Grant Stevens, Fawn in the Forest
⬤ Buxton Contemporary 16 Nov - 20 Dec 2020
I wonder how many people will watch Grant Stevens’ online screen work Fawn In The Forest (2020, the third Light Source commission by Buxton Contemporary), without knowing anything of what is going on while they watch it. Its online didactic states that the work—a CGI animated fawn aleatorily roving an equally CGI modelled/rendered American forest environment as it is framed with corresponding randomness by a floating camera perspective of its movements—is “programmed with artificial intelligence (AI)”. Did you subtly nod your head while reading that, assuming that something must be happening at the intersection of AI and CA? That contemporary screen culture must somehow welcome AI into its Rooma-vacuumed sweep of current topics? The audience for this work is bound to be a select grouping who would likely defend their self-rating of visual literacy. So let’s pretend this review is a literacy test.
Fawn In The Forest extends Grant Stevens’ ongoing interests in the extremities of anonymised, de-designed, socially-aggregated and deliberately vacuous ways in which twenty-first century images of life and living have been coded into channels, streams and platforms of creative expression and personal statement. Screensavers, default-fonts, menu-options and visual-enhancements have been the primary visual tools of many of his screen-based works. Corporate ethics, personal well-being, social care, cod-Zen aphorisms, soap opera dialogue and utopian dreaming have all at one point surfaced through this practice. The beauty of his operations is the way these tools and their procedural outcomes cancel each other, creating a reduction in meaning and effect. Think Eisensteinian montage theory reversed by the marketed faux-musings of Gwyneth Paltrow’s infamous Goop ® empire (“a modern lifestyle brand” since 2008).
As this aesthetic strategy of numbing banality progressed over the years, “nature” figured predominantly in Grant’s work. Let’s face it: what is more banal and meaningless than a human professing a love of nature? And what is more pathetic than a human believing they’ve transcended their whining limitations of Self when they are “moved by nature”? Don’t call me out for being nihilistic here. In 2010 the quasi-hermit Paul “Bear” Vasquez shot a DV-cam video of a double rainbow in Yosemite National Park, gushing in tears over its beauty in the tone of a 1967 trust-fund hippy at a Grateful Dead free-acid concert. It’s quite moving to watch the raw emotion captured on the video’s soundtrack. But it’s depressing to see the 2010 television ad for Windows ® Live Photo Gallery ®, featuring Vasquez playing himself in a recreation of his original spontaneous home video.
In this rapid transition from amateur video to hi-level advertisement lies an algorithm. It’s neither mathematical nor magical; authored nor calculated. Its plotting is corporatised, cynical, capitalised. The algorithm states that every image you construct of the wonderful world in which you live is more profoundly delusional than you will ever know—because you are likely hiding behind the image for some purpose, play or platform. I like Grant Steven’s work because—like the original “Double Rainbow” viral video—it seems to intuit that while it could be good to make an image of life and the world, it could equally trigger a fatal blind spot that would ultimately decimate the value of the image. Being conscious of this determines a mode of image production that avoids reproduction and deconstruction in favour of self-replication and autonomic instatement.
I’m writing this while Fawn In The Forest “plays” on my second screen. Or is it “happening”? Maybe it’s “running”. It just keeps going, as if its status as image is somehow in motion, fluid, developing. No past tense here, as in the developed negative and the printed positive. Yes, employing AI to ensure that this video work will continually play with infinite possibilities is a logical move to ward off cheap illusionistic tropes of anthropomorphism, narrative-hedging or humo-moral projection. But let’s not be dumb about what AI is: how it is engineered and implemented, what preparations and pre-coding it mandates, what degree of difference or essence is determined by its usage, how much non-machine-training is required to corral machine-learning, and whether AI’s claims of infinite complexity and non-human infallibility are phenomenologically verifiable.
When Brian Eno delivered his video artwork 77 Million Paintings (2006), it was touted like so much 90s digital art as capable of infinite possibilities. What could be more pompously human than talking about “infinity”? And who cares about “infinity” anyway? Are you seriously going to watch something promoted as being capable of infinite possibilities to check whether the claim is valid? I watched Fawn In The Forest for over an hour on two separate days, and the issue of its AI-calculated mapping, zoning, tracking, positioning, framing, motion, zooming and sequencing was as invisibly embedded in its visual momentum as much as any standard gameplay scripting, match-move compositing or voxel world-building. To be impressed by the work’s AI authoring/coding evidences low visual literacy when it comes to comprehending the technological stratagems implemented in a screen work. Furthermore, it points to an inability to decipher the degree to which that implementation is discernible in an artwork’s textual, phenomenal and technical outcomes. The streamlined beauty of Fawn In The Forest is not its use of AI, but the refined way in which its kino-ocular rhythmics are maintained to ensure smooth and non-dramatic animation. The result is not a suspension of belief, but a submergence in contentlessness.
