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Lloyd Wise on Tabor Robak and medium specificity


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In the November issue of Artforum, Lloyd Wise considers artist Tabor Robak work. According to Wise, Robak, who is known for his multi-screen installations of CGI videos reminiscent of sci-fi news idents, could be thought to emblematize a sort of technological medium specificity. Could a Greenbergian medium specificity be applied to new media, that which exists of many mediums? Robak’s work unveils the ultimate potential of the software he uses and the HD screens he plays them on. Wise writes, “So when we’re faced with the ceaselessly inventive visuals that mark Robak’s art—the dazzling explosions, the heavenly glow, the supersmooth movement of frame interpolation—it’s as if some cyberpunk perversion of Greenbergian formalism were unfolding in crystalline LED.” An excerpt below, the full version via Artforum.

Here’s Robak’s music video for Fatima al Qadiri’s “Vatican Vibes.”

But comparisons to Pop take us only so far. If anything, Robak’s work is less a product of the appropriation of visual culture—of reference or even simulation—than it is of the appropriation of the technology that produces that culture in the first place. “I go with what the tool naturally encourages,” he has said. “It does shiny surfaces really well, so it’s a shame not to use shiny surfaces.” If the result happens to look like a video game or commercial, then, it’s in part because that is what Unity and CINEMA 4D were designed to create. Robak, moreover, is constantly inventing techniques, finding ways to express the latent possibilities of his tools more fully. He knows, for instance, that if you want to craft a cool bubble in Photoshop, the best way to do it is by making a certain sequence of adjustments to the lens-flare function. This misuse is not some performative “gesture” but the expertly applied, next-level skill set of a virtuoso.

It would not be wrong, then, to detect a return to the doctrine of medium specificity in Robak’s work. In his 1960 essay “Modernist Painting,” Clement Greenberg famously pronounced: “Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.” For a modernist painter, the exclusive effect was flatness—an “ineluctable” property of painting that the medium had to discover and reveal. And when Robak says his art has a “Photoshop-tutorial aesthetic,” he hints at a similarly reflexive approach to art making, one analogous to an analytic modernist “painting about painting,” which some might dismiss as retrograde but which today, when realized via these high-end tools, has enthralling force. Of course, Robak’s methods lead to infinite possibility, not the inwardness and purity of high modernism, and their various effects—their various special effects—are designed for precisely the sorts of pictorial illusionism that Greenberg detested. Yet when Robak uses filters like sparkle and glare, he never disguises them in photorealistic verisimilitude but takes them to a hyperbolic extreme, fully indulging in the luxurious digitalness of the digital, its peculiar and inherent properties. So when we’re faced with the ceaselessly inventive visuals that mark Robak’s art—the dazzling explosions, the heavenly glow, the supersmooth movement of frame interpolation—it’s as if some cyberpunk perversion of Greenbergian formalism were unfolding in crystalline LED.