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Jody Zellen: Above the Fold

Pause Effect
ESSAY BY JOHANNA DRUCKER

Jody Zellen embraces media as her art form, focusing on both the images and processes that surround and penetrate our current lives and environments. The very methods of mediation often serve as the starting point for her practice, as she utilizes found and captured sources through numerous interconnected processes of mark-making—digital, hand-drawn, painted in the very traditional medium of gouache, or animated on a tablet. Her critical reflections are carried out in her process. Whatever commentary inflects the images, it comes through visual manipulation—redrawing or remediating—and no extra critique or critical injection is required. The acts of making and remaking are the means by which her intellectual and aesthetic engagement is brought to bear on the media streams that are so omnipresent that we take their content almost for granted. In Zellen’s work, we literally see a process of rethinking. We watch photographs, pixels, color fields, lines, drawing, and painting all become part of a single cycle of reproduction. The result is a faceted field of connected pieces, each a discrete and distilled element of a body of work that demonstrates the way an intervention of the eye and hand can produce thoughtful reflection on the culture we inhabit. She introduces a pause into the media stream, offering her viewers a remade, remarked version of her sources that, at the very least, lets us see them anew.

In Above the Fold, Zellen creates works that combine screen capture, photographic processing, and hand-drawn imagery in a cycle of refraction and reflection. The images are versions of each other, different phases of production, and call attention to the material of media as much as to their pictorial substance. The constant assault of images depicts extremes of war, violence, destruction, riots, death, and tragedy that become the banal fodder for a ceaselessly streaming sequence to which we become immune. The act of remaking, Zellen suggests, is a way of remarking, reflecting, and intervening, of recovering some human/humane relation to the impossible production apparatus of news culture feeds. This raises questions of where and how meaning refuses to emerge through repetition and banality. Significance must be recaptured through some act, some deliberate and even patiently tedious intervention. Zellen’s process emphasizes the artist as medium, as processor, who reworks the received and thus remarks upon the images via the addition of painting and drawing.

Duration plays a role in Zellen’s animation Time Jitters, since the source images were gathered every day for a year. The genericness of the images, and their frequently borrowed-from-stock-footage character disturbs any illusion of synchronicity. The images are that much more horrific for being somewhat generic, but the 365-day journal has its own authenticity. The process of aggregation marches with an ineluctable inevitability across the days. Punctuated by occasional headline text, the images jolt and skip across time, nonnarrative in their random juxtapositions.

Silhouettes, the figures, present and absent, abound. Grids and fields of color are extracted from the pixel base of the enlarged original, whose colors are aggregated algorithmically to make a degraded/upgraded version of the source image. The figures and landscape features are extracted from the source image and then used as a point of departure for animated vignettes whose formal structures are undergirded by the pixel patterns of the screen. The recycling of basic media components into compositional elements so that digital features become the motivation for drawing, its inspiration and infrastructure, could be seen as an extension of Leonardo da Vinci’s call to let the visual imagination take off from the suggestive character of ink spots and stains. In our era, the distortions of pixelation become a new kind of provocation to visual response.
Zellen has focused on media images as her source across a substantial portion of her creative life. But she is also interested in exploring the potential of new kinds of devices. The mobile becomes an arena for engagement. The ubiquitous smart phone offers an always available delivery mechanism for small-scale viewing. This art-on-the-go rewards the distraction impulse of attention deficit with a world of doodle-based stick figures whose creative moves animate their own universe of existentially whimsical activity. In Episodic (an iPad and iPhone app), elegant creatures move across the small screen, their torpedo-shaped bodies and limited motion embodying an idiosyncratic language. As one scene or segment follows another, an implicit narrative unfolds, but the stories are all enclosed, enacted in a frame that can’t be broken or escaped. A combination of lightness and futility pervades the elegantly designed universe of their existence, and they move with agile grace, as if stealing time for solo performances and quick vignettes from the frenetic surfaces in which they are featured.

In Zellen’s marker-on-panel pieces, the drawings are patterns as much as scenes, dense as urban landscapes, the outlines and filled spaces evenly distributed so that no one area catches the eye or determines the rest. Not overtly connected to media images, these black-and-white fields of figures and forms have their art-historical precedents in the schematic drawings of Paul Klee, the dreamscapes of Joan Miró, and the intellectual urbanity of Saul Steinberg. Their self-contained universe is frenetic, always in motion, even in the apparently static images in which the figures dance and careen within the closed system of their graphical-social world.

Technique is important to Zellen, as much a critical tool as capture and framing, and she chooses her media for their associations as well as their capacities for varied kinds of mark-making. The ink outlines that abound throughout Zellen’s work are reminiscent of the world of ruling pens and rapidographs, the instruments of daily tasks and labors in the industry of graphic arts. Now at the service of a fine-art practice, these media bear associations in the marks and colors that they make. Gouache is an antique medium, water-based, capable of opacity and wash effects, used to teach design and make what were known as “boards” in an era when artwork had to be prepared by hand for photographic reproduction. In a world before digital prepress, the mock-ups and images made by John Heartfield, for instance, or poster artists and illustrators, practitioners of the commercial arts or the fine arts that borrowed from their methods, used gouache to make the color studies for reproduction. Unlike watercolor, its upscale fine-art cousin, gouache has associations with the production studio as well as the atelier, and was used to make work that would become mass media. So, the choice to repaint pixelated images in this traditional medium is itself a statement—and the work enacts the pause effect, the slowing down, refocusing attention that is central to the artist’s projects. Similarly, her reconfiguring these images into offset books (such as the 2013 If), another constant in her long career, demonstrates her interest in the continuum of analog and digital formats.

