We run an online magazine, so of course, we’re interested in what’s happening with art on the web. Every other Wednesday online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, selects a Web Artist of the Week.
If you have even a passing interest in net art then you are likely familiar with the work of Lorna Mills. The Toronto-based artist and curator has been hugely successful in promoting the medium to a wider audience, both through her own work and as a conduit for other artists. In her own practice, Mills works mainly in the GIF format, creating digital collages with manipulated elements of found GIFs. Her work brazenly straddles the line between “high art” and low (digital) culture with punkish irreverence and wicked humor.
As a curator Mills is best known for uniting 115 digital artists in an ambitious remake of the John Berger documentary Ways of Seeing, which was shown as part of Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art at the Whitney in 2017. Ways of Something, as Mills retitled it, not only stands as an unassailable document of the state of the digital art nation at its time of release, but also successfully proves that the truths of Berger’s insights are as relevant today as they ever were.
Mills famously beamed her Mountain Light/Time GIF on giant screens around New York’s Times Square in 2016, cementing her reputation as one of the most significant contemporary new media artists. The artist has a longstanding relationship with New York’s Transfer gallery, where she’s just opened her latest solo show, The Great Code. The exhibition, which Mills says she’s been working on for the last 15 years and includes the covers of some 3,075 books the artist has read, plays with the definition of “code” and suggests that “the order of knowledge has been collapsed and compressed.”
Christian Petersen: What were you like as a kid?
Lorna Mills: I was a precocious reader, manic, rude, and very irritating (some adults were charmed by this, but not the adults in my family). I am still a reader, less rude perhaps, but still irritating.
CP: When did you first use a computer creatively?
LM: 1993–94, delivery was on floppy disks and CD-roms.
CP: What did you make?
LM: A CD interactive environment/portrait of a musician friend titled The Man They Couldn’t Deconstruct Because He Knew Too Much. When he saw it he said, “This is more about you than it is about me,” ...well, yeah. A few other hard to describe things, all done in Director, so the images were very rich, but I suspect that all the early stuff is unplayable now. I never set max speeds on the animations so on my current system, everything whips by super fast in those early pieces.
CP: When did you first become aware of the GIF format?
LM: Mid-90s, but they were all graphics and I didn’t like drawing tools. At that point I had been programming children’s educational games in Director and later in Flash, working with illustrators and basically making things come alive in an interactive setting. It was something I really enjoyed professionally because I had good timing (and a real respect for other people’s drawing skills.)
CP: When did you first recognize its creative possibilities?
LM: The creative possibilities for my own work didn’t crystalize until I saw what Sally McKay was doing with GIFs using photographic sources, so early to mid-2000s. At that point there was a lot more activity online from people posting video-sourced GIFs, so I was making GIFs from my own video footage and looking at existing animations made by people who didn’t position themselves as artists.
CP: When does a GIF become a piece of art? Does the maker have to identify as an artist?
LM: I don’t know the answer to that question, generally art comes from people who do declare themselves artists, but there are always exceptions. It’s not something I worry about.
CP: How has your relationship with the internet evolved since you first used it?
LM: I was attracted to aggregate sites from the beginning—I was never a good surfer. I also participated in the heydays of blogging; the audiences were small and the conversations were exciting. Later on, social media was comfortable for me because I had already defined an online persona that I was comfortable with.
On Facebook and Twitter, I have the endearing belief that total strangers are delighted to hear from me. This is probably a major error on my part.
I prefer my important conversations IRL now. The potential for ridiculous misunderstandings on social media is too high and I don’t want to spend my time defining all my terms to strangers or defending misreadings of what I am trying to say. So now I only post images of my giant dog and my animated GIFs. I spend a lot more time reading other people’s posts. I’m a major lurker and liker.
CP: When did you first realize there was a scene building around “Internet Art”?
LM: Aside from Sally’s work, I was attracted to the artists in the surf clubs, so mid-2000s. (I was a major fan of Guthrie Lonergan and Chris Ashley.)
CP: What were the surf clubs and what attracted you the them?
CP: Can you talk a little about your process when making a GIF?
LM: My process is very congenial. (It’s a nice way to live. I’m very lucky.) I spend every day looking and downloading animated GIFs while watching Netflix or BBC and then spend countless hours cutting them up frame by frame, again while watching Netflix or BBC. (I’m very good at mindless tedious tasks.)
Once I have all the raw materials on hand, the collage work—the combination and placement of GIFs onto a picture plane—comes very quickly and instinctively, and that is when I get to surprise myself. (I admire conceptual artists mostly because I will never be one myself.)
CP: How obsessive are you?
LM: I’m focused and driven, but I don’t mind the term obsessive applied to me.
CP: Humor is often a big part your work.
LM: I have a well-honed sense of the ridiculous, I can’t ignore it. I’d rather feel alive in my work with all its profanity. I don’t aspire to be relentlessly transcendent, lofty, minimal, or sacred.
