Solid Yet Virtual

A sculptor explores cyber-tensions with offline objects

by Gregory Beatty

Digital Handshake, photo Darrol Hofmeister

art-2Troy Coulterman: Digital Handshake
MacKenzie Gallery
Until Jan. 25

I don’t know if it’s an official tech term, but “handshake” has long been used to describe how computers connect on the Internet. Just like people press the flesh when they meet in real life, computers use URLs, security codes, data algorithms and whatnot to establish an electronic bond that permits us to communicate and access information on the web.

Regina sculptor Troy Coulterman references that metaphorical association in his exhibition Digital Handshake. In fact, it’s pretty much a central focus: our growing immersion in the digital realm, and the impact it’s having on our identity and how we interact with each other.

When you enter the gallery, you’re greeted by a quote from Polish American tech journalist Aleks Krotoski’s 2013 book Untangling the Web. With over two billion people now online, she notes, and over 500 million people sharing their lives (to varying degrees) on Facebook, the web has become “inextricably tangled into the fabric of our lives”.

For us here in the West, that statement is irredeemably true. But it’s also true that even if online numbers have reached two billion, that still leaves over five billion people who don’t visit (or perhaps even know about) the cyber realm where we work, play, shop and do myriad other things in.

Questions of access and privilege aside, the digital world also challenges traditional notions of community, lifestyle, societal status, engagement — and ultimately, reality.

During a gallery walkabout, Coulterman, who graduated from the University of Regina with an MFA in 2012, identified himself a child of the 1980s. That’s the decade when digital/virtual technology started to hit the consumer market through video games, personal computers, mobile phones and other devices.

The technology, by today’s standards, was laughably primitive. But it was a doorway to the digital realm. And that surely gives people Coulterman’s age and younger a comfort level with digital technology that older people, who came of age in the pre-digital analog era, may not have.

That’s not to say there aren’t some dystopian elements in Coulterman’s show — at least, as I read them. Although since I’m one of the aforementioned “older people”, and never really got into the early adopter glitz and glamour of consumer electronics scene, maybe that’s my bias showing.

Still… I think there are some dark aspects. Take the title work, “Digital Handshake”. It consists of two cast resin figures, one male, one female, maybe 18 inches high, standing face to face at opposite ends of a rectangular plinth.

Extending from their toes are wiry tendrils that lead to a “modem” that connects them in cyberspace. Both are dressed in their underwear, and could be doing any number of things, from having a business meeting via telecommuting to making a retail purchase to flirting with each other on a singles website.

Graphic novels and early video games are two visual inspirations for Coulterman. Typically, his human figures, in both their skin tone and overall physique, have a cartoonish bordering on grotesque quality. Sometimes they’re even depicted with glitches or bugs like computer programs.

That ratchets up the psychological tension of “Digital Handshake”. And Coulterman has posed the figures with their hands clasped warily behind their backs, dramatizing the need to exercise caution when meeting strangers online because you can’t be sure whether they’re trustworthy. Indeed, the man seems to be leaning forward a bit, and perhaps even leering, which raises the spectre (for old analog me anyway) of cyberstalking and other predatory behaviors.

The flipside of the threat posed by anonymity online is that it gives people a chance to experiment with their identity. Coulterman addresses that in “I Want to Be New to This World” which consists of a trio of wall-mounted “masks”. In two, the same young woman is depicted as blonde with hair hanging loose at her shoulders and as a redhead with a pony tail.

In the third mask she’s faceless, which references the option of interacting anonymously with people on the net. Yes, it can lead to problems like trolling and cyber-bullying — but it can also be liberating, like visiting a new city where no one knows you and you’re free to reinvent yourself if you wish.

The Youth is another tech-positive work. It shows a guy striding along, his head immersed in a cloud of virtual knowledge/information. As mobile devices become more common, and products like Google Glass lead us further down the wearable computer road, problems are emerging with things like driver inattention and our waning desire/ability to engage with each other in meatspace. But they also offer us a tremendous opportunity to expand our cognitive potential, so have plenty of upside. And that’s reflected in the youth’s confident gait.

Still, “Digital Handshake” isn’t the only work that points to a darker reality. One that stood out for me was “Throw Stuff Out There and Experiment. It depicts a tiny human (which Coulterman produced via 3D printing instead of his usual mold process) tumbling in a cyclonic cloud — the cloud representing the vast universe of information and communication possibilities available in cyberspace.

Literally now, we store data on cloud networks. But as the recent leak of nude photos of starlets shows, security from hackers is not absolute. So privacy is an issue. Also, our capacity to sift through the glut of information/marketing/outright propaganda out there so we can make sense of the world and our rights and responsibilities as citizens, voters, consumers and whatnot, is in doubt.

Coulterman’s depiction of this tiny human being buffeted by this vast storm of information and cyber-crap reminds us that we’re still learning our way in this strange new realm.

2014-09-18