Who owns a look? An aesthetic? These are some of the questions raised by Paul B Davis’s current exhibition at Seventeen gallery in London. The show is made up of a series of more or less self-aware failures, and as such it’s an exhibition that is firmly planted in the realm of problems rather that of solutions. The five works in the show look very different from the bulk of Davis’s previous output. This is because of Kanye West. The rapper’s video for Welcome to Heartbreak came out in March 2009, right about the time when Davis would have been figuring out exactly what to include in his upcoming solo show at the gallery. West’s video made use of an aesthetic device that Davis had developed through his own work. The look consisted of ramping up the glitches that characterise compressed and streamed video data: the squaring up of pixels and geometric flashes that interrupt the illusion of fluidity in online moving image. As with most effects, the success or failure of this one boiled down to a question of intensity. Occasional glitches just looked like a mistake, but the willful and precision deployment of the problem created a full-on look – a ‘compression aesthetic’ that acted as a visual trademark for Davis’s work. Until, that is, the director who made West’s music video (a self-avowed fan of Davis’s work) used the effect for his own production. Unlucky for Davis, some might say, as the look will evermore be filtered back to him through West’s pop-cultural might.
The question of the ownership of a visual aesthetic is a tricky one. While it may be straightforward to show that a slogan has been ‘ripped off’, a tune sampled or a photograph reproduced, exclusive ownership of a look is ultimately indefensible. In the event, Davis wasn’t interested in attempting to prove his ownership of the aesthetic and seems to have gotten over it pretty quickly, turning his attention to the possible ramifications of the experience and using his current show to explore what it might mean for his own future artistic production. The resulting show raises stages possibilities for a reversal of appropriation of mass media culture in a fine art context, perversion of intra-art world appropriation, and a bastardising of the rules of appropriation against the horizon of the anything-goes approach of online experimentation.
The West ‘appropriation’ incident is just one of many relating to the problem of recursion and the feedback loops that occur as part of the evolution of digital technology. Hackers and other digital tricksters have created a wild west in which apparently anything goes, and where it is perhaps most productive to deal with any such problems in a sanguine manner. So instead of getting litigious – the absence of any copyright of compression aesthetics would have made this impossible – Davis got theoretical. That the resulting works, made over two months in the run-up to his exhibition, seem rushed and unresolved is understandable and ultimately apt. They deal mostly with failure – the artist attempts to paint canvases, and fails. The artist films himself eating a bacon sandwich and shitting in a perspex cube; the artist makes a headset that lets the viewer see the world as though it were a YouTube screen, but with ‘critical’ subtitles- and fails to hold the viewer’s attention. Where the exhibition is successful is in its dealing with the particular problem of the Kanye West video. With Codec, Davis conducts an online tutorial explaining pbd, an eponymous algorithm that allows him to process any video and extract data to produce a new video that looks strikingly similar to one of his own works from 2007 – effectively allowing him to seemingly magically compress any video file into his own work. It’s an impressive sleight of hand and a cool form of revenge for West’s flagrant hijacking of Davis’s work.
Paul B. Davis [BEIGE], Codec, 2009