Scrolling. The action that seems to be filling most of our free time these days. From the moment you wake up, turning over to pick up your phone from the bedside table, you check the time as a flood of messages and notifications come through. This is how it begins. You are lured in. Consumed by a world that exists entirely online. It is not physical, it is not tangible, does it even have a taste?
An hour disappears. The kettle has boiled and you pour out the steaming water into a mug. As you wait for the tea to infuse, you scroll...again. Is it a ritual or are you addicted? Addicted to this magical and unlimited source of information that keeps us entertained, connected and fundamentally hooked. As with many other routines, our scrolling, our watching, our liking, commenting, posting and sharing has become a habit. A habit that a short decade ago didn’t even exist, at least not in the same capacity.
The rapid advancement of technology has altered the structure of the world around us. In our day-to-day lives we take for granted the level of reliance we truly have on these systems, as well as the complex coding behind them. It is difficult to comprehend that every download, every comment, image or video we share online will take up data and space within the Internet. Based on reports from 2020, it was found that 995 photos are uploaded to Instagram every second, while an average of 500 million tweets are posted on Twitter each day. But as these figures continue to grow year on year, what will become of all this information? Where will it go, how will it be stored and how will future generations access it?
Applying an archaeological approach to his topic, contemporary artist Josh Rowell explores the depths of the Internet to uncover the forgotten, often fleeting moments of our digital past. Having graduated with an MFA from Kingston School of Art in 2015, Rowell has gone on to exhibit internationally in New York, Miami, Basel, Hong Kong, London and Mexico, as well as had work acquired by various public art collections, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Last year the artist also became joint winner of the Dentons Art Prize 9.0 and ahead of the Covid-19 crisis, was able to share his solo exhibition ‘Salon Acme’ (February, 2020) at the Daniel Benjamin Gallery in Mexico City.
Creating precise and intricate work, Rowell applies hand rendered techniques to create ‘monuments’ in memory of passing internet trends. However, it is not the extraction of information alone that intrigues Rowell, it is the relationship that we have in a greater and more abstract sense with social media and technology. Through his work, we begin to question our present habits, and are invited to ponder over what all this information will mean in future, speculating as to how we will look back and what it will tell us about our present day selves. To discover more about his practice, I caught up with Rowell to explore the themes that not only inspire, but often concern him too, and dive further into his role as Archivist for the digital age.
GS: Your work often explores the use of language, technology and media within our modern day lives. Can you tell us more about what interests you about these themes and your reasons for investigating the influence they have?
JR: My primary influence is the role technology plays in reshaping the world around us, and from that starting point I bring in other themes that incorporate language and media and so on. I suppose I’ve always wanted to make art that is very much of the ‘current day’ and I believe art functions at its best when it is addressing the contemporary themes within which it has been created. We live in a time of rapidly advancing technology which is redefining almost every aspect of our daily lives, and that is what I want to highlight and explore through my work.
GS: When acknowledging the advancement in social media over the last decade, what intrigues you about the changes happening in the ways we communicate?
JR: The way we communicate through the social media space is highly intriguing because it has created entirely new social behaviours that did not previously exist. It has become a platform for heightened narcissism, trolling, cat fishing, viral information flow, communication through meme culture and so on. There are positives and negatives. These are either entirely new concepts, or underlying human traits that have been given a space in which to proliferate. There is also a fascinating contradiction emerging through this social media bubble, where it is bringing us closer together and simultaneously isolating us. We can see what all of our friends are doing, from what they eat for breakfast to where they go on holiday, but because we are feeding our inherent social instincts in that way, we are actually having fewer and fewer ‘real life’ interactions. I think from an artistic perspective this provides so much scope for exploration.
GS: Social media is a very transient medium, however you take these fleeting moments from our digital screens and make them permanent within the physical world. What intrigues you about archiving information in this way and why is it important to do so?
JR: Taking on a role as an Archivist for the digital age is an idea that I am really interested in. When we think of an archive we think of a collection of great historical value that one might find in the British Library for example, but what does it mean to start recording and archiving events specifically taking place within the Internet? The emergence of the Internet is, in my opinion, the defining moment of our era. However, I believe we are so deeply involved in it that we often take it for granted or cannot even see it. By attempting to capture certain events within the Internet’s history, I am trying to highlight their significance. For example, take my painting ‘All there is to say’ (2018), coded within it is the transcript of the first ever YouTube video, an 18-second clip from 2005 showing one of the YouTube co-founders describing his day trip to San Diego Zoo. He finishes the video by saying “and that’s pretty much all there is to say.” For me there is a beautiful irony in this statement, whilst he may have thought that was all there was to say, in actual fact this video was the starting point for the largest ever video based social sharing platform that has ever existed. This is surely a significant moment in history? By turning that text into a painting that will last for decades or centuries, I am trying to construct ‘monuments’ to these significant events.
GS: Creating a dialogue between the virtual and the real is a continuous theme within your practice. What conversation are you opening up about these opposed or seemingly interconnected relationships?
