My Facebook BFF: A Conversation with Tyler Bohm

Tyler Bohm, Mona Lisa Defragged, acrylic on wood and Plexiglas, 23 x 35 x 2 inches

Tyler Bohm, Mona Lisa Defragged, acrylic on wood and Plexiglas, 23 x 35 x 2 inches

Since Impressionism, recognition of the interface between painting and light-based imagery has effected a shift from an intellectual engagement in art to a mode of consumption grounded in the biology of human perception. Along with this transition has come a necessary reconsideration of the subject matter of art and self awareness of the role of ideology in systems of art production and consumption. The art of Tyler Bohm, like many artists of his generation, registers a continued fascination with the impact of digital screen culture on contemporary art while acknowledging the legacy of the avant-garde in pioneering critical and analytical strategies. Drawing from a range of approaches originating in Post-Impressionism, DADA, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, Bohm creates art about recognition and assimilation in which the pixel is synecdochical of all visual data. Works like Mona Lisa Defragged restore iconic masterworks to their original basis in traditional art materials, paint on wood, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way that preserves their status as data subject to the occasional glitch. Other works like Game of Life echo a distinctly DADA interest in the ludic as filtered through the nostalgia of video games. These paintings function as allegories of perception in the digital age, the image coming into being as pixels congregate into the sleek, enamel-like icons of contemporary screen interfaces. More recent works question the effects of technology on our experiences of space and social phenomena. Viewed as part of a broader historical trajectory of the merger between aesthetics, design, and perception, we might liken Bohm's strategy to that of Phidias' consideration of the play of light upon the Parthenon marbles in which the success of an ideal concept is affirmed through viewer experience. In this interview Peripheral Vision talks with the artist about what motives his creative production and the role of process in the realization of his projects.

 

Contemporary art is increasingly being described as occupying an "expanded field" within which technology provides new discursive practices, modes of production and consumption. How does your art respond to or interact with technology, either through conceptualization, production, presentation, or distribution?

My work is a response to the environment I inhabit. Like many workers, especially those in the tech or design industries, I spend the majority of my day interfacing with a screen or monitor, so that’s become my frame of reference. This digital environment has certain defining characteristics—it is two-dimensional but has implied depth, it is comprised of pixels, and it is grounded in formal rules and cues like icons and windows common to graphical user interfaces.

Game of Life, mixed media on Plexiglas, 23 x 18 x 3 inches

Game of Life, mixed media on Plexiglas, 23 x 18 x 3 inches

The aesthetics of this environment has bled into works like Game of Life, which is essentially a user interface or video game reimagined as sculpture. The work depicts ambiguous icons and symbolic systems that still feel vaguely familiar given their origins in the everyday experience of using digital technology. They imply a connection between the visual elements despite that connection being purely visual. Here the implied depth of a screen becomes physical depth, created through the layering of plexiglass pieces. Mona Lisa Defragged is another work that extrapolates from digital technologies. The image is comprised of a matrix of painted wood cubes, which function like 3D pixels. Pixilation has become such a familiar phenomenon that the piece reads as a very low res jpeg of this iconic portrait.

Game of Life (detail)

Game of Life (detail)

 

How do you make your art? Please describe your materials and techniques and how they developed.

I have a hybrid approach that uses digital technologies and traditional techniques, with the media often varying from piece to piece. I start with a 2-D program like Illustrator or a 3-D program like Blender and mock up, develop and finalize the design of the piece. Essentially all of the design work is done digitally, and while there’s tremendous latitude to explore concepts in a digital environment, the work doesn’t evolve once the design is finalized. In that sense, the manual process of making the work as a physical object is not creative, it’s more like a fabrication process.

Once the design is set, I use a laser cutter to cut the piece out, typically as a kit of parts which are later reassembled into 3-D objects. I then paint and assemble the various components into the final piece.

Plexiglas is my preferred media, since it can be painted on the reverse side to create a shiny, hyperreal aesthetic. That’s my default approach, but I am always experimenting with techniques and other media such as wood, beeswax, photography, 3-D printing, model train figures, photochromic paint, and dichroic film.

