There is nothing futuristic about cyberspace. The virtual is so integral to collective and individual functioning that it’s become unremarkable, even mundane. So much of our daily connection takes place here that at times, it renders physical reality uncomfortable – cumbersome and anxiety-inducing in contrast to the comforting, self-determined digital spaces we inhabit.
This is why, for Michael Edward Miller, the real is radical. A childhood spent immersed in virtuality, especially video games, established these spaces as home. Here, self-expression was safer, and the voice, body and talent could be used to affect one’s environment in ways that didn’t feel possible in the “real world”. In the game, the constructed body avatar can affect and change itself and its surroundings, and action moves forward towards a clear goal. The game is more rewarding and less messy than the real world.
This is the source of Miller’s artistic focus on interactivity – perhaps the defining feature of his new site-specific installation, We were once here. By recreating this empowerment in meatspace, Miller brings liberation not only to the environment’s actual visitors, but to the past or interior self who existed most authentically online. The installation invites them out into materiality, where they can interact and connect while cocooned in the safety previously felt only virtually.
For Miller, 2020’s residency and exhibition at BAF presented a unique challenge. He may have always sought refuge in cyberspace – but this past year, so did the rest of us, more than ever before. Under the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual touch doesn’t just feel safer: it is safer. In many ways, our childlike fears of the world outside were confirmed this year. In this context, Miller had to find a way to create space for interconnection that contended with entirely new standards of safety.
We were once here is a stage – a blank space for its viewer to creatively project upon. Miller constructed it using two specialized types of paint with oppositional qualities, each amplifying and supporting the other. Black 3.0 absorbs light, creating a flattened, featureless surface that recedes infinitely away from the eye. LIT pigment does the opposite – it is a powerful light emitter, radiating back out the light that it absorbs into a luminescent neon glow.
The stage of We were once here is created by the tension between the two materials. Black 3.0 frames and pushes forward the clean glowing surface which seems to float on the gallery wall, inviting the viewer to mark it. This is the way that Miller has found for us to affect our surroundings safely – through light and shadow. A UV light in front of the installation blinks on and off, charging it with luminescence. As we pass in front of the wall, our bodies leave lingering traces that do things our physical bodies can’t – dance together, touch hands, hug our loved ones.
We were once here is an elusive and mysterious thing – a material space with qualities of the virtual. At the simplest level, it’s paint on a wall, and yet its aesthetic of clean lines, high contrast, and saturated tones is that of virtual, immaterial space, specifically the early Internet. Rather than appearing futuristic, the effect for Miller is nostalgia, calling up the vividly pixelated environments where he and many others of his generation felt so comfortable growing up.
We were once here straddles these two realms, bringing the safety and empowerment of virtual space into our complex and messy material world. On this glowing 2-dimensional stage, we can express ourselves, connect with others, and change the world around us through projected avatars of light and shadow.
Exhibition text by Genevieve Michaels