Meeting Brighton-based artist Shardcore starts with a sweet and rather self-effacing observation. He says that he used to find it hard to get work finished. But, after talking with him – however brief – it becomes obvious that the opposite is now the case; he is a highly productive, deep-thinking, polymath.
Coming after working as a CTO in digital startups during the dot-com bubble during his 20s, Shardcore wanted to bring his artistic experience back to the fore and reboot his career. It was, as he says, a “desire to make physical objects and to develop lots of ideas which are not just about writing code. I used to paint and had a choice between art school and Oxford, and chose Oxford. I grew up in a south Devon town, studied philosophy and psychology at Oxford, but always felt that desire to do it.. step away from the keyboard, pick up a paintbrush.”
Prior to stepping into a full-time career in art, Shardcore built a system for investment banking compliance. It used metadata to track emails, phone calls, IM, and the physical location of staff. From there, behavioural profiles of staff could be produced. Where routine movements were broken, the system was triggered. The problem was in selling it: banks were already overloaded with information on their staff, the culture was manifestly corrupt, or both. This was all before 2008, and we all know what happened next.
A takeaway from the project was an early suspicion of the analysis of online behaviour. He stays off Google, runs his own email service, and chooses not to participate in many online social services which utilise behavioural modelling. “With Facebook... why would I give away all of my interpersonal relationships to an American company? Having worked on software which mines data to understand human behaviour, I'm not going to give it away... there's no reason for me to do so. Plus, Facebook won't be around for ever. That data will be an asset in a fire sale. Six billion people, everything they've done - how much? Will you trust the company who buys Facebook?”
Shardcore's artistic career gained traction at the age of 33. On his birthday, he set a challenge: to make 33 works in a year as a challenge to himself, and a demonstration that he could actually do it – to finish a major artistic project, and to gain a sense of completion from it. Many works were produced in one day: “I would wake up in the morning and by the afternoon it would be finished; by 5pm it would be on eBay”. One such work was Bush Figure, where cutouts of George W Bush flipping the bird are mounted onto the American flag. It was this work which is something of a cornerstone in the artist's development; directly political yet subtly mocking, a large-scale version was commissioned for a client.
During this period, a small local shop became available to rent. Snapped up and renamed Shardcorner - "a gallery of aesthetic experiments" it was a gallery which never opened; a public space which was unavailable to the public. The only means of communicating with the occupant was via a little sign, which gave Shardcore's telephone number for enquiries. Towards the end of the artist's 33rd year, he was very much in his stride – taking longer to produce more complex work.
The next series of works, of human pathogens, were a natural evolution. “I have always been fascinated by human biology and microscopic views. I have a grain of pollen tattooed on my back. So, I started painting E-Coli, MRSA, parasites and did a series of those.” After that came a series of duels: Einstein and Bohr, Leibniz and Newton, and portraits of people such as 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe, who kept a pet moose and clairvoyant dwarf while sporting a copper nose due to his original conker being lost in a duel.
As part of Brighton's Artists Open House project, Shardcore met Sam Hewitt, an artist who lived nearby. Between them, they set up what was to become The Fortunecats, a partnership founded to develop installation works and continues to this day. It started with a de-consecrated church, which the duo wanted to use as their next gallery; in the absence of wall mountings, the paintings were on the pews.
The following year, the duo and an ever-increasing group of local artists including Cure artist Andy Vella re-launched the event in a much bigger church, which let 4000 people through for the exhibition. From there, an invitation came through to show at Brighton's all-night arts festival, White Night.
This work, demonstrating Shardcore and Hewitt's increasingly technological thinking, features two one-metre-high golden cats on plinths, introduced by a set of 7 robed followers. On each cat was a gold telephone; visitors could talk to the cat about their problems. Away from the cats were actors who would give their answer to the caller while the cat lowered its arm. As the actors became logistically difficult, a system was built which picks up the subject and gives a recorded answer of three appropriate aphorisms. This was essentially the first piece of digital or digitally-enabled, artistic work from Shardcore. “I needed to use these digital skills. Once you reveal that to other artists, magic happens. Suddenly there's someone around who can do that. I slowly began getting drawn back into interactive installation pieces.”
An enlightenment machine was the piece for the next White Night. Two rooms became available in a Brighton bar, with the main room featuring a device that talked to itself. It shifted between two phases: a profound religious guru, and a motivational speaker. It was Shardcore's first generative piece: “Suddenly, you realise that a generative artwork can be more than swirly patterns. The idea that a machine is part of an artistically generative process - an algorithm - you really need to be there to understand and observe it. There is still a sense [in the mind of the visitor] that generative art 'magic'. No-one really knows how hard digital art is. They would be wowed by the end result, but it's difficult to read the difference [for a new visitor] between someone that has had a genuine artistic idea, and someone that has fucked around in Processing. I found that quite interesting. Can you look at how hard or easy the code is? As an audience, you don't know.”
The Fortunecats piece for this year's Brighton Digital Festival is the Broken X Machine. Based on the radical feminist notion that the Y chromosome is a broken X chromosome, it is designed to address the crises facing men in 2013: what are they actually on Earth for, and should they undergo therapy? Referencing on the Jungian archetypes of masculinity, the machine's interaction stems from a series of initial workshops, where Shardcore found that some men actually found it more comfortable talking to a fairly anonymous-looking piece of machinery, than a human being – and certainly a de facto psychotherapist. Additionally, there was a clear mission to find out how empathetic a machine can be.
Spoken words are sent to the Google Speech API. The transcribed result is sent down a semantic tree and the response is said back to the visitor, while an algorithmic pattern is continually being built up as to which words produce which results. Although this piece is as much about the sense of self in contemporary culture, it's also about how the self has become a technological commodity.
“The invisible algorithmic nature of the world – the general public don't really think about it. They are vaguely aware that Amazon recommends stuff to them, but they don't think too much about how that works... but that's where the fascinating stuff is happening. Can you take an algorithm into psychotherapy? Let's see. It will be interesting. We want to run a performance using the same software, with four actors and an audience: a real group therapy session, run by a machine.”
Recently showing at group exhibition The New Sublime in Brighton is Who Watches The Watchers?, depicting British Foreign Secretary William Hague outside the MI6 building. It's more than a painting; a camera, hidden in Hague's eye, is connected to a Raspberry Pi, running a facial detection program every .6 of a second. Faces are transmitted to a nest, which transmits the face of the viewer. There are deeper connotations that the most obvious one of contemporary transnational surveillance: that of addressing what paintings “think” or “feel” when they are being watched, and their views on the relationship between viewer and object. Rather like a grown-up version of those pantomime props of the Mona Lisa, in this case, the painting is watching you.
There's no doubt that Shardcore has broken through his strategy to start “getting shit done”; the ability to work at near-light speed is almost matched by his ability to talk so enthusiastically and at length about his work. He has now found a point in the middle of the Venn diagram between fine art and technology to which he feels highly comfortable and well-positioned: “Although digital art has been around for years, it is now at a stage where it can think faster than you. there's an opportunity to build a new kind of experience, a new kind of interaction. The machine is fast enough that it can react in real time. It's an exciting new part of art. You can curate real-time experiences as an artist.”
Further information on Shardcore is available on his website, and he is @erocdrahs on Twitter. The New Sublime runs until 29/09/13; further informationis available on the Brighton Digital Festival website.