interview by DONATIEN GRAU
artwork by ED ATKINS
what is love in the age of avatars, artificial intelligence, and synthetic identity? through the eyes of english artist ed atkins, does it stop at scary soliloquies and abject solipsism?
DONATIEN GRAU — You’ve created synthetic images of individuals in your films. Can these figures love? Is love a purely human thing?
ED ATKINS — I don’t think of them like that: as “them.” They’re models, and their constitution — computer-generated data, weightless naught — is never really to be forgotten. Ciphers, then? Or perhaps, like tropes, the figures are devices for allegory or something? They are for me — initially, at least. To model things, and in their overt insufficiency, I’ve come to rely on their and the videos’ capacities to perform sentiment to excess. So, I don’t think something like love figures directly — more as something unavailable to the diegesis. Which isn’t to say it isn’t a subject lurking in there, but that questions concerning “their” capacity to love are moot. I suppose it’s more a question of what access they have to variously hamstrung expressions of love or its representations? Love, being a purely human thing, feels difficult to assess, as someone who’s not entirely sure what love is, apart from its effects.
DONATIEN GRAU — You have confronted digital media. How is love impacted by the digital age?
ED ATKINS — Again, I think maybe it’s a matter of communication or representation, rather than the thing in itself. I am — sadly, for the purposes of this conversation! — uncertain as to what love is. I think I consider it, for better or worse, as a pretty profound example of the paucity of language to sufficiently convey something. I do find myself angry at the lack of synonyms, the lack of nuance, particularly in instances where I want to say it — “it” — over and over. It’s repetitious. A trap, maybe. My works in the past have directly addressed those things that evade representation or surrogacy or illusion. Things that avoid capturing — co-option. Love as an ideal or a demand or a consensus — particularly a consensus — feels horrid. I don’t want that for my love or for anyone else’s. So, inasmuch as digital media has extended a kind of negative unanimity regarding concepts like love or friendship — that’s shite. But inasmuch as it has exponentially increased the means of conveying one’s feelings to another, or unified people, or afforded spaces for love — that’s terrific. My work’s relation to digital media is effectively negative or at least ambivalent. Sometimes aggressively so. But its existence has opened up that space of reflexive critique: a place or situation or something that reveals parallel errors by its example. Working presumptions of digital media’s intangibility mirror other kinds of false conveniences that we “feel” to be elsewhere or nowhere, immaterial in the literal and the figurative sense. So, in that way, I’m very grateful for how digital media seems and how it is. It plays well with the way my mind works — heavily based in language and frighteningly literal. Maybe.
DONATIEN GRAU — Your work often deals with issues of subjectivity, subjectivation, desubjectivation. What does love do to the subject?
ED ATKINS — I think I need a little more on this. Love under what condition, I suppose. Perhaps something along the lines of expanding the idea of what capturing things and recuperating them does, and how digital media does this, how realism functions within my videos. How abjection works in the videos and the writing.
DONATIEN GRAU — Narratives play a very important role in your work. What is the narrative of love?
ED ATKINS — Ha! I don’t know. I’ve been very drawn to a kind of simplicity lately. Which makes equivalences between things conveniently available, but which also, I hope, draws out the fundamental. My most recent moving-image work, Refuse.exe, whose narrative is a concentrate that tastes both crazily saccharine and metallic, is as follows: Refuse.exe is the simulation of some crap falling to a stage. Expression is trammeled here: the heart is thwarted. Animation is merely gravity’s effect; tears roll incessantly and without cause; literature’s treacle, the list, is everywhere. If “etcetera” is the dreck that need not be named, there being no point to that which is contained within the category — then this work is perhaps an attempt to spend time in that place of digression, uselessness, and poignancy. It’s reclamation. Refuse.exe is an exercise in the profound impoverishment of redemption, grace, and recuperability. Refuse.exe dramatizes the seeming return of repressed, deferred, and otherwise metaphorized matter, by way of a theatrical play reduced to a crude script:
DONATIEN GRAU — How do you see the relation between love and abjection?
