Reality Scrapyard

Thirteen years since the official release of the Instagram mobile app in 2010, we don’t even notice the movements that keep us afloat in the fluid mass of images within and without. In only a brief time, we have learned to accept persuasive deepfake videos and machine-generated images, voices, and words as a seamless part of everyday life. A life unfolding in an increasingly post-digital world, where distinguishing “true” and “fabricated” becomes ever harder – where reality and fiction conflate. That is not a statement that should cause panic, but rather a starting point from which we might be able to rethink what we thought we already know.

The last decade gave rise to many artists who urgently addressed this proliferation of digital technologies. Jon Rafman exposed the hidden dynamics of visibility and surveillance in his chronic hunts for Google Maps screenshots, Amalia Ulman stretched the pliancy of identity construction and production on social media platforms, and Katja Novitskova’s printed paper animals addressed the hyperreal presence – and yet immaterial flatness – of digital images, while Joshua Citarella built an adjustable white cube in the middle of a forest to make a statement about how arbitrary the physical space becomes in the age of digital images and online documentation platforms – those which have since taken over the public presentation of contemporary art. DIS collective and many others have chosen to embrace the polished aesthetics that increasingly dominate the flourishing mediascape, appropriating the visual language of Silicon Valley tech giants and lifestyle advertisement, wrapping our vision in flashy, futuristic shapes and materials in-formed by the ever-growing “sphere of the virtual”. But the virtual is by no
means glossy and the physical is everything but arbitrary.

In referring to these artistic tendencies we routinely use the “post-internet” stamp, denoting their emergence in terms of a reaction to the upswing of digital content disseminated by internet technology. Yet the “post-“ prefix always entails complications. If we were already post-internet in the 2010s, where do we find ourselves now? Can we be said to have become post-post-internet? And what would that even mean? Jakub Choma’s work enters the space of consideration of such questions and, through various media, embodies a condition under which irony, ridicule, critique, or even simple judgment seem to have stopped making sense. What do we do when our perception floods with images to the point that they seem to become more real than “reality”? And what if they have been real all along, piercing our sensory receptors and settling down in our memory, like sediments that remain unnoticed until they cause a flood? The current state of things can thus perhaps  be understood as truly “post” internet, not in the casual meaning of something coming “after” or being “past”, but in the sense in which the internet has by now spilled out of all former frames, becoming indistinguishable, permeable, omnipresent, lived, swallowed, digested, and disgorged. As Hito Steyerl once noted: “[t]he internet is not dead. It is undead and its everywhere.”1

This gradual collapse of the “virtual” and the “physical” onto each other made artist Jesse Darling famously remark that, “[e]very artist working today is a postinternet artist” 2 : Art is thoroughly infected by the internet, to the degree that it has become redundant to even point it out. But that does not mean art can afford to cease expressing this enmeshment. Instead, it must perhaps find new ways to embody it – ways that would not freeze in the gesture of elucidation, but which would stimulate an aesthetics adequate to the messy web of interrelations between the virtual and the physical, the organic and inorganic, the real and the fictional.

Choma’s multi-layered assemblages-installations can be said to engage in such complex aesthetic construction. They command our attention, even from phone screens, but their materially and spatially robust corpus always abounds with not only visual but also haptic, auditory, and olfactory traces, leading us beyond the screen to somewhere beneath the surface, into the dirt of our infrastructure. His oeuvre comprises an ecosystem of sketches, organic and inorganic materials, techniques, still and moving images, voices, texts and melodies, all of which seem to blend effortlessly into one shared, affective matter. Stretching across the virtual-physical divide, such matter finds its expression as easily among digital pixels as in cork grains or dust. Despite the heterogeneity of Choma’s practice, his work thus shows a strong underlying unity, hinting to the post-digital awareness that, deep down, everything is made of the same basic construction units – shared particles that can conjoin in large sculptural objects, moving, static and printed digital images, as well as in an iconic “hello, world” printed on such “unartistic” material as a simple slice of white bread.

Thus, in the installations by Jakub Choma, we don’t observe a series of individual artworks from a safe position of aesthetic distance, but rather enter into an “environment”: a post- digital ecosystem where human and machinic elements become deposited, decomposed, and repurposed en masse. Such an artistic process can perhaps be best understood as a  gesture of “continual expansion”, as the author himself puts it: an open-ended worldbuilding activity always ready to sponge up themes, motives, and ideas to come. It must be emphasized that despite his great inspiration in computer games, Choma’s  worldbuilding is not simply one of fantastic creatures, great tales, and shiny surfaces, but resembles more a special kind of landfill: a place to deposit exhausted bodies and minds, where they are left to dwell until they rot, mold, and fall apart, exposing the prosthetic elements that have always made us who we are. A place of reality disintegrating and being rebuilt anew.

1 Hito Steyerl, Too Much World: Is the internet dead. In: e-flux, The Internet Does Not Exist, p. 16.  2 Jesse Darling, Post-Whatever #usermilitia. In: Omar Kholeif (ed.), You Are Here Art After the Internet. Manchester: Cornerhouse, London: SPACE 2014, p. 137.

Such a reading necessarily raises questions of utility. Where lies the threshold of our bodily integrity? Was it our fist that first shaped the wedge, or was it the other way around? How much more can our perception absorb; what do we consciously process and what happens to us when so much of our sludgy reality exceeds such processes? Choma’s work offers us a performative testing ground for the reexamination of these borders and boundaries. Coming from a generation of artists who grew up fully habituated to the worlds we somehow still tend to call “virtual,” his treatment of the aforementioned topics produces a space in which “digital” and “physical” seamlessly blend and could not ever be told apart again. It is not accidental that this blending oftentimes occurs through the bodily presence of the artist himself – it is Choma who glues together the installation parts by leaving traces of his physical labor; it is his notes, sketches, and pieces of everyday cache memory which often cover a multiplicity of materials; it is his body and voice that we encounter in the videos.

This performative presence in a shared, post-digital scrapyard redirects the abstracted speculations of the “post-internet” decade by bringing them down to earth, so to speak, as it reminds us that our own bodies and minds are part of the hyper-technological metabolism: they are the infrastructure, the commodity, the item, the tool. The “metallic aftertaste” in our mouth does not come from a terminator hidden in the future – it points to a possible dysfunction of the vital organs that keep us on our feet, whether they are made of soft tissue or hard metal. It is our task to heed that warning and take steps before it’s too late. Whether we have any chance to make it to the next level is an open question, to which we can never hope to have a full answer. But we can keep on testing.

Noemi Purkrábková, 2023