If we are assaulted daily by so many images that we cease to process them, stop registering their import, disconnect their extremes from any reality, fully living the life of the spectacle, then it takes the careful reinvestigation and remaking that Zellen engages in to give us pause and offer a visual study of the graphical overload. This way, we might, perhaps, see again what is in that massive media stream by breaking its rapid flow and remaking its technological production through the work of a human hand and eye.

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JOHANNA DRUCKER is the inaugural Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. She is internationally known for her work in the history of graphic design, typography, experimental poetry, fine art, and digital humanities. In addition, she has a reputation as a book artist, and her limited-edition works are in special collections and libraries worldwide. Her most recent titles include SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Speculative Computing (Chicago, 2009) and Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide (Pearson, 2008; 2nd edition late 2012). She is currently working on a database memoire, ALL, the online Museum of Writing, in collaboration with University College London and King’s College, and a letterpress project entitled Stochastic Poetics. A collaboratively written work, Digital_Humanities with Jeffrey Schnapp, Todd Presner, Peter Lunenfeld, and Anne Burdick, is forthcoming from MIT Press.

TIME JITTERS

Commissioned by the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

Visual Design & Concept: Jody Zellen

Interaction Design: Bill Manaris
Sound Design: Yiorgos Vassilandonakis
Software Implementation: David Johnson & Seth Stoudenmier
Sound Recording: Matt Tuton
Installation Design: Andrew Steever, Square Point Design
Technical Consultant: Todd St. Onge, Technical Event Company
Media Consultant: Dave Brown

Time Jitters is a four channel interactive installation; an immersive experience in which participants are confronted with a bombardment of visual images and sounds. One wall contains a grid of twenty-five animations, all of which loop at different rates creating a cacophony of pulsing color and flickering imagery. Opposite this wall is a single channel 18-minute animation that combines drawn and appropriated imagery, becoming a meditation on the way news outlets present world events. The walls adjacent to these animations house the interactive visual elements.

Composer Yiorgos Vassilanonakis has overlaid a sonic layer to Jody Zellen’s animations, which infiltrates the entire space and underscores the frenetic pace of modern life. Computer scientist Bill Manaris and his team interweave invisible, computer-based intelligent agents that interact with visitors to the space

As more and more visitors engage in the installation at any one time, the interactive walls become a collage of overlapping images of different sizes and types, perpetually in motion as dictated by the number of people in the space. Sounds break free from the static, highly functional role they usually fulfill, taking on a life of their own.

This project synthesizes artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction techniques with music and visual art. It utilizes invisible, computer-based intelligent agents that interact with visitors to the space. A computer-based agent tracks each person that enters this installation. Through computer coding, the agent triggers a unique combination of image and sounds, which change as the visitor moves through the space.

logocolor

This installation was developed in collaboration with the Computing in the Arts Program at the College of Charleston,
and is partially funded by the National Science Foundation and the South Carolina Arts Commission which receives
support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

 

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Jody Zellen is a Los Angeles-based artist who works in many media simultaneously to make interactive installations, mobile apps, net art, animations, drawings, paintings, photographs, public art, and artists’ books. She employs media-generated representations as raw material for aesthetic and social investigations.

Her interactive installations include The Unemployed, a data visualization at Disseny Hub Museum, Barcelona, 2011; The Blackest Spot, Fringe Exhibitions, Los Angeles, 2008; Trigger, Pace University, New York, 2005; and Disembodied Voices, Los Angeles, 2004.

Zellen has received commissioned to create interactive net art projects. Spine Sonnet, 2011, was commissioned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Lines of Life, 2010, was commissioned by Terminal at Austin Peay State University; and Without A Trace was a 2009 commission by Turbulance, a project of New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc. in New York City. Other net art projects include Ghost City, which was begun in 1997. It is an ever-changing poetic meditation on the urban environment. Zellen also produced Urban Fragments, Talking Walls and Disembodied Voices. In addition to making net art projects, she also creates digital animations. Her animation Of Life, 2011, was the first project to be displayed at Tractionarts in April 2013.

Recent solo exhibitions include dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, CA; Paul Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles; Pace University’s Digital Gallery, New York City; The Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, CA; Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Culver City, CA; Deep River, Los Angeles; Jan Kesner Gallery, Los Angeles; and Richard Heller Gallery, Santa Monica, CA.

In 2012, she was a recipient of a California Community Foundation Mid Career Fellowship and in 2011 she received a Center for Cultural Innovation Artistic Innovation Grant and a Fellowship from the City of Santa Monica to develop an artwork for mobile devices. She has continued making iPhone/iPad apps. Her five apps Urban Rhythms, Spine Sonnet, Art Swipe, 4 Square, and episodic are available for free in the iTunes app store.

For more information, visit www.JodyZellen.com

Community Partners 2017