This project decodes our digital lives, what's filmed will astound you

by Matt Hanson, 2014

'Now it is clearer that our blind pleasure in digital technology has a price...'


It is 2014 and creative production has never been easier. But within this ever deepening pool of cultural expression, dangers lie. Writing is being reduced to content marketing, articles which are solely designed to drive traffic to a corporate blog or ecommerce store. The favoured form is the listicle, a fleshed-out ‘list as blog post’ memorably called ‘the geek equivalent of a Cosmo headline’. Reading has become passé. With the ubiquitous response of the attention deficient digital native being “tl;dr” (Too Long, Didn’t Read), War and Peace really is history. And when we want to watch, the online world leads us on one long meandering surf through a rabbit hole of YouTube cat videos, Harlem Shakes, and LiveLeak’s transgressive virals.

Amidst the static of digital creation, the formulaic headlines designed as clickbait and so expertly honed by Buzzfeed (the headline above parodies one of the top formulae), Richard Fenwick’s experimental films tune in to a line of critical enquiry and reflection in a time of accelerating technological change. According to the filmmaker, what we have is a programme aimed at “investigating our complex and intricate relationship with both science and technology”.

Unnaturally Yours

What seems, at first, foreign, abstract, and odd in the context of Richard Fenwick’s oeuvre, when absorbed and mulled over makes perfect sense. The latest films in his ever-expanding RND# project — three shorts tagged as the Observer series — are micro-examinations of physical phenomena. In the accompanying artist statement he highlights how “the natural world seduces us with its beauty in order to ensure its many intricacies are uncovered”.

RND #76 / Observer A: A hypnotic close up of an alien world. A multitude of grey, metallic shards sweep east to west as if following the sun. A grating foreboding soundtrack indicate this is some kind of alien contagion. While suggestive of a technological super material such as graphene or carbon nanotubes, these are actually iron filings succumbing to magnetic force.

RND #45 / Observer B: Slick, sensuous black eggs flowing over plant-like surfaces. Visually resembling the inside of an interstellar fruit, nectar drips in the form of an oily ferrofluid. Organic material and processes are evoked with magnetic globules mimicking biological infection.

RND #90 / Observer C: Spectral beauty dissembling light. Rays of white light piercing the black frame. An angelic chorus proclaims a phantasmal force, fracturing and illuminating the darkness. Optical prisms delineate the space with Newtonian certainty.

The metallic, biological, and ethereal: each film displays natural forces that are all of this earth. But through this lens they are rendered estranged, invasive, ‘other’. Natural becomes unnatural. Rather than a celebration of the elemental is it actually a paradoxical scream of unease that the director fails to realise he is documenting? For each material examined has some place in constituting digital manufacturing and functions.

Surveillance, simplicity, soul-searching

Let us give some context:

Almost a decade ago RND #92 / The Box signalled the end of a particular stage in the series which, although casting a critical eye over technological advance, was simultaneously seduced by it. As I wrote of these earlier works, they were making the invisible visible. In RND #92 a woman returns home to be literally enveloped by the ubiquity of the screen, through the simple act of switching on the TV.

The striking, uncomplicated moving images of the Observer trifecta appear as a reaction against those which pre-date The Box. Those were overt investigations into digital connectedness, a world consumed and mediated through online interactions supplanting physical interaction.

Now it is clearer that our blind pleasure in digital technology has a price. An increasing disconnection with the body, even a wilful abandonment of it. The rise in obesity, as if we are more concerned with our online presence and airbrushed selfies. A headlong rush into virtual reality. The fevered anticipation of VR goggles from the likes of Oculus Rift and Sony offering us a hope of being shielded from an environment we do not have the option to reboot.

The cavalcade of optimistic early films are transformed with darker meaning in the light of PRISM: they appear a prescient warning signal of digital paranoia for now we know, with each keystroke and click, the NSA and GCHQ are datamining our lives.

The Quantified Self and unquantified soul

The film immediately before Observer’s commission, RND #19 / Exhaustion, rebooted the series. The theme evolving into meditations on interactions: the natural and artificial, social and individual, online and offline, body and bandwidth. In exquisite detail for 30 minutes we gaze at a man sweating and gasping as he runs on a treadmill until spent.

Can we enjoy the movement of our bodies without monitoring them, the gait, the cadence, the heart rate? It alludes to an increasing obsession with monitoring and perfecting our physique, endurance and habits through smartphone apps and sensors. It is as if we can only relate back to our physical selves through a digital paradigm.

As Fenwick has become older, the subject matter becomes increasingly timeless. It captures more than a particular moment in our digital evolution. As I write this, IBM and DARPA have just realised TrueNorth, ‘a synaptic supercomputer in your hand’. It holds a million neuron connections. You see, as we are becoming more digital, computers are becoming more biological. The singularity approaches…


Matt Hanson is an author, filmmaker and futurist. He has had a long association and affinity with Richard’s work, commissioning early films, and featuring him in a Channel 4 TV series. Matt is currently writing The Cacophony & The Quiet, a book about cultural production in the networked age.