Spherical Harmonics by Adam Brown


'‘Over there’ the landscape has become a laboratory of material, labour and money, uncontaminated by the problematics of human interaction.'


It’s messy, but we can clean it up, with more time.

When the movement stops, I shift my eyes away from the screen and it hurts a little. For a while looking is like looking at a blank sheet of paper. It is uncomfortable, as if what I see is waiting for me to give something – work, energy, a little too much of myself. Makes me want to go back, so I press replay, and off I go.

Everyone wants a frictionless house, and here’s one. All surfaces are crystalline, all colours and planes pure and clean. The camera glides through three dimensions on some kind of weightless dolly, a magic carpet. Scientists (‘tribologists’ – friction freaks) have worked tirelessly to produce this, or rather the algorithms which do the hard work. Here is a house inhabited by another perfect dolly - one who seems to have everything, so much so that she lies around on a loop, not doing too much, unable to rouse herself. But what is there to do? What’s more, what do you give someone who has everything? What about friction, lighting and gravity – all of which have to be produced artificially? How about resistance?

In Disney’s Fantasia (1940), arguably one of the origin myths of the CGI universe, objects – brooms and buckets - tidy the sorcerer’s house, while Mickey commands and sleeps. Of course, what Disney knew all along is that labour too could be made to vanish, like dirt, through the power of spectacle. In Fantasia’s reflexive world an animated character brings animated objects to life via the agency of magic: the viewers’ desire for easy, effortless motion is answered by the work of many real hands, inking real cells. Animation technologies develop and refine the magic which makes labour disappear - in a perverse twist to the accepted historical trajectory of increasing mechanisation, cell animation reintroduced the handmade into the clockwork and electrical processes of moving image production, thereby removing the trace of the photographic, polluted by dirt and too much reality. It took roughly 50 years for this trace to return, but only in a simulation of photographic reality in which dirt is there because someone put it there, not like real dirt. Mickey’s brooms splinter and multiply like processors in CGI render farms, in which vast squadrons of machines churn through algorithms of ever-increasing complexity, and hours of processor time produce seconds of footage - the process is spectacular in itself.

In Alan Warburton’s Spherical Harmonics objects dance with complete freedom through a spotless house, a bouquet fractures and reassembles (unlike the mess left in Ori Gerhst’s studio), and flocks of birds forget to shit like real birds. What makes it such uncomfortable yet engaging viewing is that even as Warburton stages the work which is taken for the real, these brief glimpses behind the curtain further fetishise the complexity of the work involved. The sheer power of the spectacle is at once creepy and sublime.

One image in Warburton’s ongoing series of ‘digital readymades’ entitled Assets represents the shape of a burqa, an object crafted as a stand-in for a concealed human form. Bought off-the-shelf from a 3D stock library, tagged with keywords suggestive of war game destinations, such a form is equally useful in architectural renderings for emerging or hothouse property markets, in which imaginary, off plan buildings are traded as if they are real.

The burqa refers to a known but generalized location, one in which the world appears to be in flux, through war and mechanised construction. ‘Over there’, the audience is told, the landscape has become a laboratory of material, labour and money, interacting in what is represented as some kind of natural state - uncontaminated by mess, ambiguity and the problematics of human interaction. The ease with which on-screen objects spin around echoes their apparent freedom in this new lab-without-walls – filled with drones, tanks, cranes, people, metal, glass, structure and surface.

The burqa is meticulously crafted, down to each crease and reflection on the fabric. Warburton, the initiate, knows exactly how such things are made – what work is done by whom, where and in what timeframe. In the pixel factories in which he works the intricate craftwork of many hands appears not to produce any kind of rococo confection, but mundane bits and pieces, revelations of the expected. Except in the case of the poseable burqa: a representation of a device to repel observation or representation, to escape the visual, becomes a curious reflexive hallucination. In some distant render farm, banks of machines churn to produce a non-existent object which may or may not contain a person. Such distinctions are supposed to be meaningless. There is no content, only form.


Adam Brown is a practicing media artist, writer of photographic theory and has worked in the field of media education since 1991. Based in London, Adam is the Curriculum Manager for Media and Digital Arts at Working Men’s College. Previously, he was involved in delivering digital arts and photographic education in Far North Queensland, a role which involved hosting experimental photographic workshops on islands off the Great Barrier Reef, coding in the bush, and coping with extremes of humidity and exposure. Adam was course leader for the BA (Hons) Photography and Media Arts and BA (Hons) Photography and Video at UCA Maidstone, developing the courses to engage creatively with new media, and successfully anticipating the revival in ‘old’ media and digital / analogue hybrids. Adam’s recent essay ‘The Spinning Index’ was published in the book ‘The Verge of the Image: A Critical Introduction to New Photography’, published by ARTicle Press / Birmingham Institute of Art and Design in October 2013.