Hacked, mixed media on Plexiglas, 16 x 23 x 3 inches

Hacked, mixed media on Plexiglas, 16 x 23 x 3 inches

I have long been interested in the creative potential of digital technologies, and in particular the translation between the digital and material, what is lost or found in that translation. I love digital technologies but their sophistication can be a double-edged sword, in that digital works sometimes become dated almost as soon as they are created. The technologies simply advance too quickly. Paradoxically, pieces made using traditional media can sometimes feel more contemporary, in that their materials don’t automatically date them to a certain period. It’s like the difference between the original and prequel trilogies of Star Wars. Somehow the original’s puppets and models still feel more alive and magical than the prequels’ CGI effects, which ironically feel more dated to me. That’s just a personal bias, but it’s an abiding one. Just as there are certain pieces that can only exist digitally, there are certain pieces which work better as physical objects.

There are many kinds of fabrication processes for realizing digital concepts IRL. My particular approach evolved in response to the tools I had access to through my work at a design firm, tools which are more typically used to mock up and prototype ideas for industrial design and architectural applications. There’s a certain machine aesthetic embedded in this approach, insofar as the works often end up looking like manufactured objects. That has become part of the appeal for me. While a number of my recent works have relied far more on traditional techniques like painting than fabrication, I am still geared towards that precise, machine aesthetic.

 

Describe a work of art that has been meaningful to you or influential in some way. 

I’ve long been interested in Tim Hawkinson’s work, particularly his motorized self-portrait, Emoter. It’s an articulated photographic portrait that moves through a series of disjointed expressions. The random expressions are ultimately driven by the static flicker of a detuned TV through a series of sensors and gears. There’s something uncanny and deeply disturbing about the piece. As it cycles through these various contortions, you can’t help but empathize with the emotional state implied by each facial configuration, despite knowing that it’s a random, mechanical phenomenon.

From a technical perspective, I am intrigued with how the piece is engineered. It’s sort of a hybrid analogue-digital work that hacks together various technologies in a totally unconventional way. I often think of this piece when I am moving from the “ok, this is what I want to do” phase to the “so how do I actually do this?” phase of a particular work. It reminds me to keep in mind that the engineering aspect of a piece, the way it is constructed or fabricated, really is just an extension of the creative process rather than just a means to an end.

From the perspective of the work’s social significance, it seems to make an interesting commentary on how we interface with technology. Because I am a human being I have certain hardwired responses to human expressions, and I’ll have those regardless of whether I am looking at an actual person or an automated replica like Emoter. So much contemporary technology seems expertly designed to exploit or cater to these kinds of basic human responses and needs. That tension between human impulses and the increasing sophistication of digital technologies is a recurrent idea in my work. I might have an idiosyncratic take on Emoter, but to me it nicely encapsulates this idea.

 

Talk about a recent exhibition of your art. What pieces did you show and how do they relate to other works in your portfolio?

I recently participated in a group exhibition entitled "It’s Not Funny" at the Rochester Contemporary Art Center. I exhibited three pieces exploring the impact of social media on our relationships and social behavior. These works—Filter Bubble I, Filter Bubble II, and Almost Utopia—use model train figures to create miniature, sci-fi themed scenarios.

Almost Utopia, model figures on Plexiglas, 23 x 23 x 2 inches, 2017

Almost Utopia, model figures on Plexiglas, 23 x 23 x 2 inches, 2017

Filter Bubble I and II consist of crowds of model train figures forming smiley and sad face emojis, encapsulated in Plexiglas domes. I was thinking about social media filter bubbles, specifically the way they sell you a sense of community at the cost of distorting reality. They lure you into the false sense that the world is a place that conforms to your beliefs and attitudes. While the internet developed through communities of like-minded individuals with shared interests, individuals were always making a conscious choice to be a part of these communities. Filter bubbles, on the other hand, are the result of algorithms generated by behaviors over time, and we're largely unaware of what those patterns are or how they're shaping our online realities. There's very little conscious choice involved. In that sense, I think of filter bubbles as a kind of trap we're often only dimly aware of being ensnared in.

These pieces explore that idea as a kind of science fiction set piece - a community trapped inside a dome. I'm interested in science fiction themes that anticipate or are implicit in contemporary developments, and the idea that our communities are created by machine logic that traps us in a skewed version of reality is pure science fiction. The miniature, toy-like qualities of the pieces are part of their humor, but also serve to underscore how innocuous and normal this state of affairs often seems to us.

