A graduate of Fine Art and Illustration, Jessica Eburne is one of 28 regional artists to be selected for New Art West Midlands 2018. She completed her studies at Coventry University in 2017 and is pursuing an MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths College. Inspired by the digitisation of visual culture, Eburne engages with the modern-day technologies that have swamped our psychological and social consciousnesses. While recognising the merits of technology, Eburne emphasises the dangers of “electronic dissemination” and plays with comparisons between technology and religious traditions. Two of her works, TR and Rechnilgog, are on display at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until 6 May.
Selina Oakes: Your practice revolves around “electronic dissemination.” What first drew you to this subject and can you expand upon this phrase?
Jessica Eburne: By using the term “electronic dissemination” I refer to the global spread of electronic devices and the increasing use and reliance on these in everyday life. The most obvious of these is the use of smartphones and social media. My opinions of this dissemination are not completely negative, however I believe that some sort of moderation needs to be attained. With both TR and Rechnilgog, I aim to raise awareness of the overuse of these devices in a direct, yet sensitive manner.
My creative practice is largely influenced by my personal observations and theoretical research on society’s use of smartphones and social media. For example, when traveling on the tube, almost all of my “co-tubers” are entertaining themselves via digital screens. Furthermore, witnessing the “where is my phone?!” panic exemplifies this reliance. In today’s Digital Information Age, it appears that many people are growing increasingly connected to their devices.
The most significant theoretical inspirations for these works were drawn from pre-internet texts that portrayed concerns regarding non-digital technology. Many of these predicted a situation whereby society would be controlled by this technology. For example, in his text, Question Concerning Technology (1954), philosopher and seminal thinker Martin Heidegger states: “everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology.” Even though Heidegger was speaking of fuel-driven mechanical technology, his views seem more relevant than ever today. My work is also influenced by contemporary texts like Brett T. Robinson’s Appletopia (2013) which describes how Steve Jobs’ own religious thoughts inspired Apple products and marketing strategies.
SO: Audience participation plays a major role in your work. Why is it important to involve the audience, while still toying with the notion of technological alienation?
JE: In terms of TR, I wanted to put the spectator in a situation where they are engulfed by technology and thus provoke a consideration of their own usage of technological devices. To achieve this outcome, I employed an audio file playing through headphones, visual light elements, and with Rechnilgog, interactive buttons. By their physical contact with the pieces, spectators get to add the final “wow” factor – it is almost as if the artwork is incomplete without them.
While the piece does encourage an understanding of how technology alienates people from one another, it can also cynically suggest that an intimate connection with a piece of technology could be a substitute for an emotional connection with a human being. Ultimately, for both TR and Rechnilgog, I felt that interactional elements would lighten the mood on such a serious subject and enable the viewer to dictate exactly how they would experience the artwork.
SO: TR and Rechnilgog draw comparisons between technology and religion. What commonalities do these share and how might one inform the other?
Many believe that science and religion are dichotomous. My interpretation of religion is that it is formed upon both individual and collective beliefs, ideologies and norms. Many religions promote attaining a higher human self – or involve worshipping a “superhuman” being. Through this understanding, I interpret technology and religion as sharing many qualities, including:
Quantity – People’s behaviours are often determined by quantitative analysis. It could be said that the more one posts on social media, the higher their social “score.” Similarly, in some religions the more you pray and worship, the closer you supposedly are to an arbitrary higher self. In terms of recording, uploading and sharing information, in the book Homo Deus (2017), Yuval Noah Harari states: “people want to be part of the data flow, even if it involves giving up their privacy, their autonomy and their individuality.” The more likes and shares one gains, the more powerful their stance on social media. Furthermore, he also suggests that “traditional religions assured us that we were part of some big plan.” Technology also seems to suggest that every part of data exchange is meaningful. Being part of the network is a mode of being, and for many, to be disconnected from this flow means losing their meaning in life.
Usage – I compared technology use to a ritualistic religion. A religious belief can direct or dictate our actions to the point of becoming a habit, and similarly technology use appears to impose certain habitual practices in our day-to-day lives. These include checking one’s phone at regular intervals, using applications that prioritise and reward users based on the quality of their input, and consuming online and digital content as a priority to other forms of entertainment. Many applications and devices today remind users to use them via notifications: I describe these as a technological “call to prayer.”
Visuals – The most obvious link I found was in digital retail stores, most specifically at Apple stores worldwide which shared many design similarities to a church or temple. Most Apple stores are designed in the form of long aisles of tables, with their products placed in dedicated spaces as if for worship. There are brightly coloured images of Apple products displayed on the walls, similar to stained glass windows or murals, and the stores are lit so as to illuminate their products in a (unintentional or intentional?) halo.
SO: TR has a retro-futuristic aesthetic. Where have your visuals come from and how do you wish them to be interpreted?
JE: My work for TR was quite heavily inspired by that of Nam June Paik and the technology available around the 1970s and 1980s. Paik practiced a future-forward form of technological art and it is apparent that his vision for the future – i.e. today – is dystopian. By emulating the aesthetics of guardedness and uncertainty exhibited towards technology in the 1970s, I highlight the need to return back to that cautious mentality towards technology.
I continue to be inspired by the work of Elsworth Kelly, Aristarkh Chernyshev, Bruce Nauman and John Bock. I also looked into modern clamshell computer/mobile device design, including design elements borrowed from Amazon’s Echo and Apple/Android smartphones and decided to produce, what I felt, was a rudimentary, oversimplified version of the same. I also included elements of modern devices such as backlights and accent lighting. One could also suggest that combining this into a retro-futuristic style is an attempt at dumbing down modern technology into its simplest form, either for easier digestion by buyers, or to disseminate a message of warning.
SO: How has your participation in New Art West Midlands at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery impacted your practice and future aspirations as an artist?
JE: In terms of exposure, New Art West Midlands 2018 has been an outstanding opportunity that has enabled me to promote my art practice to the wider art world following university. I’m aware that my work has been seen by a variety of artistic personalities and I have met some inspirational people. Being selected for the exhibition has proved to be a huge confidence booster for me as a practicing artist in the future. I am currently producing work for an upcoming show in London and have a few projects in the pipeline for this coming year. On one hand, I have pursued a different creative style for these future exhibitions and moved away, at least for now, from creating digital or technological artwork. Nevertheless, New Art West Midlands has led me to employ interactivity and effective audience communication in a far superior manner and I have pursued audience-forward artworks since then. Going into the future, I wish to continue producing independent projects and remain hugely interested in modern human and cultural conundrums and issues.