The market proliferation of new artworks rehashing the 1960s avant garde, in particular post-painterly abstraction and colour field painting, has been dubbed “zombie formalism”. Such works do well in the market partially because they are unchallenging and look good in contemporary living-rooms. The Zombie Formalist is an interactive light-box that generates abstract images following the style of painters such as Gene David, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, and Karl Benjamin. The Zombie Formalist is elegant, wall-hung and encloses a square 27” flat-panel display, a small computer and a small camera that faces back at the viewer. The Zombie Formalist is high quality and aesthetically minimal to emphasize an image that appears to be a still back-lit print.
The Zombie Formalist has multiple variations with different logics and aesthetics. The first determines ‘value’ from the number of likes and retweets on social media given to uploaded compositions. Future Zombie Formalists will exploit face recognition and construct new generative compositions when no one is looking at them, giving the illusion of a static image. This future Zombie Formalist will determine ‘value’ from the duration of viewing in person. In both cases, the system uses AI to learn what aesthetics are valued by the audience(s) and which are not. Over time, the system will be able to create new images in the style of previous images that were highly ‘valued’ by a particular audience. These light-boxes are the ultimate zombie formalists who constantly generate formal compositions in response to the whims and fads of audiences. Compositions deemed of high ‘value’ by the Zombie Formalist (or the artist) are selected for small print on-demand sculptural objects. These kitsch objects (mugs, phone cases, etc.) centre the work on themes of commodity and consumerism. These kistch objects to reference the gallery gift shop and the role of artistic images as commodities.
Beyond the promotion of artists and artworks through social media networks such as Pinterest and Instagram, there is also a growing trend for artworks to be delivered not as objects, but through purely digital means such as Meural. One of the major themes of the work is the tension between the traditional gallery context and these emerging digital dissemination platforms. While these platforms may indicate a degree of acceptance of contemporary art presented by digital means, mainstream capitalism is in parallel incorporating technology to better target their ads. As machine learning improves in accuracy and becomes more easily embedded in systems we confront day to day, we are beginning to see billboards using cameras to target individuals in public. They may be located in indoor spaces and estimate age and gender to present ‘appropriate’ ads, or may be large scale billboards and recognize the make and model of cars driving by. Subjective Machines are appearing in our day to day lives and seamlessly hooking into big data collected on social networks to profile and predict our desires and future consumption. Why would Facebook not provide face metrics to advertisers as they may prove as valuable as ‘likes’? How far away are billboards that recognize us as individuals and provide targeted ads based on our Facebook profiles, or Google searches?
Highlighting this likely future is a subtext of this work where one intention is to increase the social and cultural visibility of what is happening with ‘smart’ public advertising and profiling. This project draws a link between the ‘smart’ billboard that sells what the marketer thinks you want, social media that models you in order to show you what you want to see, and the current art market. The light-box literally tries to model the aesthetic values of the audience and shows them exactly what they like. The most interesting art object for the commodity oriented market is an artwork that automatically follows the trends and always stays ‘current’ and ‘fresh’ for its audience. The criticism of the ‘filter bubble’ can also be set upon this scenario where the compositions are never expected to be challenging; art always looks good in the living room and never offends. This work points to a future where AIs automatically generate products that suit the short term and fickle desires of the market. In this future (present) consumption becomes a compulsion fulfilling our need to be endlessly distracted and keeping us invested in the capitalist illusion of constant growth.
Zombie Formalist compositions selected by the artist or by Twitter ranking are available on a number of products available at Society6:
2021, “Constructing Contexts” – Art Machines 2 Exhibition, Singing Waves Gallery, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Zombie Formalist Compositions
2020, №166 (Artist Selection Series 3); №894 (Meural Selection); №14759 (Artist Selection 2) “YacYacTacTac” — A Show of Artist Multiples, Online.
2020, №388 (Twitter Selection), 15th Voix Visuelle International Digital Miniprint Exhibition, Ottawa.
Thank you to Robert Billard for the CAD drawing and prototype frame construction!
We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.