Seth Price: Danny, Mila, Hannah, Ariana, Bob, Brad
by D'Arcy Blake
Six canvases stretch over lightboxes, each approximately two metres wide and five metres tall; an accompanying soundscape of white noise reads more like aerial landscape photos or abstract topographies than ultra-closeups of human skin. The unusually corporeal images, which Seth Price began producing in 2015, stand out from what we’ve come to expect from the artist, who often tends to imply or skirt figuration rather than foreground it. Price has traditionally avoided direct representation, focusing instead on what packages and contains products and people alike. His most recognizable works are polystyrene wall pieces, vacuum-formed around consumer goods and body parts; plywood cut-outs of negative space between two people; and huge textile envelopes, with a corresponding fashion line, manufactured within the production networks of couture. Though notoriously hard to locate, a through-line of Price’s restlessly transdisciplinary career is his tendency to intimate the ultimate proximity to human, without actually touching it. Price’s recent attention to human skin might, then, indicate an ontological pivot in which the human being now fulfills the role of an envelope or a garment: it contains, carries and delivers.
For each piece in the installation Danny, Mila, Hannah, Ariana, Bob, Brad (2015–2017), thousands of ultra-closeups are captured by a forensic camera, stitched together using satellite-imaging programs like the ones used to make Google Maps, and then rendered with 3D graphics software. The body parts that compose each work (a foot, an elbow) become distorted, elongated and discoloured, appearing less like appendages than what one might see peering out of the window of an airplane, flying above a mountain range made of flesh. The pictures aren’t pleasant; sometimes scarred and burned, jaundiced and bruised, they evoke fragmented limbs from war photographs that pepper today’s media. But in this case, it is unclear whether the blemishes are real, enhanced by Price’s digital process or are digital wounds—remnants of the process itself. The absurd degree of overproduction granted to pictures of skin elicits a duality: “real” physical experiences and technological mediations thereupon. Price digitally maps the human body, a superfluous gesture that implies humans have become technology within a digital landscape.
In Price’s work, autonomy seems beside the point. Rather, his practice is suspended in a matrix of creative industries, and within this schema, he acts as a broker of connections. Artists have long reached into parallel disciplines, but Price’s nebulous approach emphasizes the human subject as a Thing that is produced through the dispersal of creative, intellectual and economic processes. Here, Price deploys this by isolating and expanding minute fragments of the human body, configuring them as data points and using them like code. Perhaps this is an ideal imagining of the new Western subject under neoliberalism—the subject-as-data, a techno-organism ripe to be processed for market research. While Price’s work mainly finds its audience in art-world contexts, today we can witness corporations and artists commodifying online social spaces without restraint, and thus the subjects that emerge within them. Take, for instance, the Instagram profile of fictional influencer Lil Miquela, a CGI avatar whose discreet, yet frighteningly powerful, integration of performance and marketing is so effective precisely because users participate enthusiastically, just by clicking, liking and sharing.
Price’s notion of dispersion—the use of distributed media to reach a contemporary public whose collective experience takes place, for the most part, in private—seems less like a critical response to the current intellectual and creative labour economies than a deployment of economy itself as an artistic medium.1 Today’s market demands that artists efficiently perform every role that structures the creative economy. As critic John Kelsey writes, “the contemporary artist or post-Fordist virtuoso is no longer a producer so much as a communicator, a transmitter, an emailer: ‘human Vaseline’.”2 In this sense, the current state of technological ubiquity marks the death of the artist, as such, and the rise of its post-Fordist successor: the creative professional. When, in 2014, Price withdrew from the art world to become a novelist (a nod, perhaps, to Duchamp’s retreat), he made a readymade of his own career, testing its commodity value within other networks of distribution. The resulting autofiction, Fuck Seth Price (2015), a pseudo-theoretical meditation on art economies, makes clear that today the difference between contemporary artist, writer, critic and PR person, is moot—there are too many common duties for the tenuous distinctions to hold.
By virtue of their limitless job description, the contemporary artist is always on call, demanding a new formulation of artist’s labour—the artist-as-Gesamtkunstwerk, inside which the commodified personality comprises just one piece of its complete value system. The other parts: a website’s design, a CV, an essay or an Instagram account all operate on the same plane as the traditional artwork, each constituting a kind of portrait. That Price’s colossal images stand upright, are illuminated from within and are each named for the individual model indicates problems introduced to notions of identity and subjecthood by the commodification of digital social behaviour. Indeed, humans are more identifiable, traceable and predictable from our digital footprints than by our IRL behaviour. Yet Price’s backlit images exude warmth—not lifelike warmth, but an estimate of it. Is there a point at which technology subsumes the body? While our interaction with and development alongside technology is what has, by definition, made us human (at least in the evolutionary sense), the current state of communicative capitalism imbues minute cultural and personal exchanges with economic factors that instrumentalize the subjective experience.