Evan Roth

Evan Roth originally trained as an architect but became interested in the world of the internet during the heyday of torrenting, experimenting with code and making websites in the early 2000s. He engaged in various activist collectives such as Graffiti Research Lab and Free Art and Technology/F.A.T. Lab before becoming an artist working with new media. He describes the work he makes as, “[wrestling] with a desire to create net art as a cultural object while staying critical of it.” He describes himself as having a “hacker philosophy” means playing within rule structures where you are not meant to have agency:

“A hacker tweaks these small moments of power you do have into something bigger. My interest in this philosophy is as a problem-solving technique for artists and activists. Actually, a lot of my work deals with personal empowerment issues, looking for those rare moments when users can gain power that makes us feel bigger than we are.” (Small, 2018)

This artists talk by Evan Roth, although predominately about his project ‘Red Lines‘ gives an excellent overview of his development as an artist and his passion for internet activism. When I initially looked at Roth’s work I almost discounted studying it further, however, as I read more about I became drawn to both his strategies and philosophy. Rather than being an academic exercise, Roth demonstrates a great deal experimentation in his work and context is essential to fully understanding it.

9 to 5 Paintings (2006)/Level Cleared (2012)/Angry Birds All Levels (2012)/Multi-Touch Paintings series (2013-ongoing)

These series’ expand on the idea of transforming the activity of using a computer/device into a visual artwork. With ‘9 to 5 Paintings’, Roth created a visual representation of daily computing routines. (This video shows how the images came together.) The resulting ‘paintings’ are simple abstracts that are more successful conceptually than aesthetically.

Nov. 1, 2006
Oct. 16th, 2006

With ‘Level Cleared’, ‘Angry Birds All Levels’ and ‘Multi-Touch Paintings’, Roth extends the idea into the arena of touch screen devices that had become prevalent in the time since the earlier work. The painting are made as Roth plays the popular game Angry Birds using inked fingers on tracing paper. The screen sized paintings are displayed as grid, the small scale of each individual image contrasting with the sheer number of them and forcing consideration of our relationship with our mobile devices. In the text from Roth’s website, the work is described as a comment on the rise of casual gaming, identity and our relationship with mobile devices:

“The series is a comment on computing and identity, but also creates an archive of this moment in history where we have started to manipulate pixels with gestures…In the end, the viewer is presented with a black and white representation of the gestures that have been prescribed to us in the form of user interaction design.”

The idea is further developed with the ‘Multi-Touch Paintings Series’ for which Roth enlarges the finger print smudges to huge dimensions which often dwarf the viewer. The detail of each fingerprint is enlarged to such an extent that the aesthetic beauty of each is accentuated both individually and as part of the larger composition which it becomes and further expanding on the idea of how our connected life is imposing over our real world experience.

Casual Computing No. 1, 2014 (Candy Crush)
Slide to Unlock (2013)
Zoom In Zoom Out (2013)

Internet Cache Self Portrait series (2014-ongoing)

This series features an uncensored stream of images collected from daily browsing, or “memories that were never intended to be saved” according to the artists statement on Roth’s website. Personal images are presented side by side with advertisements and corporate logos, something that Roth describes as an “attempt to reveal something human and intimate about us through our interactions online.”

See also: Internet Cache Portrait series (2014)

Silhouette series (2014-ongoing):

This series takes inspiration from an 18th century technique of representing a subject cut as an outline into a single piece of black paper. Rather than the typical subject for this technique of a person in profile, Roth makes compositions based on the proportions of the internet such as his own browsing data or standardised internet advertising proportions which, according to his artists statement:

“[draws] into question whether these proportions are in reaction to or are a driving force behind the general shape of the web. Similar to its 18th century counterpart, the series eschew the content of the subject, leaving only the familiar outlines to represent the character.”

Forgetting Spring (March to June 2013) (2014):

For this work, Roth printed all of the internet cache collected from four months of browsing onto a large piece of card before putting this into a trash compactor which creates a messy cube. This was then bound with chord and displayed as a sculpture in a gallery. The work is a physical manifestation of how web browsers track our behaviour – information unintended to be viewed. In a review of the piece, Josephine Bosma suggests Roth is making a comment on how the intricacies of the internet is dumbed to become a string of images not much different from a TV channel and concludes: “Evan Roth leaves is to wonder about the value, shape, and function of our extended memories with this deceptively simple work.” (Bosma, 2014)

Landscapes series (2016-ongoing)/Red Lines (2018-19)

Since 2014 Roth has documented coastal sites where undersea internet cables emerge from the water and into the ground using a modified digital camera that is capable of photographing infrared spectrum. The idea for the work came from increasing concerns Roth had about the internet and our relationship with it driven by issues such as the NSA surveillance controversy and crude, simplistic metaphors like ‘the cloud’. He began to question the specific dangers to the network:

