The Trick Brain, a video by the British artist Ed Atkins, has haunted me since I first saw it at the 2013 Venice Biennale. In it, the camera pans a room packed to the gills with tribal artifacts. It’s the Surrealist poet Andre Breton’s Paris apartment.
Atkins used borrowed footage, originally produced to promote the 2003 sale of Breton’s collection at auction, and laid over it new footage and a narrative in which a man with a low-pitched voice offers a meditation on Breton, Surrealism, capitalism—and on France’s loss of a trove of great artworks. The language Atkins uses to convey these ideas is piercingly poetic and very, very dark. “A catalogue of phrenological superstition,” the voice explains, “the most groped areas being the seeming cerebellum and the frontal lobe, roughly. All of this, spotlit in the apse of a temple somewhere deep in the colonic catacombs of Paris.”
Fitting with that Biennale’s theme “The Encyclopedic Palace,” Breton’s apartment, stuffed floor to ceiling as it is, had gotten Atkins to think about the digital realm, which, he has said in an interview, “is able to store so much more than we can possibly understand.”
In this month’s ARTnews, our London-based correspondent Roger Atwood profiles Atkins, looking at videos of his that feature computer-generated avatars. In a very different approach from that of movies like the recent Ex Machina, in which artificial intelligence goes haywire, Atkins’s videos get at one of the central questions of our times: how close to human can something non-human get? As one curator tells Atwood, Atkins is using his work “to communicate our angst today with technology.”
“The Encyclopedic Palace” encompassed far more than Atkins’s The Trick Brain of course. That Biennale, curated by New Museum deputy director Massimiliano Gioni, became known for its large-scale presentation of so-called “outsider,” or vernacular, art. In this month’s issue, Brendan Greaves looks at the current trend for embracing such art as it begins to extend to the marketplace, with an auction at Christie’s and representation of vernacular artists by mainstream galleries.
Atkins’s interest in the digital realm resonates with another feature in this month’s issue. At a time when photography is being redefined by such innovations as Instagram—everyone’s a photographer now, it seems!—ARTnews contributing editor Barbara Pollack looks at the future of the International Center of Photography on the eve of its move to a new location in downtown Manhattan.
Just as the ICP must grapple with a rapidly altering field, so artists like Atkins are contending with defining and reshaping a mutating world.
SARAH DOUGLAS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF