The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Jamie Sutcliffe: I’d like to talk about your understanding of the internet as an expanded territory or ecosystem, specifically in relation to the series of Tumblr sites you maintain because I always feel this disorienting sense of submersion when I scroll through them. Whether they’re gathering images relating to the emergent infrastructures of biotechnology, strange sashimi plates, or rarely seen organisms, the sites are vertiginous acts of species-othering. Experiencing them is like peering over the edge of a subaquatic trench into some kind of abyssal future or timeless pre-history, with all the attendant alien ecologies. Do you see the sites as having some kind of destabilising function in the complexities they suggest? (i.e. are they supposed to freak me out and make me feel vulnerable?)
Joey Holder: My Tumblr sites started out as a way of simply collecting images for specific themes I was researching for exhibitions. They acted like sketch books or mood boards which I could quickly refer to when thinking about a project. As they grew over time, I started to think about them more as works in themselves and about how a collection of found images could become distinctly my own work.
My Tumblr site Dark Creatures features an array of creatures that don’t seem to fit within the fabric of our usual day-to-day existence. It’s not my aim to freak people out with my image choices, but make them more aware of the breadth of life forms which exist right here on earth.
I think of the internet itself as a complex entity, like a living organism, expanding and contracting. Its territories are as far-reaching as they are controlled. I am interested in the way that network theories, complexity theory, and emergence are related to ‘natural’ as well as ‘synthesized’ systems and the points at which the two diverge.
Using Tumblr and other sharing platforms allows me to quickly upload fragments of ideas and images to a network where they are able to travel away from their point of origin. We are now more acutely aware of the way in which images and ideas can transform and mutate through the net and have their own 'life', so to speak. With these images I want people to reconsider old binaries like notions of the ‘artificial’ and the ‘organic.’
The ever growing list of my Tumblrs:
JS: The Tumblrs work like a head-up-display: they facilitate exploration through an endlessly scrolling act of browsing, and the deeper you venture, the weirder things become until subject-positions are drawn into question by the seemingly endless species diversity. It makes me wonder how certain techniques of the interface have affected your approach to installation and the way you might have come to configure information in an immersive spatial sense. Nematode (2015) presented at Wysing Arts Centre, UK, was a great example of this in the way that it was simultaneously instructive and dizzying.
JH: Working online I always wanted to somehow break the format of the screen, or mess with the conventional interface. The screen can be a portal to so many new worlds, so I want to explore, rather than limit myself. It's kind of the same within the gallery. Many artists have access to amazing digital tools these days so it’s hard for me to understand why they wouldn't want to use these technologies to break down the convention of the white walled space, and open it up to other worlds and environments, yet so many stick to the same old format. There is so much that is possible. I ask why settle, why stop?
When I began to work with digital media I was freed somewhat from static object based work within a gallery setting. Online space has allowed my work to be represented as a continuous flow—a process where there is a loss of hierarchy between a finished artwork and something in progress, or an appropriated image to a large-scale installation.
Joey Holder, Nematode installation shot (2015)
The work I made for Nematode at Wysing Arts Centre depicts a landscape at the bottom of the Antarctic Ocean. I used recorded footage from an ROV submersible, and the wall prints are of ‘black smokers’: underwater volcanoes which are home to some of the world’s most unique ecosystems. The interface applied over the top of this footage shows an app being used to compare genetic data sets of differing species. We know so little about these underwater environments, yet they have the potential to provide us with so much— perhaps the ingredients for sustainable biofuels or the key to unlocking the secrets of our own cellular makeup (as it’s thought that the environment of the deep sea is similar to the conditions at the beginning of life on earth).
JS: One of the things that really strikes me about your film work, especially PROTEUS (2015) and Dark Creatures (2015) is your use of absurd taxonomic vocabularies, specialist terms that seem to open up new avenues of speculative thought. You draw frequently on this science-fictive lexicon so I wondered if you could talk a little about how language has come to function in these pieces?
JH: I often use text I find within scientific research papers or writings about natural history. When I first started using text in this way I was thinking about how so much writing around art is hard to access and understand, you need an art education to get through the jargon and often then it’s still impossible. It’s the same in a lot of ways with scientific writing, there's certain terminology that is difficult for the layperson to comprehend. I started to piece together fragments of scientific and natural history passages to make new narratives and often use these as press releases or text within videos. The texts aren’t usually speculative. They are taken directly from ‘science fact,’ which with the advent of things like synthetic biology is now much stranger than science fiction.
Joey Holder, PROTEUS (2015- ongoing)
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
New technology was always quite prominent in my life as growing up my dad always wanted to get his hands on the latest gadgets. I was the first kid at school to have a mobile phone. But working digitally only became the dominant media in my artwork around 2011, before then I was painting. I remember discovering the work of Kari Altmann and Iain Ball at around this time, and they had a huge influence on me and the way that I wanted to work.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I grew up in Lincolnshire—a rural area of the UK. I studied Art, Biology, and Chemistry at school and went on to study art at postgraduate level, first doing a painting BA course at Kingston University and completed my MFA at Goldsmiths, London in 2010.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
My most interesting occupation previously was working as a divemaster taking people scuba diving in Turkey. My job right now is working within a medical research department at a university.
What does your desktop or workspace look like?
I recently made a website whereby you can download the complete contents of my computer's hard drive as a torrent file—a mix of collected material, finished works and stuff in progress, free to download and use. For this project the website was an exact mirror of my desktop.
Joey Holder, 1.7TB, www.17tb.site (2016)
Header image: Joey Holder, Nematode installation shot (2015)