“I became interested in visiting the internet somewhere. Others focus on the mines where the minerals come from, or maybe the data centres. I liked how the cables coming out from the ocean are at these strange transition points around the globe. You find yourself looking for these massive networks but end up finding yourself completely alone, because, by design these cables are isolated for safety reasons.” (Small, 2018)

The series is an attempt by Roth to depict both physical and hidden landscapes. 53 landing sites for fibre optic cables around the world were filmed by Roth where he created videos using his infrared adapted camera. The scenes show no indication that each is a hidden source for the world wide web, but the eerily beautiful red tones of each give an alien feel, the use of infrared is a direct reference to the fact that this is what is transmitted through the cables. The tranquility and remote nature of the locations gave Roth time to slow down and consider where his art practice was going – originally intended as some form of online activism in response to feeling jaded about the internet, Roth was able to slow down and “see through the digital noise” and gain a much needed moment of reflection. He comments:

“[The remote spots] provided a nice sanctuary for slowing down and so the work became about that…It wasn’t about seeing the cable and reporting back on it…these remote places…allowed me to think about the network in different ways, slower ways and ways that were more informed by the pace of nature rather than the pace of social media.” (Bland, s.d.)

For the exhibition ‘Red Lines with Landscapes’ at the Usher Gallery in 2019, Roth chose 18th and 19th century landscape paintings from the museums collection to show alongside his works. His website explains this further: “By contrasting the old and the new, this exhibition explores the history, power structures and ideologies that shape our visible and non-visible contemporary landscape.”

‘Red Lines’, commissioned by Artangel, is a way for Roth to bring ‘Landscapes’ out of the gallery space into peoples homes. Using peer to peer software (similar to that used by torrent sharing sites such as Pirate Bay) the work can be viewed on any internet enabled device, this allows most people the opportunity to live with the artwork in their own home.

Details on how to set up ‘Red Lines’ here.

As suggested by Roth, I set up an old smartphone to show ‘Red Lines’ and to ‘live’ with the work for a while. There is a strange, meditative nature to the work which is conducive to viewing just outside of peripheral vision. I had the screen displaying the work set up to next to my computer and found myself studying the scenes during moments where I was thinking – the work is a calming presence. I am attracted to the Roth’s ideas about accessibility for art and how this piece is essentially free for anyone to access by anyone with an appropriate device and an internet connection. Rather than being an artwork you own however, by displaying the work you become part of the network that displays it – a particularly poetic response to questions about the value of art and how ownership is accessible to the very few.

Links:

Bibliography:

Bland, S. (s.d.) Interview: Evan Roth. Artangel. Available at: https://www.artangel.org.uk/red-lines/interview/ (accessed 23rd May 2020)

Bosma, J. (2014) Clearing out four months of internet cache by Evan Roth. Neural. Available at: http://neural.it/2014/05/clearing-out-four-months-of-internet-cache-by-evan-roth-description/ (accessed 23rd May 2020)

Matthewson, J, (s.d.) River to river. Artangel website. Available at: https://www.artangel.org.uk/red-lines/river-to-river/ (accessed 24th May 2020)

Popovich, N. (2013) Evan Roth: the badass artist hacking popular culture. The Guardian, 20th August 2013. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/aug/20/evan-roth-badass-hacktivist-artist (accessed 28th September 2019)

Rabimov, S. (2019) The Strasbourg Biennale artists reflect on the most pressing question. Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/stephanrabimov/2019/01/19/the-strasbourg-biennale-artists-reflect-on-the-most-pressing-question/#2598be76cd67 (accessed 23rd May 2020)

Regine (2019) Strasbourg Biennale. Being a citizen in the age of hyper-connectivity. We Make Money Not Art. Available at: https://we-make-money-not-art.com/strasbourg-biennale-being-a-citizen-in-the-age-of-hyper-connectivity/ (accessed 23rd May 2020)

Roth, E. (2018) Landscape, signal and empire: Evan Roth talk. Retune fesival 27th September 2018. Available at: http://www.evan-roth.com/presentations/retune/ (accessed 23rd May 2020)

Roth, E. (2019) Artist Talk: Evan Roth. The Photographers Gallery, 21st June 2019. Available at: https://vimeo.com/356205376 (accessed 23rd May 2020)

Small, Z. (2018) A net artist on why the cloud is a bad metaphor for the internet. Hyperallergic. Available at: https://hyperallergic.com/460796/a-net-artist-on-why-the-cloud-is-a-bad-metaphor-for-the-internet/ (accessed 23rd May 2020)

Teplitzky, A. (2018) Evan Roth created a work of net art that you can live with. Creative Capital. Available at: https://creative-capital.org/2018/09/10/evan-roth-created-a-net-artwork-that-you-can-live-with-for-free/ (accessed 23rd May 2020)

Watson, L. (2018) Internet art: Evan Roth’s ‘Red Lines’. Financial Times, September 28th 2018. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/6190e9ca-bcc6-11e8-8274-55b72926558f (accessed 23rd May 2020)

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