aaajiao and the Management of Meaning

aaajiao is a new media artist based in Shanghai, whose solo show opens on Tuesday, 7 September at the 210V Arts Centre, 50 Moganshan Lu, Shanghai. I’ve been working with him for a while now, and when this show was being organised, he asked me to write a piece about his work for the catalogue. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it to the opening, so, in celebration of this event I’m posting the text here and wishing aaajiao a happy evening!

I want to begin discussing aaajiao’s works with a piece which I believe encapsulates one of his major concerns – the transference of meaning – and from there move onto other pieces that provide methodological examples of this concern and which will provoke some consequences of that activity.

The tiny jellyfish, Turritopsis nutricula, is an idealized organism for aaajiao, representing permanence, renewability, regeneration, immortality. This particular species of jellyfish gives us an idea of immortality based on its ability to revert to a previous generational stage and regenerate itself anew. For aaajiao this creature and the attributes that makes it so interesting to science matches his concerns with the permanence of data, the possibility of the stability of meanings, and the physical expression of this stability.

The artwork Turritopsis nutricula reproduces the jellyfish in digital form. As the jellyfish touches on immortality in life, so the artwork touches on this idea of the immortality of data as an immortality through change, stressing the mutability of data as part of immortality, and an understanding of it as it goes through its stages. Data goes through many processes – meaning being just one of them, and meaning—“having” meaning—is just one state, one particular meaning in itself. The relationship of data to art begins with these attributes as ways of representing things. They are both prototypical methods of representation. It could be said that at its base art is nothing but representation, a simulation of a world of simulation where, as soon as we approach it, everything is symbolic of something other in an endless movement.

In his works in general, aaajiao focuses on the use of data and its various forms of display, in so doing pointing up problems with the movement from reality, to data, and back again – how meaning is understood through this process, processed through these various forms and then re-presented (as fact, or otherwise), and also how art manages these situations. More than with meanings themselves, aaajiao’s pieces seem to play with these meaning-transfer systems that data resides within.

So we have two discrete stages – the first being data and the process of its formation into structures. Then the structures themselves, which organise the data and are used to represent things beyond the data parts. Context assists in the understanding of data/structures, it is in some ways essential to the understanding, but the relationship between data/structures and context is a fraught one. At the same time as the structure is representing, it somehow loses touch with its data. In the other direction, upon reception the audience loses touch with the data’s original context and creates a new context within which to understand the data. By simplifying in order to be understood, to a point where we hope we can transfer the meaning without losing data or meaning, actually we have removed an important aspect of that data. Complexity and simplicity, context and lack thereof, all in their ways work towards the transference of meaning and at the same time prevent it from taking place.

This is not to say that there is necessarily a privileged meaning, e.g. valuing an “inherent” or original meaning over one that occurs later in the process. This is as much to say that any artist that claims to deal with meanings, must be aware of the fallibility of the processes that they choose to rely on. It’s not about meaning at all, it’s about communication – communication judged as an effective transference of meaning between participants. So, as I say, I believe aaajiao often takes on this process as an overarching concern. The surface meanings, and the data involved make up a scenario in which the process of communication can be tested.

With similar concerns to Turritopsis nutricula, Blog weighting is specifically set up to “study the permanence of data”, in this case the projection of value onto a mass of information. This data originates from a historically significant blog, this mass of significant data saved on to a chip. The chip is then weighed, giving an indication of the value of this data interpreted another way.

In “reality”, although the mass of a chip cannot change dependent on its data content, its form does: inside the chip, imperceptibly, tiny switches are flipped this way or that, the resulting electrical currents are the effects of these states and represent “data”. Nothing then is physically added or taken away, save the analysis that is imposed on these currents, as read by the system and which go through a series of interpretations, until presented phenomenologically, reaching the level of perception, a point at which something is designed to be perceived and thus leaves the realm of electronic interpretation, entering the world of human interpretation and thence feelings. So in this piece to read the weight of the chip and present that visually represents a criticism of the nature of the chip and its data.

Again. In GFWList, rather than representing an actuality, an invisible mass of data represents a meaningful form: here the black Monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001, which is then encrypted, hiding the meaning of the data. This representation of an object that in the storyline holds advanced meaning but in the film is beyond our understanding. In 2001, with its own famously obscure story, the Monolith (perhaps) promises to be a link between universes, so it is appropriate that aaajiao is using the gfwList in this piece. The final form of the artwork, the printer spewing out endless reams of this seemingly random information, only adds to the apparent meaninglessness of the data. Its last stop is where it becomes a physical amount of paper, falling down to a heap on the floor.

