Dominic Harris: Crafting Digital Art from The Stock Market
By Paul Beatrix, The Economist
“I’m quite obsessed with structuring the world around me,” Dominic Harris tells me as I follow him around his expansive canal-side studio in North Kensington. “And, beyond that, it’s about drawing on the stories of how forms have taken on significance.” The British architect-turned-artist has produced conceptually and technologically complex works, continuously redefining the scope of digital art over the last 15 years. Now, he’s about to open his most ambitious exhibition to date at Halcyon Gallery’s new flagship site on New Bond Street. “Throughout the history of art, technological innovations have allowed generations of artists to explore new possibilities,” says Paul Green, the gallery’s President, and Founder. “Dominic is pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the medium.” Titled Feeding Consciousness, the show features eighteen new interactive works combining AI, code, machine learning, 3D sensors and other cutting-edge technology.
The origin myth of the Tower of Babel serves as the inspiration for two central works. The first, titled Limitless, consists of an eight-foot-high vertical touchscreen upon which a tower of gold blocks appears stacked together. Each of them is stamped with a company’s logo and is connected to the FTSE share index which, in turn, dictates the blocks’ position and degree of tarnish or lustre. Altogether, the piece manifests real-time fluctuations of the market it is connected to, providing a didactic and conceptual reflection of capital growth. Upon touching the screen, the faces of the companies’ CEOs appear, nodding to the financial market’s human dimension. “It’s quite an opulent celebration,” says the artist. “Yet, if this tower were ever to fall, it would be game over for everybody, right?”
The second is the show’s namesake work, Feeding Consciousness: a ten-foot tower-like sculpture composed of 180 screens fed from the top-most discussed topics on Google at any given time and place. The result is an ever-changing visual landscape, like a “stream of consciousness of a large collective of people,” Harris says. For example, depending on trending news, screens may be simultaneously populated by football players, politicians and royal figures, providing real-time visualisation of the online trafficking of information. Like the Tower of Babel, these works are “being built up by mankind,” Harris explains, “but instead of language, I’m using data.” The artwork represents a modern incarnation of the Tower of Babel and reflects on the impact of social media in today's society. It is a commentary on today's global social structure and the profound evolution of communication, specifically over the last two decades. It reflects on the unprecedented institution of global socialisation, where the only comparable innovation over the course of history can be considered to be the fabled Tower of Babel.
"Feeding Consciousness mirrors the never-ending battle for media domination, as each new story vies for our attention, altering the landscape of the tower, only to be replaced by the next fleeting headline."
This focus on live data represents a shift in the artist’s practice which, until then, had focused on the digital reproduction of natural imagery. For instance, his signature 3D-animated butterflies use complex techniques which reproduce the structural colour caused by microscopic features in the insect’s wings. “Here, you can see that every single pixel, every single detail has been crafted,” Harris tells me as we observe digitally hand-painted butterflies flying from one sensor-equipped screen to another in response to our movements. By contrast, with pieces like Limitless or Feeding Consciousness, the artist has virtually no control over the ever-shifting appearance of the work. “The artwork is conceptual, and highly crafted. Yet I’m leaving the visual output to the collective pulling of data,” Harris says. “Instead of responding to the movements of the viewer, these pieces respond to the movement of the markets or search data to create two real-time mirrors - to my mind two beautiful mirrors - that reflect that shape of our financial economy and our attention economy.”
Feeding Consciousness by Dominic Harris: 25 May – 13 August at Halcyon Gallery, 148 New Bond Street