Almost Utopia (detail)

Almost Utopia (detail)

Like the Filter Bubble pieces, Almost Utopia looks at social media phenomena through the lens of science fiction tropes. It suggests a crowd which are almost entirely in consensus, signified by the Facebook "like" symbol, save for one dissenting individual. Dystopian and utopian narratives often touch on issues of conformity, and tend to suggest that it's either the basis of an ideal society or a totalitarian one. In the context of social media, it's interesting how addictive being "liked" is, and how it can subconsciously shape the viewpoints and content we choose to share. The result can be a form of social conformity. While the piece is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, it also touches on the basic human desire to be part of a group, and how this plays out in a society of ever increasing technological sophistication.

These pieces represent a bit of a departure for me in terms of media, so I’ve tended to treat them as a standalone series. Thematically, however, they are very much in keeping with my broader interests in the overlap between contemporary technologies and science fiction.

   

In the history of art and architecture Eliel Saarinen's unbuilt 1922 design for the Tribune Tower stands out as a work which became influential despite being unrealized. Describe an unrealized project which you consider important to your practice or which you hope to realize in the future.

For the past several years I have been keeping track of any interesting concepts or thought experiments in Evernote, so my list of unrealized projects has become pretty unruly. My work rarely arises out of the process of making, it usually originates with an idea or insight that seems worth investigating. I am not terribly concerned that the vast majority of these concepts will likely never be realized, either because they’re impractical or just never become a priority. Having unrealized, or maybe even unrealizable projects, is what motivates and engages me. Completed works sometimes feel more like documentation of an idea or a proof of concept rather than an end in themselves.

My FB BFF, inkjet print, velvet, gold mirrored plexiglass, 22 x 33 x 2 inches, 2017

My FB BFF, inkjet print, velvet, gold mirrored plexiglass, 22 x 33 x 2 inches, 2017

There is, however, one unrealized project that I am excited about and hope to realize in the future, largely because it feels like a logical continuation of a theme that I have explored in recent works. I have several pieces which deal broadly with how IT has changed the way information is conveyed and absorbed. One piece, My FB BFF, creates a composite portrait out of my Facebook friends’ profile pics. Another, TLDR: 1984 Condensed, reprints the entirety of George Orwell’s 1984 on a single sheet of paper. Both attempt to condense a tremendous amount of data into a very small, finite space, acting like visual analogues of a compression algorithm.

I intend to build on this theme in a new piece with the tentative title of Highway 1 Compressed. The idea is to take a trip up Highway 1 in Google Street View, starting in Los Angeles and ending near San Francisco/Silicon Valley. Along the way I plan to take hundreds of screen captures of the surrounding scenery. Eventually I will reassemble and realign them as horizontal strips comprising a single image. The final image will, at least in a figurative sense, condense the entire trip into an instant.

TLDR: 1984 Condensed, inkjet print and plexiglass, 17 x 23 x 1 inches, 2017

TLDR: 1984 Condensed, inkjet print and plexiglass, 17 x 23 x 1 inches, 2017

 

One of the unfortunate legacies of modern art is a persistent myth in the nobility of the "struggling" artist. Conversely, a speculative global art market and media coverage of secondary market auction sales creates a skewed perception that financial success is attainable. How does an awareness of the art market affect your practice? How have you learned to negotiate market pressures, either in the commercial market or in the academic "market of ideas?”

For me it boils down to having my own definition of success, rather than passively internalizing some social consensus of what success looks like. The reality is that there are far more artists than sustainable opportunities, in both commercial and alternative or academic markets. And markets tend to be fickle. So it’s very easy given that context to feel invalidated if one’s benchmark is commercial or critical success, since the odds of failure are so great. What I try to do is focus on growing and evolving my practice, investigating ideas that inspire me regardless of whether they’re viable in various markets, and defining success on those terms. I imagine that’s a pretty common approach, since that freedom is what is ultimately appealing about being an artist to begin with.

Rosetta Stone, mixed media on Plexiglas, 33 x 21 x 2 inches

Rosetta Stone, mixed media on Plexiglas, 33 x 21 x 2 inches

The trick, if there is one, is probably finding a way to successfully navigate commercial and other market pressures without catering to them or cratering because of them. Being savvy and well-informed but also, on some level, insulated. Like the vast majority of artists, art is not my sole source of income, which gives me some flexibility in that regard. It is always a difficult thing to wrap your head around, since there’s such an apparent disconnect between creative practices, which are so highly eccentric and personal, and market forces, which take that creative work and treat it as another commodity.