JR: All of my work plays on the boundary between the real and the virtual. There are a number of reasons why I am so interested in exploring this relationship. Often when you think of a post-internet artist you associate them with new media, video, installation and so on, but I always felt inspired to address these contemporary themes through more traditional handmade means. The digital world is one that exists within a virtual space, we cannot touch it, so by making my works as physical objects I believe it opens up an interesting area to investigate. I think the desire to explore this comes from a personal position of inner turmoil and debate, one that I suspect is broadly shared amongst people living today. We are seeing more and more of our daily lives shifting into this intangible virtual space, is that a good thing? I don’t know the answer, but ultimately that’s why I’m turning codes into hand painted canvases instead of writing a basic programme and printing them. I’m trying to mimic the computer whilst saying that we as humans still have ability and utility within our advanced technological society. Perhaps my work plays on the idea of nostalgia, or perhaps it is simply an extrapolation of the position that we find ourselves in, straddling the boundary between the real and the virtual. We are constantly flitting between the two, so it makes total sense to me to make work that sits in that same position.
GS: The canvases you mention come from your ‘Painting Language’ series, which presents a body of text in a hand painted coded format. Can you tell us more about the significance of using code within your work and the process behind this series?
JR: The ‘Painting Language’ series takes inspiration from the function of the digital world and makes it ‘real’ through painting. I wanted to make work that referenced the way communication has developed since the birth of the Internet, since we can now send a message to anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time, instantly. These instant messages and the platforms or apps we use to send them, are all underpinned by complex coding systems. So, by taking text I decided to create my own code, one that was visual and functioned through colour sequencing. Everything is contained within the painting, including the capitalisation of letters, punctuation and paragraph structures, but just as a computer code would, it operates within a defined set of rules and parameters in order to achieve an outcome. These works are my homage to the invisible architecture of the digital age. Coders are in a sense demi-gods that have carved out a new reality and plane for existence, and perhaps the Internet can be seen as the greatest work of literature humanity has ever known.
GS: Why is it important for you to utilise hand rendered techniques and what other artistic influences have informed your work?
JR: By adopting traditional art making techniques I create objects of permanence in an increasingly transient world. As for my artistic influences, they are incredibly broad. Whilst my practice is mostly limited to 2D work for now, this does not stop me from drawing inspiration from a far-reaching catalogue of artists. In the mid 2010’s I had a ‘eureka moment’ when I first discovered post Internet and video art. It was then that I started to really question the nature of the ‘real’ within the parameters of 21st century life. Names like Hito Steyerl, Jordan Wolfson, Ryan Trecartin, Benedict Drew, Lindsay Seers all spring to mind. When I think of other influences, I can see now how coming across the works of Peter Halley was probably another hugely significant moment within my own practice. He, and the Neo-geo painters that emerged in 1980’s New York were creating works that responded to the age in which they lived, a post-industrial world that had fully shifted from handmade to machine made. Clean, hard-edged painting reflected the perfection of that machine-made world, or the ‘geometrization’ of their surroundings. These works were cultural signifiers, they referenced both the promise and the threat that advancing technologies were having on humanity, and this is what I am trying to do several decades later.
GS: Your ‘Mosaics’ series takes a look at the advancing culture of tweets and memes and transforms them into physical objects. What do you feel this series is communicating about changes in our consumption and experience of information?
JR: The mosaic series is a fairly recent development within my practice where each of these pieces have taken inspiration from trending comment memes that you can find on social media platforms. These comments vary from comical, to weird, to alarming! Take the work ‘Toxic Relationship II’ (2020) for example, it was at one point trending across the comment sections of celebrity Instagram accounts. The thing that really struck me about these comment memes was the fact that they only seem to be popular for a short period of time, perhaps a couple of months at best, before they are then replaced with the next popular comment to copy and paste. I think this is indicative of the way in which we use social media. We are constantly updating and refreshing and posting. Building layer upon layer of information, and by digging back down through the history of our feeds, I want to capture these strange little moments. The idea to recreate them as mosaics was to play on this concept of the works being almost ‘archaeological’. There are real similarities between searching through the forgotten detritus of social media feeds, to digging up the earth and discovering some ancient artefact.
GS: ‘Mosaics’ was featured in the Daniel Benjamin Gallery online exhibition ‘II’ (April 2020), which placed your works into archaeological environments. This provided a distinct contrast between works such as ‘Kanye Blessed’ (2020) and the historical context in which it is placed. Why did you choose to display the work in this performative way?
JR: There were a few reasons for this. The exhibition ‘II’ happened at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic when the art world was beginning to shift all of its focus online. When discussing how to approach this with Andrea Maffioli, director of Daniel Benjamin Gallery, we decided we wanted to try something different and by using Photoshop to place the mosaics within these ancient ruins, I was able to approach the exhibition in a more playful and immersive manner. The works adopt an ancient craft technique so it seemed fitting to place them in Greco-Roman surroundings where in an ironic way, they sort of belong.
GS: Over the last year we have spent an increased amount of time online, altering the way we engage, communicate and work with others. Do you feel our reliance on technology has increased, and was this inevitable?
