Seattle artist Stephen Rock takes on information overload in the digital age in his new show at CoCA Ballard, "an exaggeration of data."
How does an artist cope with information overload?
In Stephen Rock’s case, he does it by marshaling the myriad incoming digital signals on his computer into an overall rhythmic shape, in much the same way that a composer wields thousands of musical notes into a symphony.
Rock’s new show at the Center on Contemporary Art’s Ballard branch, “an exaggeration of data,” is dominated by large pigmented inkjet images. These glossily varnished digital works on paper are so busy and dense that their content can’t be discerned with a casual look. But their dynamism is apparent at first glance.
Take “Transgression of Articulation,” which, the artist tells us, was “sampled from various blogs and social media sites.” Stand close to it and you’ll see it’s built from words and fragments of words: grenade att … $5 … ctivists … alks … question. Some words appear more than once in the piece, creating echoes that help structure the mostly black-and-white image.
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Step back and the assembled digits and letters suggest all sorts of things. A sailing ship, surging from left to right, comes to mind. So does a construction site — or, more abstractly, a very complicated collision between innumerable horizontals and diagonals.
In fact, “horizontals” and “diagonals” alone don’t do it justice. At least half a dozen spatial angles are active in the piece, producing some enjoyably disorienting 3-D effects. The impression you get is of hundreds of speech fragments from a very anxious world attempting to occupy the same permeable space, but continually slipping past one another without making meaningful contact.
“Failed Silence” is a more colorful take on digital babble. Its barcode-like patterns are strictly vertically oriented, their capellini-thin strips like a finespun cyber chatter that’s been put through a shredder and rearranged along aesthetic lines without any regard for content.
Rock says the piece’s bright-hued slivers were taken from a random array of websites to mirror “the noise level” of the Internet. Again, there are 3-D effects going on here, with some parts of the “bar code” appearing to be closer to the viewer’s eye than others.
“Topography of Self Tracking,” while it’s unmistakably from the same hand, is more unstable in shape, resembling a spinning top caught at the moment when it’s about to topple over. The content was drawn from Rock’s personal web pages.
You might call it a visual fugue, obsessive in its detail, woven from thousands of slices of cyber-information. Tidbits of verbiage — “bailout,” “browbeaten,” “Eurozone crackup” — turn up in its centrifuge. But at its center, in a small white tilted space, is one word, “silence,” suggesting that the “self” being tracked has been muted and paralyzed by all the incessant chatter going on around it.
Rock has some rueful fun with the newspapers’ tricky migrations from print to website. In four pieces all titled “the Daily Cloud,” he atomizes various sections of the paper, as indicated by his subtitles: “news,” “weather,” “finance” and “arts & culture.” It may be worth noting that “the Daily Cloud (weather)” is a tad less frantic than its companion pieces. Its several strips of sky-blue, a couple of them almost 2 inches long and more than ¼ inch wide, feel like vast expanses in this context.
Rock’s two nondigital works in the show aren’t nearly as bracing. “Apology to the Forest (Decline and Decay)” and “Apology to the Forest (Rise and Regenerate)” are made from wood used in an installation that was part of CoCA’s “Heaven & Earth” show in Carkeek Park this past summer. But recycled lumber just can’t compete with meticulously orchestrated digital fantasias.
Rock may have been overwhelmed by cyber-noise, but he’s put his own special stamp on it.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org