ED ATKINS — This feels very complex and necessitates a lot of speculative/temporary assertions of what love is. I guess I think love needs manifesting somehow, and I think a consistent incorporation of love is a good thing. As in, practiced in the body. As with everything, ha. Specifically, a kind of irruptive intimacy, a shedding of some intolerable aspect by abjecting oneself feels like it’s ethically important, and particularly in relation to others. So long as we’re mortal things, then abjection will always have some parabolic aspect to it, like a lesson that requires regular rehearsal, love and death being inextricably linked. Though maybe this is too materialist an attitude. Could you maybe be more specific in the angle of your question?
DONATIEN GRAU — Your work — as a writer, as well as a visual artist — plays on language. Can love be captured in words? How can love be said? Is there a new language of love for our era?
ED ATKINS — Like most stuff I’m into, it’s precisely at its limit that language feels exciting. Expressions of love — expressions of those phenomena that still manage to elude representation (love, the weather, loss?) — are the things, I reckon, that are important to attempt to write about. It spills everywhere, though — language’s insufficiency — rendering expression per se a profound problem. But yeah, the attempt is important. Rather, I love those things that thwart expression. Retardation is the mode of love?
I mean, love is inexpressible, or inexpression is the language of love? Expression flung against a wall.
DONATIEN GRAU — We have made love the symbol of psychological complexity. Is love complex? Is it psychological?
ED ATKINS — Yes, I suppose it is psychological. It’s very hard to answer these things because I’ve no real clue what love is. It’s constantly insinuated, absent, elusive. It requires modeling, narrating into specific situations, right? Only ever in relation — loving toward a subject. I can’t really see how love is not psychological. I definitely feel dualistic as regards mind and body, the latter ready to betray the former. Even as someone who attempts a practice of abjection, it’s not necessarily positive, despite its possibility to teach something, that truth has little appeal. Love feels complex, if inexpressibility is like complexity. Either love is complex, or we’re morons. Again, perhaps my responses really just underscore the flailing that abounds with love: how incredibly difficult it feels to assert anything about it. Perhaps better to conditionally deny its existence, but what then?
DONATIEN GRAU — Refuse.exe made me think that some like to say that everything in our condition is biological, that every feeling we have is chemical, biological, taken into the grand scheme of life. How do you feel about that?
ED ATKINS — It’s certainly not something I believe. I always reckon that the vast artifice of the work points pretty hard at those things that are absent, save for within the sentiments and sensations of the viewer. I’m fascinated by asking tech to do things that exceed either spectacle or technical capacity. Like tears or urine or rain, etc. The perversion of the latent aspirations of tech toward mimesis, but both gifting it the chance and demonstrating its inability to make the jump — which, rather, conjures a yearning in the viewer, describes a vast loss, filling the work.
DONATIEN GRAU — Inexpressiveness is the language of love — that’s an interesting notion! Can you elaborate on that?
ED ATKINS — I suppose I think the paralysis or the flailing limits of language affirm something elusive. Or affirm the existence of those things that elude language’s presumptive sufficiency of representation. Love, perhaps, being something that sits there and is maybe described by its incoherence, linguistically or representationally.
DONATIEN GRAU — In a way, the fact that love is difficult to define, to delimit, makes it a more compelling object for you. Don’t you agree?
ED ATKINS — I do agree that it makes love compelling, intellectually. Not that it necessarily needs being made compelling emotionally, as it already is that, but in efforts to describe it or express it outside of its imminence as an experience, it manifests as something that compels expression or whatever representation, even as it preempts that very possibility.
DONATIEN GRAU — The notion of artifice you mentioned is one that is often related to love. What are your thoughts regarding artifice?
ED ATKINS — So, love’s representation is always artificial, if I’m going to pursue this loose thesis. To be interested in artifice — and specifically sentimentality, say, or romance or genre — is to pursue love’s description. This is going too far, and I’m not really thinking it through. But it seems as if love as a word, as a subject to relate, is some sort of apex of artifice because it seems like the pinnacle of failure as regards possible expressivity. Maybe this is all wrong, though. Maybe love’s the pinnacle of congruence, insofar as we have to agree to not define it, but to relate it to ourselves away from ourselves. Love being a perpetual movement toward a form of relation that risks incoherence inasmuch as another’s image of love or experience of it will necessarily be vastly different than one’s own, but is still an incredibly, ultimately important relation that we have to agree exists. We have to tolerate both its universality and its complete uniqueness to everyone. Grace feels important here.