‘SPECTACLE & FUNCTION’ – Katy Barrett

RESPONSE #4  Katy Barrett

What does it mean to be human? That was the, potentially overwhelming, question at the heart of our session with Chris Laoutaris last week. He got us to think about what the relationship is, and long has been, between humans and technology. Are we post-human, or have we indeed ever been simply human? We use technology all the time to facilitate our lives, to perform functions that we could never fulfil ourselves. This project wouldn’t exist in the exciting form it does without the internet, for example. The ability to share images and responses on the website informs the entire structure of the research.

Chris used a phrase that particularly struck me, when he described such technology as ‘objects that think for you.’ Certainly my phone and computer do a lot of thinking for me on a daily basis. But what about my weather map printing plates? Just as I now realise that I think in a way that is impossible without the pieces of technology to which I am used, we also all think with print, from newspapers and books, to advertisements and packaging. I think it’s, similarly, fair to say that we also think about weather in a way that is formed by weather maps, images and forecasts. When I hear the forecast in the morning, I find I visualise a map of the UK with the different weather patterns being described arranged across it. So, my plates from the Galton collection are the start of that whole mode of thinking. They changed forever how at least some of us engage with natural forces.

Octagon Gallery, UCL

Octagon Gallery, UCL

But, what Chris also made us think about is how machines work among collections of objects. Through looking specifically at Renaissance automata, he got us discussing machines as unnerving and scary, as false idols, as only half formed, as a conscious mix of spectacle and function. What did it mean, he asked us, to put such machines amongst natural specimens and fine arts in a Renaissance ‘cabinet of curiosity.’ This got me thinking about seeing my weather plates on display in the UCL Octagon Room last year. I wrote then about my shock at how small they were. As part of an exhibition considering ‘Digital Frontiers,’ my plates were in a case called ‘Art or Data’ by Claire Ross, considering the boundaries between objective information and aesthetic representation.

I realise this display made me think a-new of the plates as carrying ‘data,’ a term which I find inextricable from modern computers. For me it conjures images of rapidly changing code on an old blue-screen computer. I see the patterns of my plates transposed into this code. But of course the maps do precisely carry data about when and where weather patterns will fall, just I don’t associate the word data with the aesthetics of a map, or the intricacy and delicacy of the printing plates themselves. I realise I have been very clearly thinking about them as art rather than science. Does that make me post-human?

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