If you want to keep your computer safe, it’s probably best to stay away from your spam folder. But one artist deliberately goes into the world of online hoaxes and cons to look for inspiration, uncovering the weird, wonderful, and downright terrifying things that end up in the darkest corners of the Internet. Meet James Howard, who collages the imagery found in junk mail and researches scams behind them to dive deep into truths about humanity.
Drawn to art since his early childhood, James continued to the University of Reading and the Royal Academy of Arts. He had his works exhibited in several London galleries, but his work travelled also to Singapore, Japan, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the US.
“Art is a way of finding your origins. Ever since I was able to pick up a pencil or a paintbrush, I’ve always been interested in how art can tell us a bit about who we are and where we are in the world,” he explains. “I started off with abstract paintings. I still paint those.”
Cue computers. The technology that was conceived to aid defence and speed up communication between academic organisations began to evolve rapidly. It became widely accessible when James started toying around with the Internet. In mid-nineties, its commercial restrictions were removed, while dial-up connections allowed more people than ever to venture into the digital world. Simple websites and government systems coexisted in the same space, with the latter lacking the elaborate protection and yet to be affected by the advancements of cybersecurity. And the artist’s involvement with the online space brought him to revelations that transformed his mindset.
“In the past, I’ve done some things with computers I probably shouldn’t have. Something did happen back then – I found some things on restricted foreign government computers that have massive repercussions for humanity. They’re terrifying truths about the history of humanity, everything that we hold true when it comes to science kind of being thrown up in the air,” he recalls enigmatically.
“It wasn’t even crazy hacking – it was just getting remote access, really. But some of the things I saw were really eye-opening in terms of the origins of mankind. I started thinking in a far more spiritual and open way,” he adds.
Personal technological revolution
His personal technological revolution awakened a wave of inspiration that evolved into the subject of his works. The installation that became a part of Saatchi Gallery exhibition Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire is now eleven years old, and he admits that the Internet was a completely different place back then.
“It felt a lot sharper. It had very high jagged peaks, these crazy imaginative places you could go, and also deep troughs of horror and danger,” James says. “In the last eleven years, a lot of this has been smoothed off to kind of a flat land, a degree zero by things like Instagram and various censorships imposed on users. But, I was aware of this dulling of the Internet, so I sought to capture as much of it as I could. I wanted to use that wonderful inspiration which was out there to take. I’ve collected it – I have hard drives full of it. It’s a wonderful way of unplugging all of that material by taking it out of its context and realigning it to release all sorts of artistic and life energy.”
Employing Photoshop to distort and transform images he uncovered in junk mail, James collated a selection of images that juxtapose the bizarre, unusual, and downright terrifying things based on his findings. Although he created the artworks more than a decade ago in an attempt to capture the early internet design, it’s difficult not to compare them to the traces of contemporary Internet user experience.
“When you research something as deeply as I did, you stumble across all sorts of threads in time as the energy flows from the past to the present to the future. Some of these things that I stumbled across eleven years have matured into things which we see as very ubiquitous. Maybe it’s had some prophetic value,” he says.
The proto-memes and urban legends
For the thumb generation that grew up with fingers on their keyboards, James’s work might also evoke the look and feel of ever-present memes. But the retro aesthetic of the artist’s pieces inevitably reminds you of the websites accessed through dial-up connections, hinting at the origins of digital creations.
“I don’t like categories, so I try to avoid talking about things like memes, “he clarifies. “I’ve been interested in those since they first appeared. One of my inspirations, Bonsai Kitten, was kind of a proto-meme.”
A hoax from the early noughties, Bonsai Kitten began with a website that claimed to provide instructions on growing kittens in jars. The website tried to convince its visitors that cats’ skeletons would mould into the shape of the container they were grown in, like bonsai plants do when they’re cut in a certain way. The outrage from the internet users and the animal rights organisations led to disproving the myth, but it managed to spread broad and wide, gaining the attention that could be described as viral. Soon, it was used by scammers as a tool to break into other people’s computers, accompanied by a horrendous story engineered to tug at heartstrings of animal lovers.
“The idea was to pose as a protest group against Bonsai Kitten. Loads of people were so upset by the story that came through to their inboxes that they clicked the link which claimed to be a petition against this awful practice. Of course, a virus was spread, and the hackers had control of their computers as soon as their victims were lured into clicking the link. But this was an early example of what has become far more sophisticated today,” he explains.
The creation of this urban legend, as well as the broad response it received, is a fascinating insight into trust people put into the information they found online, more relevant in the era of fake news than ever. Analysing the surprising emotional impact of the narrative created with imagery and captions that favoured strong feelings over facts could also shed some light on the human condition, as James suggests.