CP: Are you funny IRL?
LM: Hell yeah. (Sometimes funnier than I mean to be.)
CP: Can you talk a little about your art school experience and what influence it’s had on your ongoing practice?
LM: I went to small independent art schools that no longer exist and I was trained as a painter. That early training manifests itself in the formal undercurrents of my work. I learned that visual art should be interesting to look at. It’s such a simple requirement, yet many artists fail.
CP: What does “post internet” mean to you?
LM: It’s not something I worry about. (Why do people keep on asking me that?)
CP: I read that you have an interest in Nazi art—what draws you to that subject?
LM: WTF??????? LOL, art in the service of a totalitarian state is not generally great art. I’m only interested in Leni Riefenstahl who is problematic because she was a force of nature, a genius and a Nazi, though she claims she wasn’t. And if she wasn’t, she’d have to be the most mind-numbingly ambitious artist in the history of the universe to align herself with the Nazis so she could make her films.
Leni’s two most famous films are Triumph of the Will about the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg, and Olympia, a documentary on the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. b/t/w in later life she claimed that Triumph was about “jobs and peace.” These films are acknowledged as masterpieces and in the 30s she was recognized as a brilliant but contentious artist worldwide (also much admired by many American film makers, especially Walt Disney, who also knew a thing or two about the enthralling grip of Mythologies.) (Uncle Walt was a fascist too.)
She believed that art was something pure and beautiful. Of course, after WWII she was demoted from artist to propagandist by people who also think that art is something pure and beautiful.
I have no use for purity.
Courtesy of Transfer Gallery
CP: How did your association with Transfer Gallery begin?
LM: I met Kelani Nicole at gli.tc/h festival in Chicago in 2012. She told me that she had just moved to NYC and was going to open a gallery and would I like a show? I said yes.
CP: Can you talk a little about the importance of Transfer Gallery on the wider digital art scene?
LM: Kelani expanded the gallery scene for digital art and has tirelessly promoted emergent practices that very few other galleries were interested in or even aware of five years ago.
CP: What was the genesis of the idea for your new show The Great Code?
LM: The Great Code is a title I stole from the writer Northrop Frye. (The title of my previous show At Play in the Fields of the Lord was stolen from the writer Peter Matthiessen.)
I wanted to play with the many definitions of code by showing a print installation that consists of about 3,075 small glazed images of book covers. I’ve been working on this project for about 15 years and plan to continue it as long as I live.
Right after 9-11, a now expired section of the Patriot Act required libraries to hand over records—without a warrant—if requested by law enforcement (they also weren’t allowed to inform library patrons that their records had been reviewed). Of course the American Library Association fought it in court, because unlike most legislators, librarians have spines. (Apparently many libraries had signage that read, “The FBI has not been here. (Look very closely for the removal of this sign.)”) So it was in this climate that I decided to do a big beautiful data-dump of every book I can remember reading in my life, highbrow, lowbrow, and everything in between (I read fast and retain very little).
It’s a giant, brightly lit, shiny pile of prints on a seven by seven foot table. Openness about my reading habits was not a motivation—the volume of prints prevents a viewer from really seeing much more than what is sitting on top—and since I install the work, I get to choose what you actually can see. I’m a deceptive creature.
I also included an installation of six animated GIF collages with even more mixed messaging.
CP: What did you learn from curating/overseeing the Ways of Something project? What was the best thing about it being shown at the Whitney?
LM: I learned the limitations of an artist-curated project. When artists curate, they bring their own set of blindness and insight to a project. I may tackle something like that again if I come up with an engaging idea and a different format, but I don’t plan to apply that particular formula again.
The best thing about showing at the Whitney was bringing over 115 people to show with me. I also enjoyed sending out the announcement with a two-word cover letter: FUCK YEAH.
CP: Can you describe you emotions when you saw your work being shown on giant screens in Times Square?
LM: It was disconcerting because I’ve never shown at that scale without knowing what it would look like beforehand. It was bewildering so I didn’t feel like celebrating, and being Canadian, I thought that I should apologize: “Sorry, just a big ’ole yellow GIF.” A few nights later, I saw it a second time and realized that it was really good.
CP: The internet and digital art have become a popular medium for the expression of feminist ideas—why do you think that is?
LM: The internet is where misogyny thrives, so the battle has to take place there.
CP: What else do you have coming up this year?
LM: In mid-March I will be showing a multi-projection and multi-monitor GIF installation full of gratuitous internet filth at at Festspielhaus Hellerau in Dresden for the dgtl fmnsm festival. On March 24, Transfer will be launching my catalog with an essay by Seth Watter as well as celebrating the 5th anniversary of the gallery. Then the next day, the 25th, at 3pm, all four episodes of Ways of Something will be screened at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.
(Image at top: Courtesy of the artist and Transfer Gallery)