Webchat: Mark Dorf and Hannah Gregory ask just how 'natural' depictions of the natural landscape really are, whether mediated by painting, photography or digital tools
New York based artist Mark Dorf presents two video works from //_PATH, in which he examines western society’s interactions with the digital world and its relationship to our natural origins. He is interested in how we encounter, translate, and understand our surroundings through the filter of science, maths and technology. Combining digital photography, collage and 3D scanning to create geometric and synthetic forms within the landscape, he seeks to understand our habitation of the 21st century world through the juxtaposition of nature and the digital domain.
Activating the digital side of the exhibition, he participated in an online conversation with Hannah Gregory, an independent writer and editor based in Berlin. Streamed live at the ICA Studio on 24th July at 5pm GMT, we now present it online and unedited.
Mark Dorf: Hello, hello —
Hannah Gregory: So I guess neither Mark nor I have seen the exhibition IRL
HG: just on our screens in Berlin and NY
MD: Ha, yes this is true — no day trips to London for me unfortunately
HG: I've seen the PATH// video though of course – can you explain a little your process of making these works?
MD: Well as far as making them — they were both shot out in Northern California in the Redwood forests. Beautiful area of the country. At large //_PATH explores the ways in which technology affect the ways we see and absorb the world around us. We often do this in a networked collective manner through online media outlets, so I felt like the Redwoods were a great place to shoot this work since all of the Redwoods are connected together via their root systems — thus providing a reflection of our own networked connectivity and a contrast of material — the digital is of course often perceived as a counter point to the natural.
MD: As for the process behind these works though — untitled72 is actually a form of primitive 3D scanning
MD: that is a scan of a pile of dirt from the landscape that is featured behind the spinning mesh
MD: but the scanning method that I used is actually natively captured in motion, so just as a video camera would capture many frames per second, this scanning device would do the same
HG: Aha, I was wondering if the form of the scan was representational / significant
MD: so that accounts for the “jitter” that you see in the mesh
MD: yes all of the scans in this series are of elements found in the photographs that they are collaged into
MD: an exploration of visual language
MD: same subject matter, but absolutely different permutation in means of understanding — technological vs the human eye
HG: Right. The scanned elements visually feel quite separate from their background (without a knowledge of what the scanned form is), but in reality they are integrated with their backdrop.
MD: to take it even a step further than just integration, they are quite literally the exact same thing
HG: The photographic layer (which looks to the human eye like a real scene) and the digital object – less humanly identifiable – on top.
MD: but even still, the image in the back is again another mediation and translation really — it is not the place itself, it is a glowing 2D representation of it
HG: I'm wondering about the tension in your work between quite a Romantic depiction of landscape – you go to wild locations, explore nature – and the will to get beyond Romanticism, through the use of digital tools.
HG: Traditionally landscape as a genre is governed by the human subject/ the human eye
MD: it is certainly a huge role in my work, especially in //_PATH
HG: The conception of landscape has always been about framing nature – and you continue to frame it esp. in eg. the Emergence series
MD: the romantic depiction here was very much by design — previously I had mentioned that //_PATH was interested in examining how technology affects the ways in which we absorb and see our surroundings — with the advent of the web and that most people live in major urban centers, our ideas of the landscape have changed drastically.
MD: make a google search for the grand canyon, and you will see nothing but these almost pornographic landscape images of the sun setting in brilliant orange and purple tones
MD: you won’t find photographs of the chaotic compositions of brush and arid plants
MD: in the dullish color as depicted by an overcast day
MD: so the landscapes in //_PATH wanted to depict this “google-able” aesthetic
HG: Yeah. Our idea of nature is always mediated – previously by e.g. painting, then by photography, now by digital enhancement, Google Image/Earth, and so on.
MD: absolutely. it always has been and always will be
MD: but, I think what makes the internet different is the ease of access
MD: I’m not suggesting that someone will google the grand canyon, and upon arriving be disappointed
HG: And your images do have that enhanced quality about them -
MD: but they will have a preconception that is different than that of a traveler from the 1950’s
HG: Both digital tech (broadly) and nature have the capacity to inspire awe... also to belittle the human
MD: without question — I totally agree with you
HG: I guess the use of 3D scans or digital photography distances the artist's hand from the picture, somewhat
HG: And humans rarely appear in your images - is this purposeful?
