Carla Gannis: A carny’s explosion-in-a-pixel factory

Re(presented) Oct 09 [Tortoise Shell Glasses] 2012, digital pigment print, 42″ x 43″

There has been much ado about this term called The New Aesthetic: what it means, where it’s from, what it aims to do, how it might wander aimlessly through the rhetoric of revolutionary art movements with nary a ripple in that ocean. Bruce Sterling has described it as the “eruption of the digital into the physical,” throwing us into a reverse Tron-like wonderland. But what real importance does all this metaphysical hoopla have in our everyday trudge through reality? As a college instructor of writing and rhetoric who is watching imagination and creativity in her students being slowly stomped and trampled to death, let me assert, it has everything to do with our day-to-day existence. I want to see the rebirth of wonder in my students, to have that ironic and self-deprecating distance that has encoded their lives to be burst asunder through a carnivalesque explosion from the world of objects, be they digital or not. I want this slow trudge through their class with me to turn into one hell of a romp through storytelling. They always want dividing lines: “I’m not a creative writer,” they tell me. But all writing is creative, an act of negotiation between writer and audience, between the hand and the pen or the black keys, white screen or blank paper, scissors, notecards, and tape.  It is a symphony of objects that mutate and react — sometimes in accordance of our will, and other times, it seems, actively resisting it. But creative writing should no longer be seen as belonging only to a select few, a caste of demi-gods ensconced in a log cabin with a Remington typewriter and a bottle of Jack Daniels.

Re(presented) Jan 25 [Hacker] 2011, digital pigment print, 3″ x 3″

James Bridle, in his video, “We Fell in Love in Coded Space,” argues that the mystery of narrative is not so elusive and isolationist as our romantic ideals paint it. One example he gives (among many) is how William Gibson wrote a story with his Word document opened over Firefox, essentially hover crafting over a community of plugged-in people, spambots, and algorithms. Gibson was, Bridle asserts, writing “as part of the network,” not as storyteller in vacuum.  Even as I write this article, I have six windows open to essays from China Miéville, Ian Bogost,  Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Bruce Sterling, and Carla Gannis while listening again to the Bridle video; in my imagination, we’re in a bar drinking damn good whiskey, getting into all sorts of wonderful arguments.

But let’s not just take Bridle’s or my own word that perhaps the notion of creativity is morphing, that it must transform into something beyond what we have thus experienced in order to survive the onslaught of information and distraction our culture is experiencing. In his keynote speech at the 2012 Edinburgh World Writers’ conference, Miéville, uncannily echoes this notion: “The text is open. This should – could – be our chance to remember that it was never just us who made it, and it was never just ours.” That might rankle some, especially if you plug it into Obama’s “you didn’t build that” rhetoric, but Miéville is ready for you:  “Stand down,” he warns. “The blurring of boundaries between writers, books, and readers, self-publishing, the fanfiction of fiction, doesn’t mean some people won’t be better than others at the whole writing thing, or unable to pay their rent that way – it should, though, undermine that patina of specialness. Most of us aren’t that special, and the underlining of that is a good thing, the start of a great future. In which we can maybe focus more on the books. Which might even rarely be special.”

Re(presented) Jan 25 [Hacker] 2011, digital pigment print, 3″ x 3″

Perhaps the idea of “specialness” is nowhere more prevalent than in the notion of portraiture, to cannily capture someone’s essence via painting, drawing or photograph. It is this particular genre that digital artist Carla Gannis wants to confound and playfully challenge by questioning notions of textual ownership, identity, and recognition. In her Non-facial Recognition project, Gannis requested friends and twitter followers to send her their profile pictures, allowing her the chance to remix and reauthor their likenesses in an unrecognizable form. What we find in some of these photos is an eruption of objects into the world of the subject. In Doppelgangers, trees swirl upwards like newly-formed tornados from the necks of working stiffs. In the background, and ethereally scaffolded among the foliage, loom towers made of boxes of Saltines, Swiss Miss, and Celestial Seasonings tea. The dividing line between natural and unnatural is blurred through this hybridic, digital painting process to the point of creating a new landscape — one recognizable and yet foreign.

Robbi Carni, digital pigment print, 2012, Part 1

The works are uncanny, but perhaps not shocking in the way we are used to expecting with grotesque or hope for with the New Aesthetic. Gannis herself believes that “The 20th Century authentic shock of the new seems to not have carried over into the 21st. Perhaps shock is no longer a variable in the art and cultural equation, no matter how nostalgic some of us still are (myself included) for artistic subversion as revolution.” What if, for instance, Mitt Romney’s face was melded into our own, to send us spiraling into a journey of self introspection, discovering along the way how we, too, marginalize the poor, the sick, and elderly.

