If you're reading this, then you are at the end of a long string of translations. A thought passed through keystrokes to become encoded in binary, traveling through airborne waves and buried cables before being reassembled into readable characters on another computer or being materialized in space by a printer.
To most of us, such conversations between human and machine are invisible by design. But to artist Luke Demarest, they speak volumes. In Aibohphobia and the Reifier's Schadenfreude, a solo exhibit running at the Carrack through May 21 after Thursday night's opening reception, Demarest uses 3-D printing and other mediums to test the boundaries of language, the borders between human and machine, and the interaction of design and chance, chasing meaning without ever quite laying hands on it.
- photo courtesy of the artist
Demarest has been on the chase for decades. I know because he is a friend of mine; we went to school together. Raised in a Presbyterian family, he began to question the church's dogma in high school, which sent him on an existential quest.
"If the main people in my life assigned meaning in one way, and I didn't agree with it, then it was like, what are the alternatives?" he says.
At Virginia Tech, Demarest found an outlet for his doubts. He traveled through Europe with art professor Ray Kass for centennial celebrations of the late American composer John Cage. By the time of his senior show in 2013, "Eidolons" (named after a Walt Whitman poem), Demarest had incorporated Cage's indeterminacy into his work, as well as the influence of Brian Eno. Demarest coded a drawing program that turned his strokes into increasingly saturated, wispy circular shapes according to an algorithm. Who created the meaning, artist or computer? Or the audience? After all, it's we who conjure images of yin-yang symbols, eyeballs, and cosmic orbs from pictures that are nothing but smoky math.
After graduating, Demarest returned to Durham and began spending time as an artist-in-residence at American Underground, where he met people whose passion for tech start-ups didn't seem so different from his passion for tech art. So he went to a coding school in New York and then, in Washington, D.C., joined HacDC, a "hackerspace" (a modish term for tech-tinkerer coworking space). Inspired by HacDC's advocacy of playing with open-source technology for exploration's sake, he began 3-D printing, which he saw as "an interesting mix of the virtual world and the physical world."
Demarest again traveled to Europe in 2016, visiting hotbeds of the twentieth-century avant-garde. Black-and-white photographs from this trip appear in the Carrack show: ghostly shots of shadowed interiors and cloudy cityscapes, often bereft of people. Most of Demarest's work is black and white. "I live in the world of forms," he explains.
The trip was a chance to map the associations between European modernists. "It was not necessarily single people," Demarest says, "but the interaction between them that brings about these new aesthetic values." He thought of the abstract artists he came to admire as working toward a universal language, "trying to grasp what is ungraspable."
His next series, "Alphabytes," which forms the backbone of his Carrack show, offers binary code as a modern possibility for this universal tongue, "a kind of reverse tower of Babel." Demarest translated each letter of the alphabet into binary code, which computers all over the world use to communicate with one another, and then transformed these codes into diagrammatic shapes of beams, balls, hemispheres, and ellipses.