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Things I am working on and thinking about.

The Slow Cancellation of the Future


How did you go bankrupt?
Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.

― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises


I make art in solitude which is both a benefit and a burden during a global pandemic. Uncertainty and change happens suddenly, yet over the first two decades of the 21st Century, it felt gradual. Its easy to view events as a simplified chain: the dot-com crash; the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001; the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; the financial crisis of 2008; Obama; Trump; the global pandemic, massive unemployment, and the civil unrest of 2020. The pandemic forces us all to a grinding halt as the emergency break of capitalism is pulled. Stillness, uncertainty, and loss. I am hopeful we will not go back to 'normal.' Post-traumatic stress. Post-traumatic growth. Realignment.

My art practice creates code-based automated art that explores the nature of the Internet, it's strengths and failures, producing what has been called a post-Internet art that reflects the networks effect on our society and culture. The Internet is a large database that reflects back all that we think and do. This is the raw material I appropriate and remix by writing computer code that is automated and runs on a 24/7 schedule producing a form of auto-generated collage I call Cruft. The resulting digital artwork allows me to investigate broader issues of traditional concepts—such as originality, creativity, authorship and eternal value.

Cruft lacks certainty, it is variable, fragile and impermanent.

The Internet has the ability to provide freedom by connecting us at great distances, democratizing the world's knowledge, and facilitating disruption and resistance to systems of power. It can also simultaneously provide control by restricting and regulating our thoughts and actions while propagating fear, divisiveness, surveillance and repression.

In his book After The Future, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi refers to the 'the slow cancellation of the future [which] got underway in the 1970s and 1980s.' He is referring not to a direction of time, but rather a psychological perception. Berardi also suggests we are stuck between globalization and global war, between identity and capital and we seem to be incapable of producing radical change. Berardi is describing my own sense of time. Standing still, no forward movement, no progress.

Our culture industry is locked in an endless cycle of nostalgic reboots and sequels. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to envision a future not colored by Hollywood visions from the 1980's. Nothing really dies, it only comes back as a zombie in a new package. New technologies dislocate our ideas of time and place. Smartphones encourage us to not be in the here and now, while allowing us to always be simultaneously present and absent. There is no sense of time or place anymore.

With a sense of being trapped in time, there is also an intense pace and constant change happening online. My art practice includes a slower and meditative method of applying traditional media such as charcoal, paint, wax and ink, to prints of selected Cruft. These mixed-media images are created over longer periods of time resulting in a process that subverts the goals of speed, spectacle and distraction, offering an opportunity for slower looking and deeper thinking compared to the crushing overload of an endless stream of automated Cruft.

I make art in response to my experience of not being able to shake off that feeling of a slow cancellation of the future. I am optimistic that the global pandemic offers us a moment of stillness and introspection that might be the catalyst for real political and cultural change. My art practice is a personal inquiry into fundamental questions about our values, ideas, fears and dreams. I am interested in how the humanities and technology shape our individuality and communities, and how the arts and humanities can inspire us to ask who we are and what our lives might mean.

Robert Spahr
Carbondale, IL
June 2020