And a representation in volume. Water Measure takes the idealization that is the mailing list and asks us – how do we value ourselves (or things)? How can we be valued? We are all products – productive value, potential earnings. As a member of a mailing list, we inhabit a certain demographic the mailing list represents in its totality, it is a generalization of the included members. Self-selecting or spam-trawled, we can then think of ourselves as part of this list in a certain way, and we are thought by the list owners in a certain way.

The artwork, from its origins in a mailing list specifically designed around and tailored to a certain group (global artists, arts organizations, galleries, collectors), omits the specificity of the list and reverts into a great mass. This lumpen group, stripped of meanings apart from its new meaning as an element of the work, takes meanings away and adds new ones based on a new context – taking a volume and stripping it back, ignoring many of its features, innate or assumed, concentrating on those which interest you at that moment, for the particular point that you wish to make.

The work figuratively funnels meaning in and out again. Every drop represents a person from that list, as the water drains away from the container, falling into the measuring jar below where it transmutes from drop to an implied person for a moment during its fall, reverting to drops which add up to an amalgam measured in the jar. Drops = amounts = people, people simply as amounts, divorced from their identity and meanings, except insofar as they satisfy the parameters of the list and add up to fill a volume. The illustration shows the water splashed around the jar – lost drops, lost people, unmeasured/measured then forgotten, soaking and evaporating away to become part of some other system in which they can be measured again. Never completely lost, but losing value in themselves to this particular system: this is the truth of “data”. is the movement from computer-generated into real installation and imagined reality. The CGI showing on the arrangement of displays uses an advanced algorithm for simulating clouds – data can be manipulated to be a representation of things and/or reality, in this case dependant on the algorithm used. The simulation is reinforced by the installation, on the screens suspended overhead, over trays of water below, creating a simulated landscape of data-becoming-representation.

Raw data is understood as a basic “atomic” building block on which things are built up. But data has a strange relationship with other things, the things it is part of, its relationship between part and whole, producing a loss of meaning, and a wastage of meaning.

When data, or the structures data produces, come into contact with reality there is a mismatch and wastage which occurs physically, as with the water in Water Measure, or the paper in GFWList. The material used to embody the ideas as expressed by data cannot keep up with the extent of the idea. Up against a finite materiality, ideas overflow. Hence concepts of wastefulness come in, and ideas of ethics form around this wastage – potentially endless wastage, potentially infinite. This is where imagination has the upper hand in resolving these problems in the movement from data to reality, or where it can hold the two irresolvable, sans wastage. But in a reverse movement, in the way in which we are aware of physical wastage, perhaps data needs to be thought of as precious in and of itself – each Bit is important and should be used economically and without waste in relation with the imagination, something which has been ignored in our terabytes of capacity.

So where is the imaginative subject in all of this? In any given situation that I address myself to, I am the subject in a number of senses. I am “subject-ed” by the artwork, but I also “subject” myself by my understanding of my place in relation to the work. It’s tempting to think of the subject as sitting outside of all the data-wrangling activities in the pieces, aloof and untainted, but they are right in the action of the formation of meaning. They sit at the point where meaning is produced, a separate activity to the data production and manipulation. They manage the wastage of this movement from data to reality. For instance in the work Anti-cybernetic (the piece which negates the title of the show) one meaning of which could be a going against of the “control functions, and the systems designed to replace them” as the definition of Cybernetics. In this piece we have “Anti-“ control, or the removal of control, or control which obviates itself. A switch which switches itself off, a self-destructive impulse, an act that removes itself, cause and effect facing off against one another, a meaning which is the removal of meaning.

aaajiao looks to the technocratic-utopian level of meaning which trusts in technology as some kind of redeemer of meaning, but he is also quite aware of the potential meaninglessness or arbitrariness of meaning in itself – the drips which splash out from their measuring container, the change of state in a computer chip. Meaning seems not to be in the “meanings” themselves, but in their movement from one form to another, from one person to another, this transference. As Turritopsis nutricula embodies immortality in its ability to form and reform, so aaajiao’s art works with the process of the formation of meanings to highlight the mutability not just of meanings, but of the concept of meaning itself.

Edward Sanderson, August 2010

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