Insider Series: Scott Billings

Adrienne Fast

Looking at and thinking through the work of Vancouver-based, multi-disciplinary artist Scott Billings, I’m reminded of the thin line between skepticism and paranoia. Through an orchestrated performance of computer programming, sculpture, video, and installation, what Billings seems to be creating above all is a sense of uncertainty: how am I seeing that? is it real? His work begs the questions, then burrows into a tantalizing tunnel of conspiracy theories that makes the viewer distrust their own perception, emptying out the distinction between real and unreal in the first place. That is to say, his works are stimulating and unsettling thought experiments, that also happen to be fascinating to watch.

For a number of years, Billings’ work has looked at the intersections and interactions between machines, technology, and human beings as a way to question whether we are truly able to distinguish between such categories, whether in actuality our perception fails when fine distinctions are being made. In A Risky Jump (2015) he implicated the vertical movement of an elaborate steel and aluminum mechanical rig with the fall of his own body through a trapdoor in his studio, suggesting a connection between the mechanical video apparatus and the bodily figure it presented. By recording the fall in 7500 frames per second and playing it back in ultra-slow motion, the work also triggered “an alternate state of perception in which our relationship to time and space changed drastically.”[1] Both when it was exhibited at WAAP and at the Surrey Art Gallery, the work was striking for its use of an elaborate structural and engineered apparatus to make the viewer question their own ability to perceive accurately. That the mechanics of Billings’ artworks can be prone to glitches may frustrate the artist, but it nevertheless reinforces the idea of a mimetic relationship between our own failed perception and a machine’s ability to perform.

For his most recent work produced during the BAF residency, Billings continues to use complex mechanical devices and elaborate computer programming to prod at the unreliable nature of human perception and its relationship to the digital. He does this in part now by evoking the zoetrope: an early cinematic device that tricked the eye into seeing a moving image by flashing still images in a rapid sequence. Both the zoetrope and later forms of film essentially “slice” the lived reality of a fluid movement of time into increasing numbers of still images per second, creating a false perception of movement where none exists. For BAF, the artist leans into the slicing metaphor by introducing an actual industrial meat slicer. In Meat Slicer Zoetrope (Ring of Fire), the hefty machine shunts back and forth, shining a laser over a series of 3-D printed models in order to animate them into a (perceived) constant loop of movement that goes endlessly forward and backward in time. The models themselves are small-scale replicas of rings of fire, and it turns out that watching fire ripple forward and backward in time is even more visually disruptive than the slow-motion falling of the artist’s body. Moreover, the digital eye and mind are as bad at parsing fire’s visual data as human mechanics are: these 3-D models, created in collaboration with Vancouver artist Chris Mills, are an attempt to make computer programming render the “surface” of fire through the use of what Billings calls an “algorithmic ruse,” that first makes the fire think it’s smoke, “then gaslights the fire into believing it’s fluid.” The result is an uncanny copy of an idea communicated through a flawed system of signs that is perceived by the eye in an unreliable manner. This is exactly where we hope to find ourselves when viewing and thinking about the work of Billings: tripping down an endless epistemological descent as flawed perception folds into flawed representation, but all the time watching a fascinating orchestration of machine/human/digital functions. What more could one ask for?

[1] Ariane Noel de Tilly, Whitehot Magazine, June 2015.

Adrienne Fast is currently the Curator of Art & Visual Culture at The Reach Gallery Museum Abbotsford. Before joining The Reach in 2018, she held positions as Interim Curator of the Kamloops Art Gallery and Assistant Curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery. She has a PhD in art history from the University of British Columbia and an MA in art history from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Join us for the opening of Scott Billings ‘Flat Moon’ on Friday, June 14th at BAF Gallery from 7-11pm.