The Inimitable Polymath Dr. Alex Box Shares Her Views From Life As A Cyber Originalist

Hello Alex, I would like to begin by saying that it’s a profound pleasure to be able to converse with such a compassionate mind who has originated so many ground breaking creative methodologies, and who has nurtured the digital higher arts guiding it into what it is today. In the not so distant past, digital art was treated as though a form undeserving of higher honour, this of course has changed with its adoption and transition into yet another cherished medium. What do you think it was that hindered its adoption early on? In your view, was its hindrance justified?

Thank you for inviting me to speak on such a progressive platform that’s elevating and evolving the conversation. I think the view of digital art has been hindered from the beginning by many factors. Firstly, a lot of the artwork early on tended to be tech referential and commenting on where technology was going using the sci-fi tropes and a binary style of the future. What people had come to understand technology as being: hard and shiny, cold, remote and dystopian, pigeonholed its aesthetic into not having depth or sensitivity or nuance. Some of this early scepticism was also founded on the output being limited to either screens or prints. The perception to anyone outside tech, or artists using tech was that computers, software and screens were for ‘function’ and office tasks not creativity or sensitivity, but, for those exploring the machine with these new textures and unlimited virtual spaces the possibilities were thrilling. The subjectivity of art for the viewer is revered through the emotional connection to human application and the visibility and proximity of such labour through gesture and decision making. The notable absence of recognisable ‘human’ mark-making and texture in digital art created distrust and rejection. I think it was simply the fact that the viewer had not matured in their understanding of where exactly the human hand lay in digital art, and that it wasn’t just pressing a button! Fast forward to AI art now being accepted, we have come along way, but now people have matured their understanding of where concept and labour sit in the process and award it with trust.

You speak about the body as architecture, the emotion as landscape and canvas, personhood as something that can be created and reformed, and this has become ever so true in the age of digital self production or as you’ve coined, “identity design”. What do you think freedom from separating the self from the body to find an essential core can do for the emotional world of individuals? In this same line of thought, knowing how market forces creating the technologies that facilitate this action’s possibility chiefly exist to produce earnings, could such detachment from the embodied self bring with it unforeseen determinants?

As they say, “you have to leave to come home”. I feel the same is true for the body. I speak of an ‘emotional self’, a ‘textured self’: who we are and what space we inhabit when we close our eyes. We have a notion of the body and its accepted limitations through our senses, where we believe we end and our environment begins defines our limited body logic and shapes our identity. Encased in body logic we find it hard to imagine embodying emotional textures or becoming a different form, shape or sound. The physical logic can hold back the emotional development, so separation to enable one to connect to their core is vital. Buddhism calls it, ‘spiritual death’, it’s not actual physical death, more the death of the illusion/delusion of who one is. Once you are free of this illusion your form becomes limitless, and closer to a state of connection with nature and one another. I believe connection and integration to be at the heart of expansion of our core identity and emotional complexity. Creating an avatar, a digital identity, a piece of music or a sculpture etc., with a new connective palette takes time and practise. As you’ve mentioned about marketing forces, and as we move towards the, “metaverse” and having multiple digital identities living autonomously, the notion of separation takes this idea of emotional governance to another level.

Alex, you have been participating in the digital art sphere since the days of Photoshop 2.5. You have created your own gesture-controlled App named Splashbox (before App making was a thing), you are well acquainted with photogrammetry and the scope of 3d fabrication and design, but have also successfully utilized myriad technologies to make real your inward visions. In all of your multidisciplinary achievements a strong emphasis on personal freedom, self expression but also a humane responsibility exists. Based on this early acquaintance with tech in these ways, what do you feel is needed in the approaching Metaverse dialogue, A.I. and Blockchain/NFT prominence that has yet to be fully discussed?

For me the conversations around Digital Dignity, Transhumanism, SSI (self sovereign identity) and the utility of the block chain are the most needed. It’s vital to be developing and evolving an ecosystem of care that health checks with protection standards as we push towards the many metaverses (as we are not there yet, and there won’t only be one) and our multiple identity’s. Associations like H +, advocator’s of ethical uses of tech, science and the human condition are doing this brilliantly. We have to navigate this path very carefully, digital identity and freedom has to be mirrored forward and back from the real world of humanitarian responsibility. The metaverse could become ‘Bartertown’ very quickly if unchecked, but the decentralized model of web3 is based on freedom of movement, access and speech, and is the opposite of ‘Minority Report’ surveillance capitalism. What we’re looking towards riding is both waves, we are currently in a centralised system trying to capitalise on a decentralized model. It’s like the 80s at the moment, the NFT gold rush that started in a punk aesthetic and decentralized dream was quickly turned into Trumps gold toilet. NFTs flash public face is a bubble and there will be more, but after a gold rush always comes the land ownership and stability – the utility. And this where it gets interesting, the convergence of the utility of the block chain and work like Kaliya Young’s on placing the user at the centre of their data and digital identity is a clearer path towards progress.

