In The Principle of Hope, Ernst Bloch cautions against an approach to an uncertain future which is founded on “contemplative knowledge,” warning that “because merely contemplative knowledge necessarily refers to what is closed and thus to what is past, it is helpless against what is present and blind to the future.” Instead, he urges us to approach the future in a mode of “militant optimism,” which privileges process and human agency. Such an approach is exemplified by the works of Ry David Bradley, which comment on the difficulties of image-making, specifically painting, in the post-internet era by engaging directly with the mechanisms of production in an information-dense, globalised environment. Bradley directly employs the processes of instancing, fabrication, copying and versioning, making works which are themselves the ambiguous products of an informational matrix. As Bradley notes, “the object itself becomes a placeholder for a globalised condition.”
The object in question, in Bradley’s practice, is a printed copy from a digital file, created by using software to modify a found image. Rather than positioning his works, in a Warholian or Murakamian gesture, as “products”—consumerist totems or elements of a brand identity—Bradley is manipulating the processes of mechanical production and manufacture as a painter, and his outcomes are fundamentally painterly ones. These paintings are beguiling on the level of surface, printed onto synthetic suede using special, heat-activated dyes, but their lush physicality belies a more pressing issue: what are we actually looking at, and where is it? How does the viewer locate and engage with a work of art when its totality is multivalent, spread across a number of formats and incarnations? The painting on the wall is ultimately a manifestation of a digital file, but it is not a true representation of the materiality of that file itself. Bradley again: “The resultant problem with locating digital materiality is manifold: substrates where files are stored are not made visible, the networks through which they traverse are also buried within engineering infrastructure and are as such misunderstood.” In looking at a fabricated object, we are susceptible to the illusion that we are looking at a faithful reproduction of a digital “original,” whereas in reality the object is the outcome of a process, the result of a set of instructions which encode its properties but have their own obscure physicality, existing as bits of information in a digital storage medium.
In addition to their ambiguous physicality, Bradley’s practice calls into question the temporal characteristics of his artworks, and the assumption that they are positioned at the end of a timescale culminating in a state of completion or resolution: “If the fabrications of objects from the network are at best prototypes, rather than finished objects, textiles or structures, they offer promise. In this way the digitally printed object may be a harbinger for the end of the finished object as such…” The idea of the work as an ongoing process, which is temporarily arrested, but not halted, by the printing or fabrication of certain outcomes, aligns Bradley closely to the attitude of “militant optimism” which Bloch advises. Bradley’s engagement with the potentialities of the future does not come from a position which is anchored in an imagined past, but one which engages proactively with those elements of both history and the present which in some way presage or intimate the developments which are to come.