JR: The pandemic has been a catalyst for change, accelerating many things that were previously in motion, and none more so than our continued voyage into the virtual world. Our screen time has inevitably shot upwards and large swathes of us now work from home relying on zoom meetings and so on. The art world is another prime example. The artistic community used to travel from city to city to participate at art fairs, whereas now collectors receive VIP invites to view work from their laptop screens instead. This shift will undoubtedly have an influence on the way we live our lives going forward. There will be positives and negatives, but the pandemic has only sped up the direction we were already going in.
GS: How might this increasing reliance on technology affect our behaviour, or even the physical world around us?
JR: I think that the more we interact online, the more we will see it change our behaviour. In the last year we have seen a surge in conspiracy theories, the rise of Q-Anon and the dissemination of misinformation on huge scales. Taking place through Internet forums, these things have had major geopolitical implications. At the time of writing this, a Reddit forum called WallStreetBets made headline news through a sophisticated and organized attack on hedge funds. This entire movement started as a meme and now has the potential to shake the stock market to its very core and change the future of trading altogether. All of these things start off with people talking to each other in chat rooms and online forums, and with increasing regularity they are having a profound impact on our daily lives.
GS: This paints an uncomfortable and uncertain picture, but as our reliance on technology continues, could we see these lines between the virtual and the real becoming increasingly blurred? Or will one always have more importance than the other?
JR: For a long time I have lived under the assumption that "as long as you can smash a computer against a rock, on some fundamental level the physical world will always have a form of supremacy". What I mean by this is that developers can develop software, coders can write code, the internet can grow exponentially, virtual reality can become realer than real, but you can still drop your smartphone on the ground and break it. It becomes a permanent reminder that we rely on something that is fundamentally vulnerable. This is where I got inspiration for my series, ‘Virtually Fragile’. I was quite literally capturing the moment a screen shatters. I wanted the paintings to represent that instant moment of loss, when we are forced to disconnect from the virtual space that we spend increasing amounts of time inhabiting. However, as technology evolves and we move further towards AI and machine intelligence, all I can really say is that if we think the boundary is blurred now, it is nothing to what it will be like in the years ahead.
GS: An increased reliance on technology might feel quite daunting to some people. We are already connecting and experiencing so much through a screen, however this has potentially led to a more common and wide-spread experience of anxiety. How do you manage your relationship towards your phone and social media?
JR: I am probably not a good person to answer this question! I think we all know what we should do, but a lot of us are not very good at doing it. Many studies have now shown that social media has a negative impact on mental health. Unfortunately it can promote feelings of inadequacy about your life or your appearance and so on. I think this is of particular concern for the younger generation who really only know a world in which social media exists. My advice would be to not take social media too seriously, and to not put unrealistic expectations or pressure on yourself.
GS: When thinking about the positive and negative effects of technology, what conversation would you like your work to open up with the viewer?
JR: What I really want is for people to see my work and think about the implications of living in a technologically advanced world. Taking a step back from everything, I try to pinpoint certain markers, events and behaviours that have emerged, but we are otherwise not paying attention to. In a way, I am trying to highlight the importance of these phenomena, and ‘screenshot them’, making them permanent, physical and solid. I want people to see my work as though it is one-step removed from our everyday lives, which are bombarded with information, to provide people with a moment to reflect on the things that are happening around us all the time, yet going unnoticed.
GS: In April 2020, the Museum of London launched the ‘Collecting Covid’ project to document the experiences of Londoners throughout the Covid-19 crisis. As part of the initiative, the museum acquired 13 tweets that went viral during the first Lockdown. What are your thoughts on this, and how might this influence the role of museums?
JR: I think this is a really interesting move by the Museum of London, and represents an exciting progression for the way in which museums can build their collections moving forwards. This is a clear indicator that institutions are beginning to recognise the relevance and importance of social media and Internet content, highlighting the wealth of cultural capital being produced purely online. Whilst it is still unclear how exactly a tweet can be ‘acquired', or indeed how it can be displayed in a museum setting, I think this move can set a precedent for the way in which museums or institutions think about archiving the world around us today and the events through which we are living. The breadth and depth of content being produced online is staggering, so it is only natural that we start to acknowledge the social media space, not just as a tool for the consumption of information, but also as a place in which culturally significant commodities are being created and shared. In today’s world, a viral tweet can have as great a social impact as a ‘real world’ event, and museums have a cultural responsibility to recognise that.
GS: With the impact of viral tweets and social media in mind, what are you currently exploring within your work?
JR: I am currently working on an entirely new series of work, which is still very much in its early stages. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is inspired by the way in which we are moving increasingly into a post-truth era. I think these are quite frightening times in which there often seems to be more value in lies than in truth. As I previously touched on, the Internet has provided the perfect space for misinformation to be spread at ease and on a huge scale. The finished ‘pieces’ in this series will be hand sewn and will naturally fall under my broader concept of digital vs. real, and I am very excited to show them to the world.
GS: It feels as though we have been caught up in the digital world for a long time now. What are you most looking forward to when lockdown ends?
JR: I am most looking forward to visiting exhibitions again, exhibiting my work in shows and art fairs as usual, and going to a pub for a drink with my friends, seeing them in real life rather than just sending each other WhatsApps!