Nostalgic technological futures


Rowan Smith’s retro-futurist revivals of obsolescent technology are so hip they look as if they were sourced from Milnerton Market, Cape Town’s bohemian boot sale venue. But Smith’s work is not about nostalgia; his carved-wood installations, lightboxes and interventions with defunct technology deal with the nostalgias that are inherent in our projected futures.

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“The present day is characterised by the fast progression of technology,” explains Smith, a somewhat bashful, blueeyed boy who seems to hunch into his keffiyea. “The digital revolution influences every aspect of society. As a reaction to constantly having to update your skills and knowledge regarding technological advances, I became interested in looking at things that were already obsolete, and in so doing became drawn to that very early digital aesthetic – from the 1960s and 70s, at the same time as the space race.” LED-displays, big knobs, wood veneer, Nintendo handsets and dot matrix printers might seem lo-fi but, as Smith explains, lo-fi is relative to now. People back then dreamed of a future in which there would be flying cars and holidays on the moon. Instead we have cellphones, Hummers and the continuing hyperbole of technology that has not satisfied those retro visions of the future. Smith cites art critic Harold Rosenberg’s notion that futures are not so much underas over-determined, and that there are so many defined futures for them to be constantly recycled and reused. As such, our conception of the future hankers back to what we thought would be possible now – it is as though our dissatisfaction with the present and its undelivered promises drives the insatiable thirst for new technology.

Smith’s piece Dot Matrix Loop (2007) drew much interest when it was shown at the Johannesburg Art Fair in March. An installation comprising three outdated printers, with the paper feed on a continuous loop, the original chip in each printer has been reprogrammed to spit out one of 50 human characters to the accompaniment of that wailing pig sound of dot-matrix printers. The output on the paper is random and infinite – that is, until the printer jams or switches off. Peripheral devices traditionally require computers to instruct them: Smith’s self-governing printers clearly speak of autonomous technology. “These three printers are exchanging a loop of paper, creating this mini world that is generative and self-populates,” says Smith about what happens to the man-machine relationship when technology starts thinking for itself.

“The subtle relationship between the people of the loop is always random and determined by the printers, so technology is creating this world instead of us creating a world out of technology.” In a hypothetical future, humans may one day become be nostalgic about the power they currently wield over machines; Smith’s work, with its shifting tenses, however, asks whether technology has not already taken charge. With an ever-enlarging landfill of obsolescent technology, are humans really desiring of smile-detecting digital cameras, or is technology driving the constant rejuvenation of what is new? This dialogue between obsolescence and the ever shifting new recalls Theodore Adorno’s doubts about modern art and how “the new” participated as a mechanism in the generation of mass culture. “The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself: that is what everything new suffers from,” he wrote, wary that modern artists were devaluing the art object through constantly erasing the present in their pursuit of the novel. Smith’s nostalgic technological futures raise an unexpected comparison to the constant evolution of the notion of the artist and the artistic space.

“I am fascinated by the idea of the artist in the traditional sense and how much weight that has in society, what the everyday person’s conception of an artist is and how that relates to what an artist might really be today,” he says. “It’s a fascinating thing to be an artist; it’s so bizarre in terms of the trajectory of the artistic profession.” A comment befitting of his alma mater, Michaelis School of Fine Art, Smith brings the corporeal back into the debate through his incorporation of traditional sculpture, woodcarving, casting, etching and painting. Still, his work in the plastic arts is not about reviving a spiritual, cathartic or emotional connection, but again about the associated nostalgia.

“I enjoy the fact that that perception is there for a lot of people – that people think it is now imbued with meaning because my hands made it. Personally, I don’t invest in the notion though. While I can respect skill, in terms of it giving more or less meaning to an art work, it doesn’t make a difference.”

Published in Art South Africa, September 2008