Combining digitally generated images with traditional chemical photographic printing processes, Andrew Beck produces fractured, dispersed entities that play on the idea of the art object as a body, a corporeal form subject to degradation and decay. He relates this to the status of the digital image, itself an uneasy passenger that becomes diffuse and unclear through its iterative versioning and reproduction. The title of this exhibition, Image Atrophy, refers to this concept of an image breaking up, losing its fidelity, becoming noisy and uncertain. Sitting in an uneasy middle-ground between the physical and the virtual, Beck’s works cannot completely be described as either photographs or paintings, analogue or digital. In their indeterminate status, they reflect the polyvalent nature of images themselves in a post-digital age, neither true nor false, divorced from the kind of contextual clues that lay behind image production during the twentieth century.
Beck’s process of collaging and recombining his images, in works such as the Broken Images series from this exhibition, invites comparisons to the polymorphic, amorphous nature of internet image repositories such as Google Image Search and Instagram. In these chaotic virtual libraries, the individuality of the image is brought into question as each entry bleeds and folds into those around it, becoming lost in a deluge of information that approaches the status of chaos. The Broken Images are likewise chimeric, hybrid forms, talismans of uncertain origin cast ashore by the tide of informational oversaturation.
As a way of thinking through the implications of the digital fragmentation of images, Beck has created several works that refer to the Boids computer simulation, a 1980s program designed to model the way flocks of animals move together. This program functions emergently, using a set of simple rules that interact with one another to produce complex, unpredictable outcomes. In the Atrophy Study works, Beck takes images of flocks of these “bird-oid objects” and processes them into a low-resolution pixelated image which is then transferred to photographic paper, problematising the relationship between physical and virtual space. The resulting images are ghostly, evoking the aesthetic of ultrasound scans; grainy, residual effigies or totems of unseen forces, things that have yet to emerge from the collective womb of the digital unconscious.
Beck uses these works to visualise the constantly growing and changing multitude of digital images circulating online, a formless mass moving and flowing but never assuming a settled form. By invoking the concept of emergent behaviour, Beck is questioning the idea of artistic agency and the concept of images as discrete objects; rather, he points towards a view of art as a constant process of images colliding and interpenetrating one another, generating new contexts and meanings with each permutation. This is, in effect, what Baudrillard means by hyper-reality—an endless series of referents, pointing only to one another rather than to any discernible “truth.”
The central works in Image Atrophy are the large-scale photograms Alignment, Separation and Cohesion, named for the three fundamental rules of the Boids program. These also engage with the physicality of digital images, confronting the viewer with framed screens not dissimilar to the black rectangle of the smartphone in their pocket. In these works, the endless digital reflections of ourselves that suffuse our lives become fractured, oblique structures, splinters of light twisting and spilling from the bottomless void of an inert screen. These works point towards the clean, impossibly precise geometry of computer-generated vector drawing, but their analogue method of construction problematises this reading. In Beck’s work, the digital and the physical become entangled and confused; perhaps, he suggests, the distinction is either non-existent or not meaningful.
Confronted with the profusion and devaluation of the photographic image that characterises the contemporary media landscape, Beck’s approach makes sense. Deploying references to retro-futurist aesthetics drawn from ’90s digital culture, Beck suggests that in these fever-dream visions of unconsummated futures can be found points of slippage and ambiguity that shed light on contemporary anxieties and dilemmas.