subsequently highlighted during the artist’s talk as prevailing zeitgeists of the perpetual ‘post-9/11’ era (2). It transpired that, as the result of a clerical error, O’Dea was issued with two birth certificates. Lingering on this fault line for a moment, it became all the more ironic to learn that there is another artist called Tom O’Dea, who has strong links with Galway. In fact, several audience members believed they were attending the exhibition of this absent name-sake – a misunderstanding which added novelty value, while also attesting to the complexity of the artist’s basic premise. Fittingly, his website is entitled iamtomodea.ie.

 

Big Data
A series of tactile sculptural elements manifested the artist’s ‘corporeal’ data, including a wall-mounted folding ruler denoting his height, and a collection of iron counterweights (suggestive of a pre-digital, industrial era) which embodied his exact weight. In an adjacent corner, reams and reams of printed till-roll amassed on the floor, relaying comprehensive details of the artist’s decoded DNA – the archetypal ‘storage unit’ for encoded genetic information, and arguably the ultimate datification of the self. A black filing cabinet purportedly contained ‘everything he has ever said’ (and everything that has been said about him) on social media platforms, while a wall-mounted, mixed media/audio piece, suitably entitled ‘Chatter’, churned out printed electronic conversations any time the artist’s name was mentioned on Twitter. These two artworks contrasted the ephemeral nature of online commentary with a perceived ‘durability’ of paper and the written word. The artworks also denoted a ‘reduced reflexivity’ across social media platforms, which values quantity in ‘likes’ and followers, creating a ‘heightened performativity of the public persona’ in 140 characters or less (3). While Twitter stratifies our random thoughts, the datification of daily life extends to tracking our location, habits and preferences, turning previously invisible processes into valuable meta-data, utilised for optimum economic and commercial gain. With consumerism, State efficiency and surveillance driving this process of datification, internet access has recently been enshrined by the U.N as a fundamental human right (4). Meanwhile, the advent of our current era of ‘whistle-blowers’ has exposed the extent of State surveillance being levied upon citizens in the West, highlighting a discrepancy between personal privacy and State security, ushering new forms of paranoia under late Capitalism. As a field of inquiry, human datification remains fraught with ethical blind-spots, not least in terms of past horrors (such as Nazi eugenics) and futuristic scenarios (as in Dystopian fiction), which prompt society to remain vigilant to the prospect of such dehumanising processes becoming normalised.

 

Intermedia & Performativity
On the far side of the partition, the artist himself – the human being – continued his daily work for the duration of the show. Patently, the artist sought to create a tension between the material ‘signifier(s)’ and the entity being ‘signified’ – a dynamic which felt rather tentative. Despite having read the press release, on entering the far side of the partition I presumed that O’Dea was a gallery attendant. In the absence of physical engagement with materials (other than a laptop) his temporary studio space seemed relatively devoid of artistic process. Arguably, the momentum of ‘making’ cannot be underestimated in the context of practice-based PhD research, as it functions both as panacea and catalyst to the thinking process.
In the broadest sense, New Media Art is pitched in opposition to visual art genres which predate the current era, producing digital, electronic, multi-media, virtual and interactive artworks across a range of film, performance and installation practices. A growing scholarly interest has evolved to encompass virtual communities, Cyborg culture, and philosophy, providing points of convergence for wide-ranging discussions, from Marxist politics to Existentialism. If digital engineers, programmers and archivists choose to produce art, then which parameters govern the distribution of such works, and where is the audience? Undoubtedly, the relatively new science gallery model, with a remit for science outreach, has made art-science collaborations more visible to the wider public through interactivity and participation. As with many propositions involving interdisciplinary artistic practice, many of the usual reservations persist. Will anything be compromised or diluted? To what extent will artworks reflect art historical trajectories, or situate in proximity to contemporary practice? It is often useful to revisit former moments of transition or flux, with the so-called ‘intermedia’ practices of the 1960’s being moderately significant here (5). Employing ‘anti-art’ sensibilities (anti-happening, anti-performance, non-exhibitions), Fluxus artists formed part of an attitude which sought to ‘erase the boundaries between different art tendencies’, amidst the expanded dialogue of conceptual art and neo Avant-garde performance practices (6). In more recent times, interdisciplinary practice has resurfaced to further probe the no-man’s land between genres, occurring at the fringes of New Media, art and technology. Whether ‘digitised performativity’ subjects the body to visceral sacrifice (as in the work of Stelarc), or resists geopolitical surveillance by outlining ‘how to disappear’ (like Hito Steyerl), the many guises of performance, from the reactionary to the theatrical, determine authenticity, how an audience might bear witness to an event, and the indexical function of documentation within this process (7).
(1) 126 Press Release, April 2014 http://visualartists.ie/listings/galway/tom-odea-126-artist-run-gallery/
(2) Tom O’Dea in conversation with Austin Invers, 126 Gallery, 1st May 2014

(3) Papacharissi, Z. (2012) ‘Without You, I’m Nothing: Performances of the Self on Twitter’, International JournalOf Communication 6, 1989–2006.
(4) Lucchi, N. (2011) ‘Access to Network Services and Protection of Constitutional Rights: Recognizing the Essential Role of Internet Access for the Freedom of Expression’, Cardozo Journal of International and Comparative Law (JICL), Vol. 19 (3). Available at: http://www.cjicl.com/uploads/2/9/5/9/2959791/cjicl_19.3_lucchi_article.pdf
(5) See Higgins, D. (1966) ‘Intermedia’, Something Else Newsletter 1, New York: Something Else Press Ltd.
(6) Piotr Piotrowski, P. (2009) In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989, London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
(7) Auslander, P. (2006) ‘The Performativity of Performance Documentation’, Performing Arts Journal, 84, p.p.1-10 http://lmc.gatech.edu/~auslander/publications/28.3auslander.pdf

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