DIGGERMODE: A Conversation

| Sebastian Henry-Jones & Joel Sherwood Spring
 + DIGGERMODE (still) Joel Sherwood Spring, 2022. Commissioned by ACMI. Courtesy of the artist. Two channel video.

DIGGERMODE: A Conversation

DIGGERMODE: A Conversation | Sebastian Henry-Jones & Joel Sherwood Spring

I first encountered Joel Sherwood Spring’s commissioned video work DIGGERMODE at The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in 2022, in an exhibition titled How I see It: Blak Art and Film. A year later I had the pleasure of working with Joel to re-present it for The Churchie emerging art prize at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA). Joel was awarded first prize. Paying particular attention to its form, the following conversation expands upon the research presented in DIGGERMODE. At a moment when they both feel at their most depleted, DIGGERMODE inventively articulates the entanglement of the earth’s natural and cultural resources to technologies and the companies who develop them, reaching for an alternative way of envisioning culture and Country. 


Sebastian Henry-Jones (SHJ): Perhaps we could begin simply with the title of the work: DIGGERMODE.

Joel Sherwood Spring (JSS): As both a standalone video work and a philosophy of enquiry, DIGGERMODE highlights the environmental impact of our digital world on Indigenous peoples who most intimately feel the growing impacts of capitalism and climate change on their lands and ways of being. It’s about how mining and images of mining have shaped the way we imagine and view the world, how historical museums operated as proto-databases and how today most cultural production is now subject to metaphors that deal with software-mediated transactions.

 SHJ: When we were installing DIGGERMODE at the Institute of Modern Art for the Churchie, you were insistent that the work retain its two-channel structure. Viewing the work in this way, I was reminded of the French painter Paul Cézanne, who practiced throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. His research led him to believe that what we see is the average of two images, one produced by each eye. This approach evolved into the highly analytical painting practice of Cubism, a discovery within the globally-exported tradition of modern art that reconstructed nature through a typology of geometric, painted forms. In the work you refer to painting as a ‘technology’. As an artwork, how does DIGGERMODE engage with the legacy of modernism and the way it has taught us to see, and how is this present in newer technologies today?

 + DIGGERMODE Joel Sherwood Spring, 2022. installation view, UTS Gallery 2023. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Jacquie Manning.

 JSS: One way that I see technologies is that they are the things that condition our experience of reality at a very deep level—we draw from them for our metaphors and how we understand the world—which influences our use and consumption of space. I’m interested in juxtaposition, or placing images and ideas in affective proximity to one another. One of the central things DIGGERMODE examines is ways of seeing Country through technology. I’m trying to present the tension between settler image-making practices—which extend from images themselves to the discursive production of meaning that appeals to them—and Indigenous ways of relating to, and imaging Country. With regards to Paul Cézanne and perceptual frames, like, why are you asking me about some other man? Half of the work is analysing museums, and how museums themselves are a historical technology for making the world into a representation of itself, for better or worse. Newer technologies and the platforms mediated by them are informed by an art historical gaze, a gaze that developed prior to and through the period described as Western modernism. The Western canon as chronology, where one movement proceeds another is in part a production of museological space. I’m interested in how cultural ideologies relating to nationhood and extraction are reinforced by images and their arrangement in space, and DIGGERMODE considers how the destruction of sovereign Country is always also the attempted elimination of sovereign people. Settlement of this place—Gadigal/Wangal Country and the rest of so-called Australia—is a technological and infrastructural project led by extraction. Image-making practices play a big role in this.

SHJ: I can see how my focus on Cézanne reductively inscribes a museological, settler subjectivity onto the work. Now that museums around the world are beginning to digitise their physical archives, I’m interested to know how DIGGERMODE articulates that museological compulsion to understand the world through its multifarious representations, and the storing of those representations as archives.  

JSS: I question the intentions of museums in their aims of digitisation, take for instance the scanning of an artifact ‘discovered’ or rather stolen from a First Nations community 200 years ago. Its reproduction as a digital ‘asset’ stands in place of actual repatriation or the transfer of materials from one group to another. Or the reproduction of some outdated digital media system like a videogame from the 90s. This is articulated as ‘preservation’ when really they’re making a copy and increasing their collection holdings rather than reducing them. DIGGERMODE questions these approaches to museum infrastructure, which all have one thing in common: they are based not in aesthetics, art history or museology, but in the operations of technology companies that power planetary scale digital platforms.

 + DIGGERMODE (still) Joel Sherwood Spring, 2022. Commissioned by ACMI. Courtesy of the artist. Two channel video.

SHJ: DIGGERMODE includes a speech made by Ronald Reagan in Moscow in 1988. In it he hails the oncoming information and technological revolution for exiting an economy confined to the Earth’s resources, breaking through the material conditions of existence and entering into an economy of the mind. Popular rhetoric has labored very hard to create a separation between digital technologies and the material resources mined from the earth that sustain them. This separation allows the discourse around new tech to be produced from a position of environmental sustainability. Could you talk a little bit about the ways DIGGERMODE complicates these claims?

JSS: We live in the world that mining the earth of its resources has made. The physical materiality of ’the cloud’ is now well articulated, but the trope of technocaptalism and how it de-materialises or invisibilises itself and other Western, extractive practices to obscure the ugliest parts of its supply chains, plays a part in the ideologies that drive the extraction of lithium and other critical minerals. Lithium is a key component of batteries and is hugely valuable to the global energy transition away from oil and coal, but it also provides green public relations to the same old extractivist practices. In Australia today those who extract lithium present it as a step towards a decarbonised planetary body. And yet to extract lithium requires the destruction of another kind of body—body of Country. Lithium is a lot like almond milk in that it is presented as more ethical in its commodity form, a step away from the carbon emission-intensive coal or cattle farming. But in order to mine lithium and grow almonds huge amounts of land and water are needed. They are similar in other ways too… Lithium and almonds are both white, so is wool and rice. Artistically I’m interested in how else to draw down or draw out the similarities between these products, whether they be ideological or exist along the colour spectrum. Reagan’s speech is notable for its mobilisation of a myth of progress that has been central to European conceptions of time since the Enlightenment: The general trajectory of industrial technology into a computational integrated circuit, the connection of multiple computers to each other over the internet and then the creation of large bodies of data that can be sucked up into neural networks and used to train and create AI. 