From SIGGRAPH keynotes and Ars Electronica laurels to tech Ted Talks and start-up PowerPoints, the idea of “liberating human creativity” always misses the dumb elephant with the paint brush in the room: only humans are creative anyway, and—sorry to break it to you—the dumbest state of being human now is to be creative. Nature isn’t creative: it does what it does without thinking—just like the dumb fawn. And if you think otherwise, you’re simply making nature human “in your image”. As AI creeps into contemporary art rhetoric, it does so more by gossip than discourse. The idea that it somehow evacuates human intervention smacks of Whole Earth day-dreaming similar to the naive mind-expansion of Paul Vasquez. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world could be without us and our damaging Anthropocene presence (cue Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, 2000, or anything produced for climarte.org)? But if contemporary artists really want to erase themselves, why don’t they just stop making art?
The utilisation of AI coding has for a few years now been promoted to commerce, industry, law and art via the twined logic of addressing human fallibility with post-human reliability (and all the ethical flab and blab that entails). Artworks that use AI to somehow “expose” unethical applications are just as tedious as those that ride the Eno-esque trail toward infinite glory. They mirror each other by trumpeting human insight into the hidden back-end pseudo-godly directives activated by code—runs, device linkage and configuration control. A seminal exception to this binary is Ian Cheng’s Emissaries trilogy (2015–2017), wherein polygon anthropomorphic forms move in response to each other in environments shaped by their movements, just as they affect and sculpt their inhabitable terrain. The result is a suite of para-Darwinian avatar-learning stochastic behaviour meltdowns: they perform a test-run as to how a society of figures and beings can develop—which they do, but erratically and chaotically. These widescreen works are engine-derived and are not only “infinite” but incapable of repeating any earlier phase of their development. Fawn In The Forest doesn’t take this path toward hyper-entropic meta-production and implosive simulation, but it imparts a quiet radicalism in its depiction of nature, its conjuring of worlding (a key term in Cheng’s theories) and its crafted commitment to a hermetic aesthetic.
Maybe what grants Fawn In The Forest richness is not its authorial canopy but its semiotically composted floor. Like all “new media” of the last 40 years, “old media” generates the content (literally and as part of its literacy) to fuel new engines. And the flow is rarely causal or linear. Firstly, there’s something perverse about fabricating a European forest for a contemporary Australian art commission. Not because it smacks of ignorant post-colonial implications, but because it appositely synchs to the history of the Australian landscape being staged as the Antipodes in drag, wherein the hand paints like an Australian but the eyes persist in seeing like a European. Grant could have made this work a nocturnal wallaby in Eucalypt brush under a night sky of indigenous constellations, but instead plays dumb and vogues in a Disney-esque compound of Bambified fantascaping.
Secondly, the work’s halted narrative and hovering visuality generate a fluid slideshow of fawns, deer, bucks and elks in American cinema and its peculiar revisioning of Natura Europa. In its neutralised essentialised formation (the dominant mode of hyperrealist CGI), the fawn randomly triggers one’s memory bank data of movies from across multiple decades. That is because this mythic Barthesian fawn is itself haunted by the dead deer of Bambi (1944), The Yearling (1946), The Deer Hunter (1978), Starman (1985), Stand By Me (1987), The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), Powder (1995), Antichrist (2009). Most of these films feature a mystical moment where a presumed dead deer comes to life, or a character is halted by the sudden presence of a deer. Fawn In The Forest reanimates these figures—not for any majestic purpose, but solely to be a meme within its own polygonated hall of mirrors. The format of the work’s engine-driven code-run perfectly actions this.
And thirdly, much is to be parsed from the semiotic imaginarium of this fawn in the forest when one analyses the forensic data of its depiction. Instead of reading its signage, one can reflect on the illustrative CGI mode employed to construct its idealised view of nature. Under the fog of contemporaneity, visual literacy demands interrogation: not “what is the artist saying” but “what am I watching?” Well, yes, it’s a fawn in a forest—but who are you watching it? Are you a fictive imprint of its scopic world, implicating yourself as voyeur, stalker, hunter, killer, necrophile? Or are you “actively” engaging with the inference of gamer dynamics, marking you as player, winner, strategist, analyst? And what are the conditions of the environment in which you are snared while watching the screen? The airbrushed vivarium feels like a stage for Samuel Beckett directing a bush rave. This is not a beautiful world at all: it’s frighteningly aestheticised, voided of imperfection, and motion-trowelled by faux-Steadicam choreography. The undisclosed unhued sunlight is as fixed as office air-conditioning. The slight breeze seems dialled-in by an interior designer asking Alexa to tone the room mood. A phantasmal Arcadia of perimetric nature trapped in a canny valley. This is the utopia people want: climate unchange.