Freedom Under Lockdown: My COVID-19 Quarantine Report

Over the past six months, as the novel coronavirus has become a global pandemic, we have come to realize that history is not only something that happens to other people. In Western culture, and especially in the United States, we hold the conviction that we are free agents and makers of our own destiny. The outbreak is a poignant reminder that we live in an interconnected world and are a part of a bigger whole.

But even if our day-to-day autonomy has been disrupted, in many ways we have more freedom than before the outbreak. As the Austrian neurologist Viktor Frankl once said, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” 

When the shelter-in-place order was announced, I made a conscious decision to take advantage of the stillness. I took a break from painting serious portraits of derelict machines and focused all my efforts on finding a visual language suitable for information technology. The isolation (and the lack of commercial activity) offered an opportunity for me to experiment freely and try different techniques, to explore new ideas, and to liberate myself from the tyranny of perfection.

Full disclosure: I actually didn't entirely bury my paints during the quarantine. This is one of two large, multiple panels machine paintings I worked on this spring.
I had timidly approached new technology as a subject in the past, but was never satisfied with the results. This “new” technology are the machines of the mind, while I had focused before on industrial technology that were great majestic machines replacing simple muscle power.  Being fluent in the medium of painting, I assumed I could render new machines with the same ease as old ones. How could I have forgotten that great portraiture captures the soul, and not just the superficial? Old machines, just like elderly people, are marked with time in a way that reveals their storied past. Adolescents have none of that, and nascent technology is equivalently immature. The portraits I attempted looked kitschy at best. And when I tried to imbue the machines with premature substance, they came off as arrogant, which hardly seemed fair to them.
So I decided to open myself to media less familiar to me. I considered the perspective of these young machines, and about how they might wish to be depicted, given their precociousness and naiveté. 

Creativity is that marvelous capacity to grasp mutually distinct realities
and draw a spark from their juxtaposition. -
Max Ernst

I recognized that these technology adolescents would want to be taken seriously, and might therefore be inclined to pose in the manner of heroic art, but also that their attempts would be unconvincing, much as children are unconvincing when they dress up as their parents. My second realization was perhaps even more important: I recognized that, like children dressing as their parents, these machines would communicate their state-of-becoming in a way that was authentic and innocent.

My starting point was the classical bust sculpture. I intuited that these machines, ambitious and a little self-centered, would wish to be placed on pedestals in the manner of ancient emperors. I placed  state-of-the-art consumer electronics on marble bases that were manifestly incongruent with the contemporary nature of the subjects. 

Experimental installation: ready-made components, feathers, glue. 
PILAT 2020

Then there was the question of costuming. Feathers appealed to me for several reasons. Coming from Poland, I was accustomed to Christian iconography, in which new life is often symbolized by baby chicks. The aspiration of these machines to come alive might begin with this symbolic appropriation. And the fact that it was inconsistent with the classical heroic associations of marble felt right to me. I liked that clash. Connected to the web immediately after they’re manufactured, these machines know a lot yet still understand very little. Like children playing make-believe, they’re bound to mix things up, with consequences that may appear absurd or nonsensical to us.

Object, Meret Oppenheim, Paris 1936

The feathers additionally appealed to me for their organic nature. I liked the conflict of soft, natural material with the mass-produced, artificial objects, a poetic juxtaposition that has a history going back to the Surrealist objects of Meret Oppenheim (such as her legendary fur-lined teacup). I think that this material dissonance can be enlightening, revealing the economics of mass-production as well as our psychological relationship with technology. The juxtapositions also seem true to technology today. After all, what could be more surreal than the AI-generated visions of Google’s DeepDream generator rendered in three dimensions?

In many ways, these months of quarantine have had the quality of a deep dream. Working in isolation, pursuing my instincts, I have learned more about technology and myself. Although my heroic busts remain works-in-progress, as inchoate as the machines that have inspired them, the stillness of the lockdown granted me the freedom to play. I am inspired by these juvenile buck-machines in their midst. They have impelled me to set aside my brushes (albeit temporarily most likely).  We will venture together on a path of learning and discovery!

Cleanthes of Assos PILAT 2020
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