Born 1979, Tauranga, New Zealand. Lives and works Melbourne and New York
Jess Johnson’s drawing and installation practice is influenced by the speculative intersections of language, science fiction, culture and technology. In her drawings she depicts complex worlds that combine densely layered patterns, objects and figures in architectural settings. Johnson’s drawings are often displayed within constructed environments that act as physical portals into her speculative worlds. Her recent video collaborations with Simon Ward have involved translating her drawings into animated video and virtual reality, thus enabling an audience to have the simulated experience of entering the hypnotic realms she creates..
Born 1977, Opunake, New Zealand. Lives and works Melbourne
As an animator with a background in making music videos, Simon Ward has developed a style influenced by the history of cinematographic special effects and animation. His work in video and animation is varied and usually involves collaboration with musicians, writers or visual artists. Ward employs a DIY approach that utilises self-taught effects and animation techniques, generating visual imagery that mixes reality with the fantastical.
Mosaic tiles, clusters of limbs, monstrous visages and esoteric symbols jostle in Jess Johnson’s moving mandalas. Virtual reality (VR) is an oxymoron, yet what else can we call these floating worlds? In recent years Johnson’s hand-drawn flatlands have come to (second) life, animated by Simon Ward. Earlier iterations, such as the VR journey Ixian Gate (2015), maintained the flatness of the marker-pen originals. For Whol Why Wurld (2017) Ward has created richly rendered 3-dimensional animations, digitally extrapolating Johnson’s planar surfaces into tonally modelled architectures and bodies with musculature, as if Egyptian tomb paintings had been fed through a Renaissance filter.
Rendering can refer to plastering brick walls, appropriate to the edifices locking in and looming over Johnson’s naked, unprotected humanoids. Rendering can also refer to animal corpses, hung from chains to draw fat from the cadaver. They say the body is lighter after death; apparently 21 grams is the infinitesimal weight of the human soul, perhaps also the approximate weight of the feather of the ancient Egyptian goddess Maat, against which hearts are weighed in judgment. Those with heavy hearts are fed to the monstrous hybrid Gobbler, redolent of Johnson’s chimerical sucker-mouthed worms and human centipedes. Donna Haraway christens the current epoch the Chthulucene, nodding toward H.P. Lovecraft’s horror science-fiction creations. It is the chthonic ones ‘who snake within the tissues of Terrapolis’ that possess the requisite ‘tentacular thinking’ for creative survival. (1)
Long before VR was invented, to be ‘pixilated’ was to be inebriated, as if led by pixies, or machine elves, into another dimension. According to some NASA scientists, we are likely living in a simulation, because our universe is made up of subatomic particles, ‘like a pixelated video game’ in which everything is ‘computable and finite’. (2)
Mandalas are schematic representations, the multiverse in microcosm. Tibetan monks ask permission from beings in other dimensions before building their sand mandalas (in a multiverse, there is no telling whose toes you might tread on). Johnson’s diagrammatic spaces, however, are less enlightening than chthonian: subterranean engine rooms producing new maps of hyperspace, where chaos and cosmos bleed into each other. Gravity warps and stretches across chaosmic fields; planes of immanence, also known as ‘thought’, from which beings, events and possibly whole worlds erupt. Humanoid forms pierce mosaic surfaces: a phalanx of blank faces; an array of arms; moving mandalas of legs, like an underworld Busby Berkeley (without the ostrich feathers). Johnson enables us to view cellular phenomena, not under the microscope but via the kaleidoscope, where DNA and software become interchangeable: textual readouts containing the code for their own assembly. Self-fulfilling prophecies.
Repeating endlessly, these scenes are Sisyphean in their eternal returns. The symbol for this self-referential looping is ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail (autophagy is the only ethical form of cannibalism). Despite their digital nature, these works, like ouroboros, will not be fruitful and multiply. They remain perversely singular, one copy only with an artist’s proof lurking like a shadow. How much does a piece of software weigh? Maybe, like a human soul, it can be measured to 21 grams.
Notes (1) Donna Haraway, Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham, 2016, p.50. Haraway notes that Lovecraft’s monsters are terrifying ‘in the patriarchal mode’, and her neologism is deliberately spelt differently to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, p.174. (2) Emphasis added, Olivia Solon, ‘Is our world a simulation? Why some scientists say it’s more likely than not’, The Guardian, 11 October 2016, www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/11/simulated-world-elon-musk-the-matrix.
Text by Tessa Laird