Impressionism In a Digital Age: Tim Skinner
by Jen Loffman, 2016
Blink blink blink blink blink blink blink blink blink
When you repeat something enough times, especially something quite mundane, its meaning seems to start drifting off somewhere, and the thing you were once familiar with becomes a bizarre sound or an abstract collection of lines and shapes. I’m not being Romantic about it. It’s an actual psychological phenomenon:Semantic satiation.
This repetition is an unusual process of abstraction if you consider what the verb ‘to abstract’ actually implies.
To abstract is to extract or remove something; to lose the excess; to take from, not to add to. So how can we make sense of this weird, backward logic? What are we abstracting when we are repeating? What are we left with?
Blink blink blink blink blink blink blink blink blink blink
Tim Skinner takes a visual approach to this ‘semantic satiation’, mapping the mutation of something recognisable to create these throbbing digital nebulae. As a familiar image or sound is repeated and layered, it becomes something that appears abstract. It no longer signifies meaning. So, what is abstracted is our experience of the image or sound in its purest form, outside of any web of language. It becomes meaningless. Purely experiential.
140 years ago, the Impressionist painters were looking for something similar:a way to record their experience, their impression, of light and life.
It was the beginnings of the technological revolution that we find ourselves caught up in today. Scientific and economic developments had provoked questions over religion and led more people to interrogate their presence in the physical world. Industrial advances meant paint was newly available in portable tubes and artists could finally stand outside and feel nature’s environment as they painted it en plein air.
The work had to be done quickly. That process of looking and recording and looking and recording, the constant movement of the hand and the eye, meant they were deeply engaged in what was happening at the present moment. They were absorbed in the world in constant flux, with Heraclitus on one shoulder reminding them that you can’t step in the same river twice. The art became about the process of recording the world around you; experiencing an exchange between a stimulus (the natural world) and you, the human receptor.
Tim brings this examination in to the discourse of contemporary visual culture, which, today, is largely experienced as digital images. As the role of art in society becomes broader, so does the role of technology in art. But for a surprising number of artists, the scope of digital art is still seen as a threat to authenticity or a struggle to engage with. Since digital technology has become something so deeply engrained in everyday life it can be difficult to see it as art.
Tim’s work inherently finds itself at the centre of this debate on the value of digital art. Fully embracing the convenience, materialism and structure of technology and its process, the resulting work is simultaneously systematic and aesthetically organic. He uses that same process of abstraction through repetition, layering video clips and soundbites thousands of times until what’s left is the abstracted form. Whereas the Impressionists were assembling collages of colourful brushstrokes, Tim arranges snippets of moving image. And the fact that it’s moving intensifies that vision of the world in constant flux.
Again, it’s that weird blurred line between repetition and abstraction; rigidity and flow; the blurred line representing the moment of human experience. Just like the Impressionists he utilises both technology and philosophy to delve deeper in to understanding self awareness. He asks what it feels like to be a human these days; how we situate ourselves in the world today; whether technology must always be seen as a barrier to authentic experience.
He told me a story.
In late Spring of 2012 I was out walking in the Essex countryside, I found myself standing in the middle of a very poetic, beautiful bluebell wood. This was different because the trees in the wood had been planted in rows, so there was this structured unity to my surroundings; natural corridors with bluebells as the carpet. So I took out my phone, the only recording device I had on me, and did a 180 pan round the vista…..here was the resulting video after only a couple of layers.
There’s something kaleidoscopic about the piece that captures the sensation of absorbing the natural environment and breathing with it. By making use of video, light goes beyond subject matter and becomes the medium. Digital projection, or the transcendence of physical mark-making, reiterates his pursuit to question the way we engage with the material world and the way we give it value. We don’t simply experience things through touch or sight or sound. Things are multi-sensory and, whether we’re aware of it or not, we apply our imagination. So, all physical entities are stimuli for experiences. And experiences are the source of our individual understanding of the world. Experiences form our ideas about life, through which we give it meaning. In the world we live in today, technology is a very appropriate means of sharing that.
The Impressionists were fascinated with creating texture with thick applications of paint. But Tim’s projections exude ‘textural resonance’ that becomes tangible only in our imagination. In more recent work he projects on to blank canvas. This is Impressionism in a digital age. Virtual Impressionism, conceived by an updated form of portable technology.
Whilst manipulating his footage of the bluebells on his computer, there was a final moment that brought together the significance of all of these ideas and a recording on a cameraphone became an important piece of art:
When working with this piece I was thinking about the texture and light structures within Monet’s Waterlillies… I then accidentally hit invert, where the software inverts all of the colours like a negative….and a Turneresque sky appeared….the resulting works that came out are what can be called a bluebell sky.
In his expedition beyond Impressionism he had simultaneously found himself moving backwards in time towards Turner. In which direction does this work move visual culture? Forwards? Backwards? Upwards? In to the realms of the Metasphere?