"In informatics, the signifier can no longer be understood as a single marker, for example an ink mark on a page. Rather it exists as a flexible chain of markers bound together by the arbitrary relations of relevant codes,” writes postmodern literary critic N. Katherine Hayles in her essay, “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifier”. For Hayles, the age of codes, data, and computerized images complicates the subject/object relationship. An image on a screen, however realistic, has been translated through hundreds of non-human languages and technologies. Hayles calls these new informatics “flickering signifiers” because they are not a “durable transcription” with a short distance from their creation to their realization. Instead, when “the texts represents itself as a constantly refreshed image rather than as a durable transcription, transformations can occur that would be unthinkable if matter and energy, rather than informational patterns, formed the primary basis for the systemic exchanges.” More simply said: pick up your phone and open any app that allows you to view photographs. The image would seem to be a direct view of a landscape or object. The image looks real so we bypass the understanding of the translations it has been through to reach us. Hayles reminds us that, “We have seen in electronic textuality, the possibility for mutations within the text are enhanced and heightened by long coding chains.” We trust our operating systems and our technology. But we have to remember that we are not simply capturing an object and putting it in a box. Instead, we are “translating” that object through systems that have no direct relationship to our natural reality; and as anyone who has ever studied language knows, there is always a gap between styles of communication. Mistranslation is a given. The same is true for a digital photograph flickering on our screen. It has been translated away from its inspiration again and again. When we open up our phones and our computers, we should begin to entertain a healthy amount of paranoia that what we are looking at has been “mistranslated” or, as Hayles would call it “mutated”, somewhere down the chain of commands.
Bryan Meador’s work is, at first glance, a kind of amplification of the “glitches” and “mistranslations” that we know happen in digital texts and images but can’t always locate. But, as seen in Still Life 1a, the work is less of an identification of these mutations and more of a celebration. The white apple blossoms bloom as we know they do in early spring; but, more interestingly, they also “bloom” digitally – petals metamorphosing into red and blue static. On the piece’s right side, a fragmented photograph shows us a dawn sky. The light hovers blonde and vibratory. It is a quality of light we recognize from the minutes right before the sun fully rises. But Meador will not allow the viewer to enjoy an easy sunrise. He obscures the image and complicates its natural pattern of clouds and color by drawing out lines into the background’s blackness that eventually merge with the mutated flower’s leaves and petals.
Meador is not imposing his own order on the natural world – or on the signifier’s ability to mutate and flicker without direct human intervention. Instead, he seems to allow the two “logics” into dialogue in his pieces.
This is most noticeable in Still Life 3e where it is hard to tell where the activity originates. Is the flower a product of the orange hued glitch space? Or is the flower hemorrhaging raw data? The petals are white but interact with the reds and oranges of the piece so organically that it is difficult to tell where the color comes from. Is this a color that existed in the real world or one that entered through a digital misstep?
The aim of these pieces is not to answer but to flicker. Each time you blink they are refreshed in the same way that a browser reloads to show the same website but with new content. We blink and the flower is not a flower. The photograph is not a photograph – or a flower. Instead, the materials of contemporary digital art are given the starring roles – numbers, glitches, flickering changes that could only be “created” by something Hayles calls “the Post-Human”. The screen, our typical viewing technology and the medium closest to Meador’s dye sublimated aluminum prints, is not a passive receptacle for an image. Instead, it dynamically interacts with Meador’s image. In Still Life 2g the screen itself – black, slightly reflective background, seems to be the actual artist carving and cutting into the leaves and hands that would, at first examination, seem to be the piece’s primary focus. Instead, as the viewer looks closer, what the eye has first identified as natural patterns are the encroaching lines and patterns of the background – the screen – moving in to colonize the imposed “image”.
Perhaps the most dynamic of Meador’s pieces is Landscape 3. Here, the semblance of a morning vista exists only at a great distance. The semblance of realism is fleeting. The shapes and colors, like an impressionist painting, trick us into believing we are viewing a reproduction of our familiar natural world. And, the compelling aspect of Landscape 3, is that, in a way, we are. The landscape is composed of fragmented photographs that find their origin in “real” landscapes. However, Meador does not allow the real to exist unattested. Once again, he calls attention to his medium instead of his content, using the photographs as fragmented brush strokes to build an artificial, incomplete landscape. Similarly to Still Life 2g, the screen’s dead space, upon which the landscape flickers, encroaches on the image. It even swipes across the blue swaths at the piece’s top suggesting the screen not only changes the content – it erases the content.
Meador’s work makes us paranoid. It forces us to admit that digital images carry stowaways of the long, invisible coding chains they travelled down to reach us. Important to note that paranoia is not the lasting sentiment. Meador shows us that a quality of technology that can be considered disconcerting can also “create” in the same way the human artist creates.
Meador’s work says to the viewer simultaneously: I have been made and I could not have been made. It does not hang on the wall.
Instead it exists between binaries. It does not hang. It flickers.
by Sophie Strand