“I like stories like these because they’re a mixture of human emotion, horror, greed, cute and pure things, and a method of tricking people. They summarize qualities and phenomena that are much more universal: greed, manipulation of emotion and people taking advantage of that through digital means,” he says. “The combination of words and images that are aligned in a certain way can provoke people to lose their cool, let their guard down, allow themselves to fall for a scam. If it’s enough to show people some pictures of a kitten in a glass box and add a conceivable story to it to make them so dismayed, then doing something similar with a combination of words and pictures on a piece of artwork can have similar implications. But maybe it can encourage them to think in a completely new and open way. And this is why I work in the way I do – maybe this can be used for opening up a new way of thinking.”
Recontextualisation and collaboration
The number of people connected to the Internet is constantly growing. In 2017, over half of a world’s population was online. With social media, we reached the omnipresence of user-generated content, which allowed everyone with a connected device to be a creator in one way or another. For James, these elements became a fertile ground for imaginative, thought-provoking digital collages.
“In what I do, content plays a part,” he reveals. “I filter it through in my creative process. I just follow my instincts to let the combinations of those pieces of content happen and trust the energy which is released. When there is a certain power that accompanies it, I feel it. I know that piece is complete, and it creates a new connection between two disparate objects. With that spark, I know that energy is released in new form into the world. Art is about creating the new, and content is a big part of that. It’s a blend of it that allows me to make art.”
The internet empowered collaboration, inevitably impacting art. It allowed people to push boundaries and expand the field for interpretation, feeding the content-hungry audiences with new contexts. From sampling in music to captions and collages that change the original intentions of a photo, an illustration or a screencap, the possibility of reshuffling the digital space seems infinite. Can a piece of artwork ever be finished when you share it on the Internet? James argues that the flow of transformations highlighted the natural process of building on material that already exists.
“There’s no such thing as the end or finish or resolution. You just have different states of things,” he says. “It’s easy to say that if there’s something that passed through different people on the internet and was modified each time, then it’s never finished. But you could also say the same about a piece of rock being weathered. Gradually, water gets in and cracks it, then it becomes two pieces of rock. And we’re the same. Am I the same cells that I was when I was born? Absolutely not, but am I the same person. Will I ever be finished? I don’t think so, because I’m a part of this universe, and the universe is constantly evolving. It is complete. We are complete. We’re just going through different states, and it’s the same with art.”
The artist describes his process as “schizo-core”. He defines it as mechanics of manipulating digital material to challenge social norms that indulge in juxtapositions, psychedelic visions and surrealism.
“What I’m concerned with is re-categorizing and re-aligning things to harness energy. In that combination, you get an eruption of creativity from another dimension. When you see it, you know it. And when you make it, you are very aware of it. That energy crosses over these pleas of power of these disparate things,” he explains.
James’s works bear marks of post-digital artistic practice that sees art as a totality. By definition, it’s concerned with the rapid change that influences our relationships with digital technology and art forms. It addresses the humanisation of digital technologies without necessarily detaching it from the space it originated from. Often, it’s about reclaiming the agency of the medium of the Internet and the topics that it tackles. But the artist doesn’t concern himself with drawing a line between the physical and digital art: he happily merges the two.
“There’s always a wider narrative to everything, be it online or offline,” he says. “There’s context.”
Algorithm-made art and physical realm
The emergence of artificial intelligence, algorithms and code could accentuate the importance of context, particularly when it comes to the medium used by the artwork. The so-called art bots of Twitter, for instance, recontextualise words by jumbling content from pre-defined websites or databases or automatically render images. Taking them out of the digital space into the physical realm might appear tricky, but James puts the impact they have on people first.
“Whenever you’re reading something off a computer screen, a piece of paper or a tablet piece of stone, you’re still going to be affected by what’s written or what’s happening there. If there’s an algorithm at work on the internet, then if it had no effect on the outside world, on reality, then we wouldn’t be able to see it either. We wouldn’t know about it. It’s about the outcome, the ripple that it causes.”
Rather than questioning the creative use of the media, James considers the sociological implications the algorithms might have, backing it up with a return to spirituality.
“The question actually is, what effect they are having on our spirit. They’re already doing something, even if we can’t define what it is yet. You could consider all sorts of social trends like big data, dating apps, and all these kinds of algorithms that put people together and put products in our hands. That’s how they’re being used, but maybe there’s a bigger and deeper effect on humanity. It might be perceived as good or bad, but you know it’s just going to happen, whatever it is,” he declares. “With technology, we think of expanding out, we’ve been reaching for the stars. I think that’s a wonderful thing to do. But there will come a time we’ve actually got to go in. So we need to polish up our third eyes and take a look at what is right under our noses. I think the truth is right here, and it’s just a matter of seeing it. And technology will undoubtedly help us if we use it in the right way.”
The works of James Howard are a part of Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire at Saatchi Gallery. Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London SW3 4RY. 28th of September 2018 – 13th of January 2019. Opening times: 10am-6pm, 7 days a week, last entry 5:30pm.