MD: as for the first part of your statement — I think that certainly depends
HG: Of course the viewer knows that an artist has made choices about the parameters of a work, its forms, colours, movement, and so on...
HG: That a human was there to take the picture
MD: ah okay — so I was under the impression that you meant that the process was more automated, as the 3D scan is —
MD: as for humans —
MD: with the subject matters that I have been exploring, I like to keep the figure out as I think in photographic works, it allows for too direct of a path for the viewer
MD: it’s a very weighted symbol that the viewer wants to immediately identify with
HG: I understand it's not fully automated, but the 3D-scan is more of a machinic form to process.
MD: for sure —
HG: Do you want the viewer of your work to be absorbed in the natural scene, without the distraction of other humans?
MD: It’s perhaps less about being absorbed into the natural scene and more about providing a visual vocabulary that everyone is familiar with for a base of conversation — with humans involved, everyone wants to try and create some distinct narrative —
HG: I read that for another of your series you were working alongside scientists in the Rocky Mountains, and you said that you felt that your taking of photographs, collecting source material there, had parallels with the biologists' data collection...
MD: Yes that was my series Emergence — it was made at the Rocky Mountain Biological Research Laboratory in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. There I was working side by side with ecologists and biologists, studying their research and practices as well as making my own body of work
MD: in those works I viewed my initial photographs very much as a scientist would view the raw data that they collect
MD: I went out photographing knowing nothing of the manipulations that I would make later — simply making landscape photographs that were highly organised and meticulously composed (a reflection of the way that we typically perceive the way science views the natural world)
MD: later I would then return to my studio and apply transformations, just as field researchers do to their collected data
MD: often after the data has been collected, in order to analyze, specific algorithmic transformations would be used in order to make the collections of data more comparable to other sets of collected data
MD: through this comparison of data, of course new information emerges
HG: By the scientists you mean?
MD: yes by the scientists
MD: in my own practice though
MD: I would take my photographs and make my own similar transformations
MD: rearranging pixels by hue saturation and brightness for example, or applying photographs to 3D planes and allowing for the brightest pixels to rise and the darkest to fall
MD: creating a 3D mesh that represents the luminosity of the digital image
HG: Would you say that in an art context these algorithmic transformations enable augmentations of natural representation?
HG: Are you ever conscious of an idea of being 'faithful' to the 'reality' of the natural world?
MD: what they do is to allow information that is in plain sight but unseen to be revealed
HG: in the case of the pile of dirt transformed into the mesh scan?
MD: not so much in that case
MD: in the most basic case, I would say that in images like Emergent #10 with the “static” square that you see in the center: that square is actually the same photograph that is featured behind it, but the pixels have been re-ordered by hue saturation and brightness. Through this, you can immediately understand the color palette of the image that would otherwise have been understood totally different
MD: you of course could see the colors that are being used, but in this transformation, you can see exactly how much and in what tonal range
MD: in relation to science: you might see the same patch of wildflowers every year
MD: but if you count those wildflowers every year, and measure how they move across the field, you might understand a bit more about the snow melt and water flow in spring time
HG: Right so here you're exposing the transformations that digital processes effect on the original image
MD: Well in Emergence, the digital processes are less important — what’s most important is the quantification that these processes achieve. It is important however to use digital photography in that it is an easily definable medium (in a technological sense)
HG: Quantification in terms of cataloging colours or image recognition, or...?
MD: am I making sense there?
MD: in context of my work yes — exactly
MD: in context of science — turning the landscape that is something that is absorbed natively through our five senses into something numeric
MD: to me it’s a bit like translating poetry
MD: you’ll get something in the translation that is almost accurate — in that the words probably equate
MD: but some of the meaning will probably be lost
MD: meaning and feeling
HG: Yes I like the idea of media as translation
MD: me too :)
HG: We should probably wrap up!
MD: we could go on for hours!
MD: haha sounds great —
MD: thanks for hosting us ICA and POSTmatter!
HG: Thanks for your time Mark!
MD: thank you Hannah!
MD: ok — signing out —
HG: See you
Hannah Gregory is a Berlin-based writer and editor. Her work explores art, contemporary culture, living and spaces. ‘//_PATH’ by Mark Dorf is presented as part of the POSTmatter x fig-2 exhibition, on display at ICA Studio, London, until 26th July 2015.