Caught In Eternal Digital Glitches: A Conversation With Jess Johnson

Video still from Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Whilst In Genuflect (video), 2017, Soundtrack by Andrew Clarke, Looped single-channel digital 4K video with audio (Courtesy the artists and Jack Hanley Gallery)

New Zealand-born, NYC-based artist Jess Johnson’s recent exhibition Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost at Jack Hanley Gallery was a maximalist installation in which analog met digital, whereby her drawings were translated into virtual reality. Filthy Dreams’s Jessica Caroline chats to Johnson about her hyper-psychedelic theme park of cyber bodies in both unison and discord:

Jessica Caroline: “Everything not saved will be lost” is an exhibition title that appears to speak to apocalyptic rhetoric in a somewhat hyperbolic tone …

Jess Johnson: The origin of the title comes from the quit screen message on the NES game system, which resonated with me for a number of reasons. The last time I really intensely played video games was as a 12-year-old on that console. I never progressed any further with playing video games but have retained an interest in gaming culture, particularly the complex world-building aspects of them. I think I actively resist playing games now because I know I have quite a compulsive personality and am resistant to becoming consumed by them. I don’t know if I could do that and still retain enough mental space to be building my own world.

On a very pragmatic level, the artworks are a way of downloading what’s in my head. Transcribing something that exists in a netherworld and giving it a physical form. It’s my way of storing up evidence … pressing record and saving to a hard drive. But beyond that—beyond the title (“Everything not saved will be lost”) describing my own desire to archive—I’m not sure that it necessarily describes the rules of the world I am creating. Like so much of the text in my drawings, the phrase is one that stuck in my head, that suggests an aesthetic or emotion or impulse that’s working on me subconsciously.

Installation view of Jess Johnson’s “Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost” at Jack Hanley Gallery (Courtesy the artist and Jack Hanley Gallery)

Do you think your visions are more utopian than dystopian or a combination of both?

I think it’s more the tension between the two. I like the etymology of “utopia,” which at its Latin root means “no place” or “not a place” and only came to mean a “good place” when Thomas More ironically titled a book Utopia.

But I don’t ascribe judgements—I don’t ascribe any emotions to the scenes or imagery in my drawings—so I find it hard to place them in either camp: utopian or dystopian. Whatever I absorb from the real world around me (the current political “geo-hell” in the United States, etc.) infiltrates my drawings, yes, but I don’t intend my work to be direct commentary on the real world in the way that some sci-fi dystopias try to be. I don’t intend my work to be didactic, nor do I mean them to be harbingers of doom, warning about the danger of the proliferation of technology or something like that.

Do you see yourself as a storyteller? Is there an ongoing narrative at stake in this work or deliberately fragmented?

Nothing is deliberately fragmented, it just comes out the way it’s going to come out. The world is not fully formed in my head so it’s pulled into existence through these spurtive drawings. It’s not a smooth or neat process, though there is an ‘unspooling’ at work. There are narratives in the work but they’re not linear narratives; instead I picture a tangled ball of string or interwoven knot of rubber bands? It’s a visual language that doesn’t fit comfortably into words. I always feel very clunky trying to talk about what’s going on in the drawings or with my vision of the world.

Jess Johnson, Milxyz Wae, 2017, Acrylic paint, pen, fibre tipped markers and gouache on paper (Courtesy the artist and Jack Hanley Gallery)

Could you talk more about the social hierarchies in your work?

There’s been a slow emergence of social hierarchies as the world had evolved and grown in complexity. The humanoid figures have become more prevalent in the last few years. For a number of reasons, I render them in this very uniform way: they’re always naked, hairless, ageless, and with ambiguous gender. I’m sure basic expediency has influenced these decisions. But I don’t see them as fully formed humans, more as flesh suits or empty receptacles. Their contortions and repetitive movements are imposed upon them; they don’t have any agency. It’s like they’re caught in these eternal digital glitches, unaware of the rituals they’re enacting, whereas the alien demigods are the ones with intention and agency. Pulling the strings, so to speak.

In more recent drawings, there are hybrid creatures–a combining of human limbs and alien vestiges. I’m not quite sure where these new beings fit into the hierarchy yet. Perhaps they’re being elevated into a new level of consciousness, or perhaps they’re simply indicative of the aliens making use of the human genetic codes.

Let’s talk about the pseudo-erotic element in your work, even though it’s not quite intentional. I liked that you call the bodies in your work “flesh receptacles” …

As far as the “pseudo-erotic” elements, that’s a valid reading, but it’s not conscious on my part. I’m more of a prude actually. I’m a little uncomfortable with topics of sexuality and push all of that to the side. But enough people have pointed out the sexual motifs in my work so they’re obviously there.