When researching your storied history one is near immediately introduced to you as an MUA (Makeup Artist). But, upon closer investigation, one likewise finds your dissatisfaction with being limited by this title alone because it fails to encapsulate the breadth of everything you are and do (even if the work you have done and continue to do in fashion has unmistakably shaped higher culture). What do you think it is about titles, and the boxes they necessarily create, that are meant to subjugate rather than free? How do you think limitations created by conventions such as titles can be appropriately transcended?

A title comes from the conformity and comfort of cultural etiquette that unfortunately are nearly always a product of a time or era. As language constantly evolves titles often don’t, as with their stagnant perceptions. Being a polymath has only recently been accepted again (much like the Bauhaus model that has been resurrected in Europe) and not treated with destain or suspicion, as ‘jack of all trades master of none’. But still people want to whittle it down, and what to title someone who has a panoply of disciplines is a constant worry for both artist and society. Having a title has never been more required, as we asked for not only a title but categories to go before us, tagging all our social media and online profiles. What I propose is a refresh and redefinition, an examining of language and narrative, a discourse that must be pioneered from the creative community. Conversations between peers is essential on how they wish to be defined individually and collectively. Much like gender and race, there should be constant evolution and check-in of definitions both for broader understanding of an artists practice and a respect for their continuously evolving role in shaping society and culture.

In higher art circles we have seen many new evolution’s that go against the grain of traditional ideas of what “good” and “bad” art are. With the rise of Amateurism via the homemade techniques exemplified in the Ready Made and Found Object movements, or early Punk DIY aesthetic, we now have a generation who are self taught for good or ill and academic learning per se is no longer the plumb line for what makes satisfactory. Knowing that you are a proponent of self-belief and personal confidence, where do you think the line is drawn when coming to conclusions about what good or bad art is? Does objectively good or bad art exist, or is it simply based on the viewers opinion?

I think as an artist the concept of good or bad art exists objectively as a direct examining of where you are in your own process. A shifting nebula defined in where you believe the word good and bad intertwine and overlay. The definitions and perspective of the words good or bad rapidly dissolve into a murky sea when consumed by creation, each wave and crest spraying back both. The self-belief is defined by the action of process and creation and the belief in its desire to live here. Creation defies good or bad, it simply is. When ownership of art is defined by markets and sales, or by the obvious commodification of intense specialised labour it loses this objectivity of self awareness and becomes subjectively reduced to good or bad. The need to see human labour in art to quantify connection or the belief of a divine, or skill in learned craft that the viewer doesn’t possess has also defined good or bad art in the public realm over the ages.

With such a profundity of view you are recorded as saying, “We are in strange empty metric times that hold no real worth.” If you could, would you please discuss how you think we have lost connection to deeper notions of value? Also, how do you think we can return to a place where quality holds meaning when it unfortunately almost always becomes secondary to a momentary entertainment metric?

I feel it started with Myspace and Facebook’s numbering of friends, which was a paranoid metric and thinly veiled scoring of popularity poking at the basic need to feel wanted. The ground had been prepared much earlier by the text message, ensuring a neuro-dependant groove ploughed by haptic feedback validation and eventual addictive dependency though its tiny endorphin spikes. This dependency on constant validation of an experience and the heightening of that experience by supportive sound and feedback created a need to feed the addiction. It went from personal messages to public messages on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, with visible numbers that flipped the private euphoria to public dependency on vanity metrics. New functions emerged with the acceleration of addiction, functions like, ‘the scroll’, an endless empty ghost: never fulfilled nor nourished no matter how much ‘feed’ it consumes, this is more than a metaphor for our times. Public validation or quantification from a number became the new oil, mining for friends and likes. Content became king, while people’s genuine craft became entertainment and the ‘feed’ became a trough, the pressure to create accelerated for mounting multiple platforms with a limitless scrolling and scoring impossible to satisfy.

People started to pretend, to script and to mirror the emptiness by throwing up anything. The speed, pretence and pressure to portray a life that wasn’t real heightened peoples mistrust whilst perpetuating the same standard now expected across the channels. The mistrust and emptiness increased the negative mental health of the user who was locked into the now well ploughed neuroaddiction furrow. When social media began, before bots and algorithms and the reach was organic, there was a moment of real connection, a genuine feeling of discovery much like the recent earlier beta run of Clubhouse. The human connection through stories and images, words and sound, had a value based in that discovery. Then like so many businesses, growth and gain becomes exponentially important, keeping the players in the casino becomes more important than what they are playing. It sounds bleak, but I have hope, always. It depends very much on alternatives and reteaching value.

