Liminals: Remnants of touch and transitional moments

Originally published on Medium, 02.24.22 

Works from Liminals, 2022

We live in a strange world, where we touch screens more often than the people we love. Touch as a mark-making tool is at the forefront of my artistic practice, which at once reenacts and investigates the interrelationships between technological and physical artifacts. My work engages these two realms as I construct new portraits from facial imperfections in digitally ‘touched up’ photographs and use my own fingers (digits) to mash printed images into sculptural relics. My newest project Liminals makes use of the accumulation of marks on one’s personal device as a conceptual framework as I examine social aspects of an increasingly digital world.

Details from four bodies of work showing an exploration of mark making in relationship to touch. Clockwise from top left: Continuous Work Drawings, Detouched, Color Balance, Liminals

Chat rooms, social media and profile pictures (PFPs) alike have shifted perceptions both online and in real life (IRL) about what it means to be part of a community. I’m particularly interested in the in-between moments of self-transformation, a place that connects ‘what was’ with ‘what will be’. An example would be one’s first experience using a computer or the power of the internet. There was a unique experience, an unexplainable feeling, and the beginning of a shift as we each crafted our idea of self in relation to an ever new digital context.

My body of work Liminals is a series of 1024 conceptual pieces that form an abstract narrative through transitional moments in an evolving digital culture, spanning from the early days of the internet to the rise of CryptoArt and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). I wanted to tell a story through disparate events, not necessarily historical points but rather from the perspective of the individual.

Liminals take their name from the concept of liminality, developed by Arnold Van Gennep in his 1908 book Rites de Passage. An anthropologist, Van Gennep focused on rituals in small scale societies and began by identifying the various categories of rites from ones that result in a change of status for an individual or social group, and those that signify transitions in the passage of time.

Each work in the series has a unique two word title (2048 in total) that points towards a temporal space. Titles are constructed to have multiple readings, some are more obvious ‘Global Identity’, while others can be poetic ‘Infinitesimal Interludes’, or give a glimpse of a secret ‘Almost There’. As a conceptual artist, I use titles to help guide a viewer’s attention, they are equally important as the visual element.

Four works from Liminals L to R: Zero One, Organic Obsolescence, Meaty Operation, Unwritten Existence

I shape my artistic practice in part through computer software, using hand-made and automated forms of touch. I create marks from bits of digital skin, pixelated cursor paths, dust extracted from NASA photographs, and now strokes directly from code. For the generative marks in Liminals I used p5.js, an open-source JavaScript library focused on accessible visual coding. I arrange compositions in Photoshop via my hand/stylus and add soft ethereal washes of color to each work. I wanted there to be a balance of graphical lines and subtle gradients, perfect paths and intentional imperfections. My practice involves working in response to a portrait as I am interested in the digitally mutable body. In my process of recreation I abstract the source, revealing little of the original. Each work is encrypted through a new visual code, a remnant of touch.

Even prior to the pandemic I spent an absurd amount of time thinking about and using screens. According to a 2016 study, people touched their phone on average 2617 times a day and ‘heavy users’ more than 5427 times. In the past two years alone usage has increased exponentially. I wanted this body of work to reflect the feverish marks each of us make on a daily basis through one’s personal device. Always within reach and brand names such as ‘iPhone’ and ‘Mytouch’, they have become objects that are synonymous with self.

Liminals is the embodiment of all these ideas, from transitional moments, fragments of touch, and identity in relation to digital culture. In the growing power of Web3, a purportedly more decentralized and self sovereign version of the internet; creators hold ownership of their data instead of large corporations. While extreme optimism often surrounds this space, I try to remain balanced and observe both sides of the spectrum. Like much of human history there will always be bad actors, I include highs as well as lows within my work. Web3 does allow for a special mobility unseen on a global scale previously and has already shaped a new type of individual. A liminal person if you will, who is not beholden to fixed social or physical constraints. They have the freedom to go beyond the boundaries of societal norms and carve out their own path.

- Travis LeRoy Southworth