 + DIGGERMODE (still) Joel Sherwood Spring, 2022. Commissioned by ACMI. Courtesy of the artist. Two channel video.

SHJ: In an early section of the work an interview with an archivist at ACMI reveals that there had been attempts to teach a computer to catalogue archival material through machine learning. What they found was that the computer was only good at identifying ‘white, middle-class stuff’. During a later scene, we see the computational identification of multiple white, middle-class individuals as ‘persons’ in footage taken from Scott Morrison’s infamous coal speech, made in Parliament. As the work seems to say to us directly at one point: ‘I am a geo-social formation of extraction, just like you...’ This is a question about the subjectivity of the material, technological apparatus that constitutes DIGGERMODE itself: How do you understand the work’s own subjecthood, and how has it been formed?  

JSS: I think the question of subjecthood is interesting with regards to LLM (Large Language Models) or other image recognition algorithms. These AI tools are trained off of huge amounts of data to produce tools that are capable of making statistically-informed guesses: from which word should come next in a sentence, to how two images are similar. Often they produce pretty atemporal readings of images. For example, if you show DenseCap images of Juukan Gorge before and after Rio Tinto blew it up, you get almost identical descriptions—‘the earth is red’, ‘peaceful landscape’, ‘the sky is blue’. While these are ‘true’ statements they aren’t meaningful or important because AI tools like DenseCap aren’t trained to analyse an image any further. I’m paranoid of all these ideas reading as dated now, but realistically DIGGERMODE was made in the second half of 2022, a time when questions about sentience were being raised with regards to the LLM now widely known as ChatGPT. This sort of speculation continues to be very lucrative. So I set out to use a similar jailbroken GPT model as a tool to speculate with. If these tools can mimic sentience could I ask it who its mob was? If all data is being collected by a distributed network of devices powered by batteries made from lithium extracted from Atacama or Nyoongar Boodja, training AIs stored and regulated on semiconductors produced from silicon refined on Worimi and Awabakal Country—does it know where it comes from? The affordance of subjecthood by those in power means lots of things but it also doesn’t mean a lot of things.

SHJ: Sonically, was there a particular voice that you were hoping to lend the work at times through the popular culture that it references? I’m thinking about the inclusion of Dean Blunt’s Meditation, released as one of his aliases Babyfather, and the chopped and screwed version of The Warumpi Band’s Blackfella/Whitefella.   

JSS: Maybe ‘tones’ were something I considered more than a voice. I'm drawn to questions about how the frame and the lens produce language or meaning. So structurally I've tried to work through different tones and how materials are mediated on different screens. The question of the sonic in constituting a ‘voice’ or speech is something I think a lot about. From a Wiradjuri or non-western perspective I think a lot of things speak, but even in the west non-speaking subjects like companies or rivers are now afforded rights. Whether human rights are sufficient in affording protections is debatable. When you train an LLM AI model its ‘voice’ is a predictive algorithm built from the texts its trained from, this skews towards an authoritative, ‘white’ male voice unless deliberately challenged. 

 + DIGGERMODE (still) Joel Sherwood Spring, 2022. Commissioned by ACMI. Courtesy of the artist. Two channel video.

SHJ: At the time of this interview, DIGGERMODE is showing at UTS gallery as the centerpiece of an exhibition that you’ve put together titled Objects Testify. The video discusses the work of Albert Namatjira for its political potential within the Western legal and heritage systems, as evidence of Arrernte connection to Country that refutes the colonial fantasy of land possession. It is a testament to Namatjira’s very deliberate practice that the political autonomy of his images is relatively unique on these shores. Since the Royal Commission in 1992, there have been 551 Indigenous deaths in custody with zero convictions. Many of these instances have been captured with image-making technology. Elsewhere we have seen countless images of the destruction of Country and the very real effects of climate change here, yet prevailing attitudes towards the environment remain the same. Clearly, the images being produced under extractive conditions are not working how we would like them to. DIGGERMODE features imagery produced by an AI system. What is the political potential of these new images to carry on the work of Albert Namatjira?

JSS: I think images of violence on the scale of the individual or the ecological work very well with regards to their circulation/virality. I think regarding awareness-raising, an image put into circulation on a platform like Instagram / X  may convert into an educational resource or some individual action somewhere down the line. I don’t think these images translate to much else when the political aims of settler Australia are geared towards liberal consensus and representative diversity over any real form of solidarity—class, racial or otherwise. In addressing your examples of setter-colonial violence done onto people and Country it comes back to Sovereignty. If property is an exclusive right then the only way it is sustained is through its protection, its security, its carcerality, its policing. It’s actually impossible for property retention and accumulation to exist without these things, things we usually think of as non-market actors existing as extensions of the state. But what we find when we think of a capitalist state is that they aren’t separate from capital at all. Namatjira’s family are carrying on the work of Albert Namatjira at Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre in Alice Springs. Much like Albert’s work they really expertly weave the depictions of their country with questions of ecological limits and property development. The Deepfake Namatjira’s in DIGGERMODE are examples of how these LLM tools are bound by our own epistemic horizons.

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