I Haven’t Been Sleeping

26 November - 23 December

Installation images
Susan Sontag probably wouldn’t be too happy with us, would she? Our unspoken shorthand of interpretation has reached terminal velocity, we couldn’t pull meaning out of images faster if our lives depended on it. Gone are the days in which philosophers duked it out in a battle of big words, sparring with one another to get their technique up before wailing on the strapped down image, high on intense bloodlust - we’re far more sophisticated now. So sophisticated in fact, that we’d have felt the right hand of De Kooning long before Adorno - “Phonies!” he’d (probably) scream, as he was dragged out of the room and into the cells.

If interpretation were active, it would be necessary that in order to understand something that we would put time into it, attempting to connect its contemporary context to its history and find meaning through our own relationship to it. This process insists upon engagement, not just with what something appears to be but with what is hidden within it - or if not hidden, at least not immediately clear. The value of one’s interpretation is based on the depth to which they are willing to go, how much time they will spend with something, rejecting the desire to achieve a simple understanding in as short a time as possible.

Contemporary interpretation does not happen in the form of conversation, discussion or with the depth that would be necessary to engage in either of them. We are algorithmically trained through cycles of repetition - the first time we see something, it might take us a little while to understand it but by the thousandth time we’ve become attuned to the semiotic markers that built up the previous interpretation, we can assemble them into an opinion without slowing down the movement of our thumb.

Our proximity to algorithm is closer than it has ever been, we are more involved today with software which has the ability to learn than it was possible to be yesterday. With that increased proximity comes a certain level of symbiosis, we are learning to think like an algorithm in the same breath as an algorithm is learning to think like us. The ability to feel might be what is traditionally characterised as defining the human condition, but our human tendency towards exceptionalism is a far more unifying trait. We are perfectly willing to believe, even as our conscious begins to adopt the process of an interpretative algorithm, that we are the goal towards which it is working.

In I Haven’t Been Sleeping, Tomas Harker provides a series of paintings that deal with the folly of algorithmic interpretation, particularly when adopted by a human viewer. They poke fun at the idea of definitive understanding, rejecting absolutes and creating a playground for active interpretation. Harker’s work doesn’t provide easy answers, but it does create traps for people looking for them. Semiotic markers in these works are not what they seem, a name called from the treeline in a voice that doesn’t quite sound right, an email from a long lost relative offering untold riches. Harker builds a complex language, marrying formal elements and historical references with the aesthetics of contemporary popular culture and he does so without regard to clarity. These are not works designed for sloppy quips over dry champagne, they are works to keep you up at night.