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.
"It's ultimately a pattern that data flows into and shapes flow out of," Demarest says. The 3-D-printed alphabytes can be used to spell out words that someone fluent in the shapes could read. Demarest also printed longer alphabyte words that he finds deliciously duplicitous, homonyms like "mean," "just," and "free." And his alphabytes produce emergent homonyms of their own—Demarest calls them "homoDems"—because certain letter-shapes share elements. Even this language of zeroes and ones is subject to the foibles of our own.
Whereas Demarest seems to revel in the slipperiness of language in his cross-modal puns, elsewhere, he decries it. His language generator, "Trumpet," concocts not-quite-meaningful Trump-ish tweets and artspeak utterances, highlighting the sheer lunacy of both. The thrust, Demarest says, is to make people "more conscious of how we use language and technology, individually and collectively—how we could use it to do better."
Not all obscure language is created equal: puns are fun, but doublespeak from the government is less so. With this power gap in mind, "Private Parts" turns to matters of privacy in connectivity. Mimicking Andy Warhol's "Green Coca-Cola Bottles," Demarest turned encryption keys into shorter strings of digits. He then printed them into plastic stalactites of varying thickness and hung them in glass bottles, which he stacked into a tower. The result? Packaged security for the masses. Piggybacking on Warhol's vision of Coke as a uniting force in American life, Demarest asks, "Why not have things like encryption tools for everyone, so you can have privacy and communicate in a human way, instead of just giving everyone sugar water?"
This recent tack fits with his experience at Durham's Blackspace, where he has been leading a course for homeschooled students on 3-D printing as a gateway into coding. Blackspace practices "conscious coding," with an underlying goal of convincing students that "you have value, you can contribute," as Demarest says. His students' work will be on view at the Carrack in a special midday exhibition on May 17.
- photo courtesy of the artist
Demarest's latest series, "Dissections," features haiku on matte paper colored by haysmoke, a technique pioneered by Cage at Kass's Mountain Lake workshop. As a technology, smoke is decidedly old-school. The haiku are thick with wordplay, as resistant to straightforward interpretation as all of Demarest's work. But they reflect what he calls "a calmer tone" in his recent practice. Technology allowed him to cast into the chaos of the cosmos looking for meaning, and the reemergence of the human hand may be evidence of his findings.
"Ultimately, it doesn't matter how complex your technology gets if you don't treat humans like humans," he says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Speaking in Code."