Robbi Carni, digital pigment print, 2012, Part 3

But Gannis did something much more wondrous with these strange profiles and incorporated them into the panorama Robbi Carni , a 15 ft x 2.75 foot digital drawing, created with a stylus & tablet and produced using digital imaging/editing softwares. Here the big top has collapsed and is now half-sunk into the ground, the freakish and deformed forced out into the street, into the realm of carnival. The pictures and narratives were gleaned from narratives from the Twitterati — a host of artists, fiction writers, and poets — specifically designed this project. In carnival, the world spins itself into a topsy-turvy paradigm, wherein the king and the fool are no longer opposites, but brothers for a day. A double armed football player centaur runs amok while a washing machine pup is ready for play. Human balloons float above, right next to blocks falling out a video game, held in one hand by a some kind of “it” creature getting ready either to be birthed between a pair of legs, or give some rather hairy pleasure.

Robbi Carni, digital pigment print, 2012, Part 2

The beauty about carnival, of course, is the freedom to laugh at all the horror that normally traps us in hierarchies. In the participation of street culture, object, animals, and things coalesce into one giant mashup of beings. In his article, “The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder,” Ian Bogost lauds this kind equilibrium:  “We humans are elements, but not the sole elements of philosophical interest. OOO [Object Oriented Ontology] contends that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally – plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example…It is ultimately impossible for one thing to understand the experience of another, but we can speculate about the withdrawn, inner experience of things based on a combination of evidence – the exhaust they leave behind – and poetics – the speculative work we do to characterize that experience.” We need to begin respecting the alien-ness of things in order to understand their worth and complexity, and their unspoken power over us. Imagine the new paradigm of ethics we could gain in regards to the environment if we allowed the Arctic to speak as such?  Paul Miller said that while writing his Book of Ice he was “trying to figure out how to make a reflection of the landscape, but instead, the landscape made a reflection of me” (qtd. in Thill). Watch how the peaks of the mountain in the Robbi Carni panorama flow seamlessly into the big tops – is the landscape no longer a backdrop but an avid spectator, looking at our collapsing panopticonic circus? Could we create a new carnival culture wherein we meet machines and nature on their own terms?

In many ways, Bruce Sterling calls for the same kind of destruction of “specialness” in regards to the New Aesthetic,  stating that  “A sincere New Aesthetic would be a valiant, comprehensive effort to truly and sincerely engage with machine-generated imagery — not as a freak-show, a metaphor or a stimulus to the imagination — but *as it exists.* The real deal, down to the scraped-metal chip surface, if necessary….It would manifest a friendlier attitude toward non-artistic creatives and their works. It would be kinder with non-artists, at ease with them, helpful to them, inclusive of them, of service to them.” The hybridization of Gannis’s work tries to push us into this realm of respect for the speculative wonder of objects — be they machines, aesthetics, or humans. Her artwork is not merely visual data that has been gleaned from algorithms, but also from the stories and faces of friends, colleagues, and strangers who are now interlaced with one another, a collective ownership of identity that perhaps also makes us question how it is that we feel such isolation in our connected world. The artist’s job is not to give easy answers or to introduce new hierarchies but rather to break open our imaginations, to transform us into creators of new narratives. I want my students and every person who thinks they are not a storyteller or artist to experience that eruption, that joyous remixing, retelling, building, and splicing of word, image, and sound so that they see themselves both as creative and beautiful creation. You can think both the New Aesthetic and the Grotesque nothing but another Shandyesque hobby horse to ride for a while. Or you can see them as doorways into the fantastic, a liminal space where even the very rocks might cry out.

Carla Gannis’s latest exhibition, which features Robbi Carni, can be seen at Pablo’s Birthday in NYC until October 13, 2012. And to view more of Gannis’ work, please visit her website:

Sources Cited

Bogost, Ian. “The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 13 Apr. 2012. Web. Oct. 2012.

Bridle, James. “We Fell in Love in a Coded Space.” Lift. Life Conference, 6 Apr. 2012. Web. Oct. 2012.

Gannis, Carla. “A Code for the Numbers to Come.” The Creator’s Project. Vice Media, 4 May 2012. Web. Oct. 2012.

Mieville, China. “The Future of the Novel.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, Web. 21 Aug. 2012. Web. Oct. 2012.

Sterling, Bruce. “An Essay on the New Aesthetic.” Wired. Condé Nast, 2 April 2012. Web. Oct. 2012.

Thill, Scott. “DJ Spooky Defrosts Book of Ice at Ground Zero.” Wired. Condé Nast, 16 Sept. 2011. Web. Oct. 2012.


3 replies to “Carla Gannis: A carny’s explosion-in-a-pixel factory

  1. How the Obama decontextualized quote made it past the final edit of this essay is baffling.

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