I spoke about this recently, that very early on in our lives we are sold the idea of success and value being placed largely on the model of bigger, faster, brighter, is better; not nurture, balance, connection, contentment. We only have to look to nature to see that exponential growth is purely man-made, nature has a cycle, and when you build beyond natures rhythms you become stuck. This is what we need to return to as a base value system and health check model. Natural cycles, what our personal limits are, what balances, nurtures and fulfils us without the man-made template imposed. As most monuments and peaks of human life are to cheat the inevitable death, it’s this idea that we have to be at one with. Having some way of jumping ship, somewhere else to go is vital. Community’s creating their own alternative micro-connective environments with as much real world practice and discourse is essential. Proving that in those communities connectivity based on the very value of connection where people are ‘seen’ and wholly recognised without metrics or money. Alongside this we need to work on a deprogramming handbook to support the inevitable fall out of going cold turkey from a life time of addiction and social media fatigue.

The Western world for many decades has stood behind the idea of individuality, and your work indeed highlights individual primacy and its private importance. You also stand as a radical of sorts because you maintain a revolutionary type of self belief which does not bend to following trends but instead chooses to create them. But recently, an atomized conformity leaning towards tribalism has taken hold. What effect do you think this is having on originality? In your educated view, what can be done to stand against conformist forces be they group think tendencies, market desires, a limited pool of legitimated reference materials, etc?

I said only today, is my view of the individual as quaint and outdated as the punk postcard of Piccadilly Circus? has the time of the individual as we know it gone? Or is it just more subtly defined? I was raised on the diet of post punk anger and David Bowie terrestrial outsider, creatively urgent, fiercely individual and very much based in aesthetics. As an only child I inherently mistrusted ‘the group’ and gravitated to individuality in all its forms as comfort and identity. As my artwork was an extension and a language of that belief it stands to reason that it looked different, and that the anger I inherited about asserting that individual voice made it more visually militant. Through art college the mantra was the same, to copy was seen as sacrosanct and to be individual was a key to being successful. Fast forward to today when ‘don’t be too proud to copy’ Mark Zuckerberg’s bullet proof mandate and ‘inspired by’ culture allows and exonerates plagiarism. Of course, the panoply of aggregated images and influence sites ensures an echo chamber from a limited pool of resources: tired and re-hashed, driven by advertising revenue and void of source credit.

This homogenization of where the source is coming from reduces the value and connectivity and ultimately respect for the work, thus making easier to take, reuse and move past. How do we move from the extractive model to an inclusive model. Language is essential, and the individuality of the past that was much more aesthetically driven has shifed to descriptors of a broader spectrum of identity. It’s interesting as we examine the idea of ‘the one self’, this singular idea of individuality has shifted. We are many individuals alone together in our own ecosystem of self, we are our own Metaverse. Digital data identity is so much a part of how we are defined and sole ownership of our data and not a service provider is essential for forming and preserving online individuality and self governance. Supporting this is the idea of SSI (self sovereign identity) which allows the user to manage and control there digital identities in a decentralized manner instead of through traditional identity data definers. Data autonomy will put a dent in the control and ultimately the influence of cooperate homogenization.

Because the intuition you posses and the way you share wisdom about this topic is so genuine, if you could be so kind, would you please share with us what your philosophy on freedom and fullness through the creative act is?

I think freedom is to be in nature, I’m endlessly inspired by its systems. Nature is an environment that grows to its own limit and then decays only to nurture further, its networks and connective support systems, a blueprint for us. In a city every surface is designed to reflect the ego, hard shiny surface monuments to exponential growth, all aesthetics a human design choice. I desire an environment with an uncurated visual language that connects and inspires on a molecular emotional level, nature creates space in my mind, and urban environments fill it. The absence of human design decision, curation and ego around you allows freedom of movement between creational thoughts and an appreciation of sound and colour and eventually deep subtlety of thought.

The fullness comes from creating without frenetic fear and out of shifts of consciousness and nurture. I’ve created out of fear and out of love and the work both contains a truth of that moment. Yet the work that is expansive and connective is created from a closer renunciation of ego, of not knowing and trying to unlearn and be naïve, to renounce proficiency. The little freedoms are more like releases that come from the, “petit mort” of the ego. To create work through the state of pure creation and not by ego, engaged by pure connectivity that goes beyond the physical realm and pushes through your consciousness as an energy is transcendent. I’m there and I am present but, I’m also lost to the process that unfolds as if I’m just there to catch up with an already decided outcome.

INFORMATION

All images with courtesy of Dr. Alex Box

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