by Casey Jaywork
– The Capitol Hill Times –
The difference between commute and travel is mindset, not scenery. Someone traveling through a city for the first time sees limitless possibility erupt behind every storefront and traffic sign, while the commuter, insofar as they notice their surroundings at all, just see them as indicators of how far they still have to go. A similar difference exists between art and decoration. They’re the same thing, except that you see one and ignore the other.
That distinction between the visible and the invisible, the seen and the unseen, fascinates artist Cait Willis, whose work endeavors to “[observe] the observer… to make people aware of things that we’ve subconsciously adjusted to in a very short period of time.” Her series “Are Robot” is being featured through March 11 at the local espresso joint Joe Bar. Comprised of paintings and two-dimensional woodcarvings, the series explores themes of technological alienation and accident-within-order, using pixelation and double-entendre to examine the brave new world of Facebook and smartphones.
“I’ve been working on ‘glitch,’” she told me, “and on how our media affects our lives, and how it kind of infiltrates our selves while we’re also infiltrating it, whether it be our relationships on OKCupid or Facebook… So I do something called ‘glitch safari,’ where I pick up a lot of these images directly from the television when it starts to glitch out, instead of manipulating data to make it look like that.” Because she insists on capturing real glitches instead of manufacturing them, Willis says, she’ll often take hundreds of screenshots before finding one that fits her vision.
Once she’s captured that moment of breakdown within the ordered world of digital communication, she uses it as source material for her own original creations. “Some of the ones [in Joe Bar] are based off of broken iPhones. And then I also do QR code portraits – the ones that are made out of wood actually work.” These portraits are small wooden tiles on which Willis has used woodcarving techniques to create images that are simultaneously visual mosaics and fully-functional QR codes. “You can scan them and they’ll take you to my Tumblr, to the photo they’re based on.”
Willis’ larger goal in this series is to examine the dramatic, but often unnoticed, ways that modern communications technology is transforming human life. “My motivator is how technology is affecting our relationships and our identity,” she said. “I’m trying to accomplish awareness about the era that we’re living in because it’s happening so quickly. I mean, it’s really only been since 2005 that the iPhone came out, and our relationship and our culture has changed. It’s changed really drastically, in a very short period of time.”
Part of that transformation has been the decline of in-person socializing in what, Willis informed me, is now referred to as “meat spaces.” “It’s gotten to that point where it’s become so non-personal,” she said, lamenting the displacement of friends-in-the-flesh by friends in the machine. “I feel like [the advance of technology] is a little good and a little bad. Like, I can talk to my friends overseas immediately, but, at the same time, it’s hard to talk to my friends who live down the street from me.” Her sentiment echoes the fear, voiced by Sigmund Freud almost a century ago, that even as individual gadgets solve individual human problems, the cumulative effect of technological growth is human alienation and impotence. “If there were no railway to make light of distances, my child would never have left home,” Freud wrote in “Civilization and Its Discontents,” “and I should not need the telephone to hear his voice. If there were no vessels crossing the ocean, my friend would never have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph to relieve my anxiety about him.”
Fortunately, Joe Bar provides a human haven for those who, like Willis, yearn for the spiritual contact that only flesh can mediate. She describes the cafe as a hangout for artists of all stripes.
“It’s one of the classic coffee houses that has been here in one form or another since at least the late 80s. I always thought of this place and Vermillion as a call-back to those Parisian cafes of the 20s where people just, like, hang out and talk.”
Unlike many chain cafes, Joe Bar has consciously dedicated itself to hosting and promoting work by local artists – to preventing thought-provoking art from devolving into pleasant decoration. This seems appropriate for a venue that’s displaying Willis’ artistic attempt to “observe and understand” the creeping influence of technology on contemporary human life. But you can come and judge for yourself: just type “Joe Bar” into your smartphone and follow the virtual trail.
Joe Bar is located at 810 East Roy Street, and is open daily.