In a recent event held by Rhizome, James Bridle of research project The New Aesthetic reflected that before the invention of the e-book, nobody was particularly concerned with the 'physicality' of books. Yet as this physicality became threatened, e-book adversaries began extolling the qualities of the paper publication that its digital counterpart lacks: its weight, its texture, its smell, the sense of ownership it proffers. Since the language did not exist to articulate the transition from material to virtual, Bridle argues, isolated physical attributes have been absurdly grasped onto, belying our fears of dematerialisation.
We are immersed in a hybridised environment of reality and augmented reality on a daily basis. As Bridle suggests, when we hold our iPhone cameras in front of us we are literally 'layering a digital reality on top of the real world'. So, in this age of transition in which material and digital experience are in an unprecedented state of coexistence, our understanding of the physical is being endlessly reshaped by advancements in technology. Consequently, the very meaning of physicality and its apparent importance to us has become subject to questioning.
For artists working with and responding to new technologies, the hybridisation of physical and digital elements has become a reflexive reaction to this strange dichotomy. Not only on a formal level, but as a subjective enquiry into the impact of its growing presence. In Sara Ludy’s Rooms and Niodrara, computer-generated effects distort ‘physical’ domestic spaces into otherworldly abstractions. In these eerily disorientating yet familiar environments, as carpets, doors and windows morph in and out of recognition to the sound of an industrial hum, the supposedly clear distinction between real and virtual space dwindles into non-existence. In a similar vein, Joey Holder's current Digital Baroque exhibition destabilises the boundary between the 'artificial' and 'organic'. Saturated in colour, prehistoric organisms and minerals move in symbiosis with computer-generated biomorphs and projections; the subject matter becomes inextricable from its modes of display.
In Kate Steciw’s assemblages, hybridity lies not only in the reconciliation of digital and material but also in the collision of 'world events, individual curiosity and algorithmically generated preference'. In Popular Options (Yellow Diamonds in the Light), she responds to the online convergence of this information by fusing images from the most popular Google Search terms of 2011 into a fluid digital sequence. Like that of Steciw, Berry Patten's work dwells on the disparity between prescribed ideologies - what Patten terms 'visions of fulfilment' - and their actualisation. Works such as Pure Sure are dreamlike streams of consciousness mingling popular-cultural relics, domestic objects and personal memories of the late 1990s. Optimism is embedded in YSL perfume packets, Kinder Surprises and the poolside paraphernalia of teenage summer holidays, while *D addresses the intersection of the physical and digital with seashells, sponges and urchins arranged on the keyboards of MacBooks, beneath screens displaying coral reefs and swim-suited girls submerged in turquoise swimming pools.
The ‘collisions’ in Steciw and Patten’s work reflect the landscape of the Internet itself, through which our understanding of the world is shaped by boundlessly recontextualised, disjointed data. This non-linear logic is harnessed by curator Attilia Fattori Franchini in her current exhibition at Cell Project Space, Chimera Q.T.E., which presents artists responding to this sense of fragmentation – including Patten – through new forms of abstraction.
Approaches to curation, too, are changing as the format of the exhibition itself becomes hybridised. While the desire to synthesize the traditional gallery space with online display resulted in an influx of online-only galleries in 2011, the curatorial project 'Bcc' translates artwork submitted online into tangible form; the digital file is reimagined in the real world.
As the boundaries between virtual and physical experience become more porous, questions over the meaningfulness of the distinction placed between these two terms are emerging. It is in part a linguistic issue; language is yet to catch up with the fast-paced changes in technology and its impact on human consciousness. Art, however, is able to navigate this ambivalent space. In the same way that art and technology are transcendental extensions of humanity, this hybridity in art practice is about transcendence, beyond the visual logic of the digital or material. In the fluid transaction between states of existence, algorithm and human error, and different forms of media, something metaphysical starts to surface in the space between.