I think whenever art reduces things to basic shapes and forms, viewers are likely to assign sexuality to them because that’s so deep-seated in our psychology. The most basic shapes can be read as either yonic or phallic and there’s maybe a subconscious mental drift on my part toward portraying those forms. I will concede that holes are really important to me–points of entry and exit, portals, dimensional rifts in our reality, cracks and fissures. And when a hole is formed, inevitably something will emerge from it. Or be sucked into its depths.

Installation view of Jess Johnson’s “Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost” at Jack Hanley Gallery (Courtesy the artist and Jack Hanley Gallery)

The repetition of figures is a striking element, akin to Ancient Greek homoerotic iconography, albeit with a cyborgian twist. Your figures are flexible yogis, proportionally accurate Ken dolls of all shades—semi-masculine, hairless, utilitarian, minimal. I assume they’re just asexual zombies following potentially telepathic orders from a higher power, with no desire or drive. Is this an accurate assumption to make? Could they be read as a kind of castration?

Yes, that’s an accurate assumption. In regards to castration, I’ve drawn figures with overt genitals only once, and I immediately wanted to cover them up by painting underpants over them. It didn’t feel right. But then, the underwear itself began to feel silly too, so now I mostly “castrate” them or, more accurately, omit the genitals. In the conception stage, I don’t ever imagine them having genitals.

So in that regard, I don’t see them as having been actively castrated within the loose narrative of the world, rather just having come into being—however that is—sans genitals.

The most important idea, here, is that it’s not their world. I’m not giving them agency (and I won’t give the audience agency in virtual reality either). They’re not allowed to build or shoot things or explore. They can’t manipulate anything in this world, so neutering the figures is one of the biggest manifestations of that.

Jess Johnson, Wurming Way, 2016, Acrylic paint, pen, fibre tipped markers and gouache on paper (Courtesy the artist and Jack Hanley Gallery)

The phallic forms of the worm and serpent weave their ways into your landscapes. They remind me of the giant Sandworm from Beetlejuice–cartoonish and menacing at the same time. Is their presence a formal choice or more symbolic?

Because the world is built on rigid geometry and straight lines, there are only a few areas where I have the freedom to use organic lines: the wurms and snakes, and the faces of the alien demigods. Drawing organic shapes are a kind of mental respite—a break from the straight lines and other rigid geometrical aspects of the drawings. They’re both a relief to draw and a way for viewer to find their way into the drawing. Without the organic tendrils to lead people in, I feel the hard geometry of the world would be too cold and impenetrable.

I’ve always considered the wurms/snakes to be the brain and compulsion system of the world. The geometry and pattern is kind of mindless. It’s like the world needed a battery (or a brain?) and that’s what the wurms represent. They represent the physical manifestation of knowledge or data.

Still from Jess Johnson & Simon Ward, Ixian Gate, 2015, Virtual Reality animation with audio, 5:35, Developer: Kenny Smith, Sound: Andrew Clarke (Courtesy the artists and Jack Hanley Gallery)

The virtual reality piece takes the spectator on a kind of amusement park ride into your alternate universe. How has this virtual dimension enhanced your artistic practice?

Before I began collaborating with Simon Ward (with whom I make the animations and VR pieces), I had been trying to move my art off the page and into the ‘real world’ through elaborate gallery installations. But these always felt somewhat rudimentary to me like I was reaching for something, but was constricted by what I could do with my own labour and skill set. Fortuitously, I met Simon a few years ago, and he immediately suggested moving my drawings into animation and VR. It was a perfect fit of our respective skills–mine analogue and his digital. It’s like I shape the bricks, which he then uses to build the walls. When we make work together, everything is filtered through his imagination, which in turn expands the universe beyond what I could achieve solely on my own. That’s much more interesting to me than having someone recreate exactly what I want. My drawings have changed a lot as a result. When I start a drawing, I am thinking of how it will eventually turn into an animation, so essentially I’m now drawing very complicated animation stills.

Installation view of Jess Johnson’s “Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost” at Jack Hanley Gallery (Courtesy the artist and Jack Hanley Gallery)

Can you talk about other visionary influences in your work, such as Terence McKenna?

I’m very interested in McKenna’s Arcadian visions for technology. He often described a speculative future where the world was once again in ecological harmony. Work and disease had been eradicated and humans roamed the planet in small familial groups without any desire to build cities or fight wars. In this future, ‘technology’ was ingested like spores and its results were cellular and transhuman, a dissolution of boundaries resulting in connected human intellect and consciousness. People lived outwardly very simple lives, while behind their eyes streamed a galactic web of knowledge. I’m really attracted to this idea of technology taken in this direction. It’s quite psychedelic–that human consciousness can be enhanced and expanded to do incredible things as opposed to the way we currently engage with technology, which is to let our computers do all the hard work for us, leaving us more time to be passive consumers of things.

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