Anyone with a passing interest in the current status of the Internet and World Wide Web will have noticed a curious thing: the tide of popular opinion is changing, and net-skepticism is on the rise. Although we’re not quite at the stage of torch- and pitchfork-bearing mobs, there is a general mood of unease that, at the very least, is causing people to pause before they post. This is a sea change driven by the awareness that certain individual civil liberties are being surreptitiously eroded online: dataveillance is rife, social media platforms are really content farms, the cloud is a ticking time bomb, and nobody really owns any of the digital media they pay for.
New books by giants of net-doubt Jaron Lanier (Who Owns the Future) and Evgeny Morozov (To Save Everything Click Here) are currently whipping the commentariat into think-piece frenzy, but what came like a bolt from the blue was a recent article in the March edition of Artforum. "Gestural Abstractions," written by Alexander Provan (Editor of online art magazine Triple Canopy) was a short, sharp text exploring the possible physiological ramifications of a patent for gestural interfaces pending by Apple. The thrust of Provan’s argument was that Apple were "indisputably striving to corner the market on how we move our fingers across screens, how we scan and massage images," and that simultaneous plans to patent physical movement away from screens, à la Minority Report-style gestural interface operation, were in development. The key question that emerged by the text’s end was a dystopian what-if: what if we find ourselves in a situation where corporations patent everyday gestures like waving goodbye or even throwing up the corna, thereby emptying these signs of meaning, and psychologically associating them with standardized operations for accessing online data? Moreover, how would this new climate affect an artist whose practice uses gesture as an essential bridge between the physical and digital? Step forward Jeremy Bailey, self-proclaimed “world famous new media artist.”
Image from Apple patent application ‘Device, Method, and Graphical User Interface Using Mid-Drag Gestures’ published March 31, 2011. Publication number: US 2011/0074695 A1
Since the early noughties Bailey has ploughed a compelling, and often hilarious, road through the various developments of digital communications technologies. Ostensibly a satire on, and parody of, the practices and language of "new media," the jocose surface of Bailey’s work hides an incisive exploration of the critical intersection between video, computing, performance, and the body. The unique terrain of Bailey’s work sits between a collision of the rarefied and the populist. On one side stands McLuhanite media theory and contemporary art historical debates (specifically the rhetoric of the 1970s Portapak, performance for the camera, era of video art); on the other stands the nerdy world of self-deprecating, super nice webcasters, video game enthusiasts, and computer programmers—see Bailey’s Strongest Man (2003). This meeting of worlds is often formalized in instructional videos that demonstrate software that Bailey designs.
An essential feature of this work is the generation of graphics from data streams produced by Bailey’s own gestures and movements, which augment real world video footage. For example, in the single-channel video Videopaint 3.0 (2007) Bailey demonstrates a program that tracks the user's movements to produce brushstrokes. In Presentation Software (2009) he uses circling hand movements to rotate objects, and in The Future of Television (2012) his facial movements flip through video footage that has been segmented into slices across his face.
In the hypothetical dystopian future, where all possible human-computer interface gestures, from blinking to waving, fall under the patent controls of monolithic digital communications companies, could Bailey’s work be pushed into a decidedly unexpected sphere: that of political art? Could his catalogue of works be retroactively categorized as emblematic examples of gestural protest? It’s possible, but perhaps unlikely. Still, the idea that Bailey’s videos could one day circulate through the deepweb’s murky depths as illegal and subversive protest art is an interesting one. And, when it comes to leading the ensuing digital resistance, who better than Bailey? In fact, he’s already building the suit.