persistence of vision: Brandon A. Dalmer


As climate crisis, the collapse of capitalism, and other harbingers of apocalypse threaten our species’ existence, our cultural imaginary often looks beyond our little planet to conceptualize the future. In this vein, Brandon Dalmer’s installation artwork Persistence of Vision takes us through interactive spaces and asks us to imagine a different kind of world, mediated by lo-fi video clips—a machinic form of art—that cycle through images of asteroids, planets, and gridded landscapes. While most of the installation is either fabricated or generated through an algorithmic process, the interactivity ensures that no two groups will experience Persistence of Vision in quite the same way: the potential futures are multiple.

Dalmer’s work asks us to consider moments of contingency in seemingly deterministic systems, that is, where clear causality is ruptured through chance or human vagaries. As your group gathers around the machine, you collectively choose what shows up on the screen. Through these selections, you can glean a sense of the many cycles in our world and solar system and implicate yourselves within them, becoming more aware of how algorithms and cycles—from days and seasons to the innards of smart phones—govern our existence.

Cycles repeat, but not in the same way. Entropy unravels trajectories almost imperceptibly; stray bodies interfere. How can we account for those small contingencies that accumulate over time and amplify with each repetition? More fundamentally, how do we relinquish the illusion of control and embrace what we cannot avoid? Celestial bodies move in cycles but collision is inevitable.

Yet what if asteroid collision is not something to be feared but rather embraced? What if the end of our species that such an event would bring about is not extinction but rather evolution or transformation? Asteroids could destroy the planet, but they also contain precious metals that could accelerate technological development.

In Persistence of Vision, space and asteroids stand in for what Dalmer views as the inevitability of automation: the technological development so beloved by capitalism could bring around its end. If automation results in the end of wage labour, what impact would this radical change in production have on social relations? Would we explore the universe and pursue self-actualization like in Star Trek, become blobs exiled from our garbage planet and carried around in chairs like in Wall-E, or indistinguishable from AI like in Blade Runner or Westworld?

In light of this pervasive automation, Dalmer asks the audience to consider whether a robot could replace humans in the realm of artistic creation. Can a program create something of artistic merit if it cannot exceed the bounds of its programming? What if a human calculated randomness into the algorithm? What forms of contingencies count for artistic creation? Does it have to come from some emotional core or is it sufficient that it represent the world in a novel way? Dalmer’s art does not endeavour to answer these questions here but rather to pry them open, and in the process make us open to the incalculable future—collision, automation, and even apocalypse—not as a threat but as a radically new and potentially beneficial configuration.

Dalmer posits his artwork as a collaborative creation; the programmed inputs and outputs of the algorithms form the basis of the work but the human interactivity affords variability in the audience’s emotional responses and interpretation. Moving through the installation space also requires audiences to consider their own embodiment. Indeed, this work takes its name from the optical illusion that occurs within the brain when observing repeated images, and thus it asks us to experience our bodies also as contingent systems that mediate our consciousness and the environment. Persistence of Vision foregrounds themes of determinism and contingency, imperfect cyclicality, humans and technology, artistic creation, and our changing place in the universe by moving us through spaces that confront our assumptions and open up future possibilities.

Shama Rangwala is a PhD candidate and instructor at the University of Alberta and editor of the culture and politics blog Pyriscence.

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