Do people who came of age before the internet, and people who grew up with the internet always there, have any real difference in how they operate or see the world? This question is perhaps pertinent to the practice of James Richards, a young moving image artist who is arguably one of the first of his generation to fully take stock of how the internet has impacted upon daily life and cultural practice. Richards has his first solo show up right now at the Chisenhale Gallery, riding a wave of buzz that has seen his works in a number of curated film programmes throughout the UK and increasingly abroad. (If no one stops this tidal wave he will be broadcasting images over Times Square in New York before we know it.)
Richards’s show comprises two screens facing each other with rows of benches in between them; two montages of different moving images (see how careful we are with language? Don’t you just want us to say ‘film’? But we can’t anymore, it’s not accurate, alas) play sequentially on each screen, so the audience has to turn around to see them, which they do so largely in tandem, legs flipping up and over like low-budget, high-brow Busby Berkeley. The sequences, some of them ripped from the internet, some of them from videocassettes Richards has found in charity shops, and others he has created digitally, are contemplative and reach across a variety of subjects and a variety, importantly, of moods. This ability to evoke an emotion or, simply, a feeling (think of the word’s physical origins) is what Richards really excels at. A sequence in this work of a reindeer seen in night-vision passing a barn in the snow recalls another, also in night vision, from his Untitled (film programme) (2006), where a friend stands in a snow-covered park and sings out of tune to the camera, his eyes weird night-vision white and his skin surveillance green. It echoes with sweetness and solitude — a very specific feeling of youthful angst and apartness. A similar sense of loneliness struck us at Chisenhale, but here related to the infinitude of images and videos on the internet (more than words, the internet is an image-led affair). It is the sensation of being alone among gazillions of images and videos that are constantly uploaded, much like that feeling of loneliness in an airport or a busy city: that is, Richards provides here a visual manifestation of something formerly physically felt.
Watching this we wondered if those who came of age pre-internet are late in feeling this loneliness, or at least have a different relationship to YouTube et al. For the DLR can remember not only a time before the internet (one had to consult the newspaper for film times!) but also the time when the internet was being created, even the very moment when someone said, ‘I could tell you the temperature in Guangzhou, China right now’, and everyone in the room wow-ed. (Or those early internet memes that were born and then died as quickly as a mayfly, like the Hampster Dance. Remember that?) Every tech feature on the internet, for those for whom it is new, comes with a creation myth; if we put our minds to it we could understand it to have been devised by someone in northern California or central Eurasia. But for those for whom the internet has always been a land of splashing, moving graphics, perhaps it is a land as anonymous and self-creating as the modern city?
Richards’s installation is notably clinical, mimicking hospital colours, and he traverses unspecified though obviously biological territory with cellular, organic images. A number of his films, as well as a collaboration-through-the-post with the Canadian filmmaker (we give up) Steve Reinke, investigates bodily desire, and specifically homosexual desire. (Indeed some of the images he manipulated for this exhibition originally come from pornography.) The big shift of porn from the magazine to the internet – granted, 80% of statistics are made up, but we read that 40% of the sites on the internet are devoted to pornography – is the other major, probably less discussed (or not around the DLR’s chaste ears) subject surrounding the internet and its impact. This shift from public to private, and the internet pornography’s über-visual manifestation of physicality is, of course, another theme tracked subtly in Richards’s practice, and another realm in which anonymity seems an overwhelming factor.
Maybe this anonymity malarkey is what good old puritanical (or not?) Facebook is countering with its Facebook ‘passport’ idea. But who knows! Not us, you know, we just sit around and watch taxidermy and other videos that 18-year-olds discovered years ago.