Ethernet cords glisten, as though lubricated with Astroglide. Anonymously volunteered semen shots become hyper-colored collages. A series of endlessly looping GIFs satirize Hollywood’s attempt to edit together visual metaphors for male ejaculation during the heavily censored years between the 1930s and 1960s.
Human sexuality in the digital age is on full-frontal display in new-media artist Faith Holland’s Technophilia, her first solo exhibition, up now at Transfer Gallery in Brooklyn, New York.
While Holland wonders if our technology–the screens and constant connectivity–warp lust and sexual desire, she’s very much aware that erotic imagery and media distortion are not a new phenomenon. As Holland notes, as long ago as the first cave paintings and early sculptural totems, through lithography and ukiyo (Japanese woodblock prints), sexuality has been a dominant part of the images we create. Technophilia posits that even after the bodies, be they sexual partners or porn stars, vanish onscreen, there is a residue of lust left on the device itself.
The initial thinking for Technophilia began with a video Holland made in 2011 called RIP Geocities. The video begins innocently enough with the question: “What does the Internet look like in the popular imagination?” But as Holland began research that took her from the Wachowski’s plugged-in film, The Matrix to Udo Bass’s cybererotic exploitation flick Sexual Matrix, her perception of the web began to shift.
Sure, RIP Geocities answered Holland’s initial question in its rapid, tunneling navigation of cyberspace. But Holland wanted to burrow deeper into “the subtext of those tunnels–a vaginal subtext.” This led her to create VVVVVVV, an “abstract pornographic website that reframes those tunneling representations of the world wide web as cyberpussies.”
While techno-lust certainly exists, it’s hard to say how much Internet pornography involves the machine as object in this matrix of lust. But Holland points to a line in Zabet Patterson’s essay “Going On-line: Consuming Pornography In The Digital Age” for conceptual firepower:
Pornography is currently prevalent on the Internet not simply because it allows the quick and easy distribution and private consumption of erotic images, but because the affective charge attached to new and perpetually renewed computer technology.
Holland believes that it isn’t just the content of online pornography that attracts an audience, but the forms and platforms on which it appears, too: smart phones, tablets, virtual reality headsets, and smart watches.
“[Patterson] wrote that essay over 10 years ago, but if we consider phenomena like Google Glass or Oculus Rift porn, this idea is still just as relevant,” Holland says. “Sex hasn’t changed much if at all, but our various points of access to it have changed dramatically along with new technologies.”
Holland characterizes this development as a “new intimacy” of the 21st century. An intimacy that exists between user and machine (or program), mirroring our traditionally physical relationships, whether romantic or purely sexual.
“Why do we get upset when our phones break or our Internet is down?” Holland mused over email. “Maybe it’s partially because we have to shell out more money or we’re bored and don’t immediately think to pick up a book, but I think a large part of it is that we become cut off from these vast networks of humans that social media has brought into our homes and close to our bodies.”
With the Visual Orgasms series, which is part of the Technophilia exhibition, Holland loops moving images to “playfully” expose “visually consumable sex.” Holland says that this series was inspired by a strange bedfellow: Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code. Often called the Hays Code for the man who created it, this set of censorship rules was designed to scrub any whiff of pornographic content from movies filmed between approximately 1930 and the 1960s.
Despite this type of censorship, as Holland noted, Hollywood studios still found themselves endeavoring to depict this forbidden sex.
“For example, when a couple gets married and crosses the threshold of their new home, a film might cut to some metaphor as a stand in such as a train going through a tunnel, champagne popping, a rocket going off,” Holland says. “Pornography has a similar problem: it wants to visualize orgasm in order to prove the veracity of (male) pleasure depicted in the scene and does so by externalizing ejaculation.”
All of the Visual Orgasms works are composed of found materials. Some were originally GIFs when Holland found them, but more often than not she pulls videos and makes them into GIFs. Holland then edits each individual element frame-by-frame–each one is about 10-20 frames–before creating the main composition out of a collage of the images. Once arranged, she re-animates each frame of each element within the main composition.
“It’s a sort of tedious approach, but it allows me to control how each frame of the final GIF looks,” Holland said. “In some of the GIFs, like Rockets, the action happens in unison, whereas in others like Popcorn, the action cascades so the elements are doing something different in each frame.”
For the series of semen shot works, inspired by her partner’s eagerness to contribute, Holland announced an online call for submissions. All told, she received between 50 and 60 samples through email and an anonymous drop box she set up. She is still receiving submissions.
The work It Needs You is composed of Ethernet wall plates and wires. “The 60 wall plates were installed on a pink plexiglass piece in a tight grid,” Holland says. “Each port is then plugged in with a wire. There are 120 cords in total that drop down onto another plexi piece. The last, and most fun part, is coating the wires with lubricant that makes them glisten.”
The works found in Technophilia, Holland says, are about creating a space for critical pause in the moments where we all too often consume media at high velocity with minimal thought. It also “crystallizes pleasures” we enjoy unconsciously: our relationships with our devices.
Holland is far from alone in wondering about the impact technology has on our collective humanity. From camps to campaigns, there is an active unplugging movement afoot, and shows like Black Mirror do much to illuminate a near future–or a present, even–where our technology leads us down dark paths.
Like Holland, media artist Alexandra Gorczynski has explored pornography in the digital age with her “Electric Fire” video.
And Thomas Pynchon latched onto this idea in his 2013 novel Bleeding Edge. The title, a reference to risky, experimental technology, might as well be a distillation of the digital age. New technologies–in the book, a deep web-based virtual reality world–are unleashed before anyone truly knows how they will impact humanity. Alex Garland’s much-discussed Ex Machina also pursues this line of thought. In the film, a billionaire creates strong artificial intelligence before knowing how it will ultimately interact with humans.
Bitforms Gallery curator Chris Romero believes that Holland separates herself from the web art crowd by thinking of devices and technologies as “sculptural objects” charged with a certain kind of power. For Romero, the Internet is a “limitless” pool of intimacy,” which produces an unconscious lust for our screens and devices. The residue of lust, as Romero tells Fast Company, can be many things, from a laptop that conceals and shares intimacy, to a transfer of this residue from an old laptop to a new device.
For her part, Holland is focused on one part of the human experience in the digital epoch.
“I am trying to understand a particular aspect of this ubiquity,” she says, “which is the sexual relationship that is formed with these objects.”
Technophilia runs until July 11 at Transfer Gallery.