Mediums and Messages: Julie Freeman and the Art of Communication in a Digital Age
By Martin Kemp
(Excerpt from the Market Project book- find out how to buy it and read all the commissioned texts in full here.)
Some fifty years ago Marshall McLuhan assured us that ‘the medium is the message’. Regis Debray in his contemporaneous theory of ‘mediology’ argued that with modern media we are involved not so much with direct communication but with the nature of the transmission, which overlays any attempt to gain effective access to the original content. Although they were writing before the era of the internet and the explosion of electronic means of communication, the challenge of their ideas remains hugely pertinent. Julie Freeman’s work, which centres in complex and subtle ways on acts of transmitted communication, brings artistry to bear incisively on McLuhan’s and Debray’s hypotheses.
Their pronouncements are rendered both productive and inadequate by Freeman’s explorations in image, sound and object. Artists first began to grapple with digital technologies during the period in which McLuhan and Debray were bringing their ideas into the public domain, and we are no longer surprised to encounter ‘computer art’. What sets Freeman apart from the customary exploitation of digital technologies in art is that she engages deeply with the actual processes of the production and communication of knowledge. She tunnels beneath the surfaces of perception, recording, representation and reception to bring the underlying mechanisms to our attention, not only in the technological sense but also in terms of their psychological dimensions. She becomes in effect a critical insider in the realms of science and technology rather than an external commentator. To do this, she has a grasp of the science of computing itself that is exceptional amongst artists.
A clear demonstration of the insider nature of her collaboration with scientists is the paper she co-authored with Jeremy Ramsden, Professor of Nanotechnology at Cranfield University, who is himself very alert to problems of representation in the ‘unseeable’ worlds of the extremely small. Their paper (Nanotechnology Perceptions 5, 2009, 3–25) asks the ‘simple’ question of how we define the nanoscale. The basic answer is that it covers anything below 100nm. This answer is both precise and arbitrary.
Martin Kemp FBA is Emeritus Professor in the History of Art at Trinity College, Oxford University. He was trained in Natural Sciences and Art History at Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute, London. Books include The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat, and The Human Animal in Western Art and Science. He has published extensively on Leonardo da Vinci, including the prize-winning Leonardo da Vinci. The marvellous works of nature and man.
Kemp has curated and co-curated a series of exhibitions on Leonardo and other themes, including Spectacular Bodies in the Hayward Gallery, London; Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment, Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum; Seduced: Sex and Art from Antiquity to Now, at the Barbican Art Gallery. He has written regularly for Nature, published as Visualisations and developed as Seen and Unseen in which his concept of ‘structural intuitions’ is explored.
His most recent book is Christ to Coke. How image becomes icon, which looks at 11 representatives of types of icons across a wide range of public imagery.