Living in a Perfect World
By Chris Wiley
I have a distinct memory of being about ten, meandering with my father through the isles of the improbably-named electronics store Nobody Beats the Wiz, and suddenly stumbling into a luminous thicket of television displays, which somehow—miraculously, to my mind—were playing synchronized copies of the wildly popular computer graphics VHS head-trip The Minds Eye. As cheesy cinematic music twittered and swelled, I was plunged into a whirling psychedelic technoscape. Its architecture and its inhabitants alike were fashioned from simple, texture-mapped geometric solids gussied up in garish colors and patterns that called to mind a parallel universe in which God was a member of the Italian design group Memphis, everybody’s favorite purveyors of post-modern playroom kitsch. Translucent orbs, chromed dinosaurs, and baroquely rippled bodies of pellucid water reflected and refracted their digital surrounds as if acting in sympathy with the recursive images being broadcast on the monolithic walls of TVs—extending into infinity, a virtual Indra’s net. My mind was blown. It seemed as if the future—a tangible, epically futuristic future—was right around the corner, and I was sure to be a part of it. It was going to be great.
Of course, living in the future now, I find it has a more prosaic texture: no jet pack, but also no virtual reality helmets, no robot pets, and no Hoverboard. The technological wonders that now interpenetrate our daily lives, which would surely has struck me as magic back then, can’t seem to dispel the pervasive feeling that the future promises to be a very bleak place indeed, even—or perhaps especially—if the techno-gnostic visions of post-humanist singularity junkies like Ray Kurzweil come to pass, freeing us from the shackles of want, environmental catastrophe, and the very limits of the flesh itself. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the future of past.
Oddly enough, despite the fact that he was still a toddler when I skrying the future in the Wiz’s cathode-ray crystal balls, this tug of the future past reared up in me the first time I went by Joshua Citarella’s studio to see his enigmatic, heavily digitally manipulated photographs, which immediately call to mind the images I remember illustrating the old computer graphics and imaging software how-to books that are presumably still gathering dust in the basement of my parents’ house. All of the familiar elements are here: generic fruits (apples, oranges), label-free wine bottles, and even an hourglass seemingly materialized directly out of the old Windows OS display their curvature and reflective sheen, color bars pop up for calibration, mise-en-abyme techniques point to all the would-be digital Eschers that littered the 90s computer graphics landscape, and, of course, an ample number of comely naked women, because who could do without? But despite the well-worn quality of these tropes, there is something strange going on in Citerella’s images, something off. Why, for instance, in Hourglass and Apples and Oranges (2011) is the model’s body mostly—but not entirely—slathered in greasy-looking grey paint? And why, for that matter, is the hourglass hanging in mid-rotation to her right suspended by such obvious wires? Isn’t this supposed to be high tech? The same could be asked of Skew Merge Curves Clone (2012), which appears to be as classic an early computer graphics tableau as one could ask for, all simple solids and tacky marble surfacing, until you notice the tell: a space where the contact paper covering the chair makes it clear that—at least in part—things are not as seamless as they seem.
These little glitches, the cracks in the digital façade, certainly punch up the artifice of what has become the ubiquitous and largely invisible labor of contemporary image production, where everything is subtly shaped and smoothed to conform to an arbitrarily determined Platonic ideal. But this doesn’t explain the strangest glitch of all: that Citarella’s work is, for all its multi-layered meta references to the advanced Photoshop technology that both helped create it and that ostensibly forms the backbone of its concerns, pointedly anachronistic. In my mind, this seeming arrest of aesthetic development has everything to do with the intertwining of my naïve childhood hopes for an unimaginably stimulating and sleek technological future, and the reality of its present manifestation, which too often seems to be predicated a progression of evermore baroque illusions of change, masking the hum of evermore entrenched sameness.
While the same shining-eyed hope I felt for a future bright with technological progress lingers in Citarella’s images, it is one that now feels expired, but has managed nevertheless to perseverate, to our great detriment. When we began to imagine a world made clean, sleek, and futuristic, it seems that we forgot to pay heed to the textures of the human that we were leaving behind, the glitches and cracks in our lives and environment that, while not always desirable, are nevertheless essential if we are to avoid the transformation of the world into one vast, sprawling Singapore: pristine, efficient, but utterly repressive. With this in mind, the little glitches in Citerella’s work, above their function as earmarks of the ersatz, seem also to be faint glimmers of hope.