The impact of screens and screen culture is fast becoming one of the central health and wellbeing issues of our increasingly dehumanised age. Anyone who has struggled through a night of insomnia after using a phone, tablet or laptop until too late an hour will attest to the effects of screen use on our minds and bodies – as will anyone who has witnessed a young child’s tantrum being instantly quelled after they are presented with the dazzling motion and colours of a screen.
Northern Rivers-based artist Dan McDonnell is also preoccupied with the nature of screens and the way we interact with them. His exhibition ‘Data Streams’, at Lismore Regional Gallery, is a playful inquiry into their capacities, their science, and in particular, their presence as physical objects.
Utilising repurposed digital screens, LED lighting, aluminium and Perspex, McDonnell has created a series of installations that explore, as he puts it, the experience of ‘being absorbed by what’s on a screen, yet also being aware of the object and the materiality of the screen itself.’
Through his work, McDonnell reminds us that while we are transfixed by the image and information that engages us via a screen, the cold reality is that we are staring at an inanimate physical object. And it is the tactility of screens that interests McDonnell, as does the technology within them that allows light and colour to be transmitted.
‘I’m fascinated by the actual materiality of screens,’ he says. ‘We look at them all day – or through them at the virtual image, the content – without taking much notice of the actual object itself. I’m interested in illuminating the literalness of it: the pixels, the backlight, the resolution, the foils.’
McDonnell is a PhD candidate at Southern Cross University under the supervision of one of the sharpest minds in Australian art criticism, Wes Hill. Up until now, the bulk of McDonnell’s work has revolved around painting. The idea for ‘Data Streams’ came one day when he was pulling apart a broken PC to fix it, and instead began gleefully fondling its innards to the point that ‘all of a sudden this work presented itself.’
‘I’m really interested in the foils they use behind screens that separate the light and direct it towards the viewer. So I’ve played with that.’
For one of the most inventive works, McDonnell repurposed a tablet and, demonstrating considerable expertise, altered those foils so that the light is only projected at certain angles. The result is that when the viewer stands directly in front of the screen, they receive no illumination or projection – the light only emerges to the eye by observing the screen from the side.
For this work and others, McDonnell has taken a cue from ‘op art’, the (sometimes maligned) movement of the 1960s and 1970s that used abstract, minimalist patterns to create the illusion of movement and visual effects (its key practitioners including Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley).
‘A lot of op art was dismissed because it was seen as this excessively optical work that only addressed the eye,’ says McDonnell. ‘But there is this weird bodily thing too – you walk around the work and see how it changes as you move.’
An additional touchstone is Marcel Duchamp’s famous series of ‘Rotoreliefs’ (initially displayed in 1935), other works that reappropriated the technology of entertainment and toyed with depth perception, the imagery of hypnotism and, as McDonnell says in an artist statement, ‘controlling the body by enchanting the eye.’
With those words, it might be fair to identify a certain political or ideological undertone in ‘Data Streams’ and its engagement with the effects of screens. Influential works of philosophy such as Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ and Baudrillard’s ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ might enrich interpretation of McDonnell’s work, as might the more recent writings of Eliane Glaser, who has referred to the ubiquity of screens as an ‘almost tacky vision of dystopia.’
McDonnell, however, emphasises the show’s ambiguity and his intention to avoid any didacticism. ‘Data Streams’ is, above all, an exhibition that simply showcases an artist’s fascination with the minutiae of digital technology.
‘I don’t really have a goal or anything. With my interests, it’s just a fun area to explore. I’ve always loved graphics and computers.’
Barnaby Smith is a writer, critic, poet and singer-songwriter currently living on Bundjalung Country.
Lismore Regional Gallery
Until 9 June, 2019
New South Wales