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Dataforms: destroying analog in search of digital beauty

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For the best part of a decade, Ed Spence has created original artworks by rearranging large photos and (reprints of) paintings into pixelated collages.

As a teen, Spence drew inspiration from his father's fascination with fractal visualizations; the notion that one can experiment with digital information to create something original and beautiful has stuck.

In an interview with The Verge, Spence cites a show at New York's contemporary Deitch Projects gallery as a major influence on his work. Super Mario Movie is a 15-minute video in which Mario explored an unfinished, dystopian video game, created by hacking an original NES cartridge. "I think it planted a seed in my head that got me thinking about working with preexisting art and making it your own."

One part analog, one part digital, Spence's work is informed by contemporary artists like Tim Hawkinson, who creates complex sculptures often from the most basic of materials. Just as Hawkinson has refined his style over the years, Spence's dataforms have morphed from variations on a theme to striking, abstract collages.

Initially the final dataforms were quite literal; thin, pixelated lines cutting through a largely untampered image, or squares of rearranged pixels that, from a distance, could perhaps be missed. But with his most recent works, Spence is perfecting his art. Rather than subtle, pixelated aberrations, Spence's dataforms are now vast swathes of pixels forming abstract studies on the original material.

  • Each piece starts with a photo or artwork. The Verge. "Maybe it's the colors, or the subject matter and composition that lends itself perfectly to the process. Other times, I have to search out content for an idea I have. Sometimes I will take the photos myself if the project demands it."" src="http://cdn0.vox-cdn.com/entry_photo_images/9291829/1_EdSpence_GridDissolution_verge_super_wide.jpg" title="">

    Each piece starts with a photo or artwork. "Sometimes I come across an image that just resonates with me," Spence tells The Verge. "Maybe it's the colors, or the subject matter and composition that lends itself perfectly to the process. Other times, I have to search out content for an idea I have. Sometimes I will take the photos myself if the project demands it."

  • After choosing or creating a subject to work with, Spence hand-sketches "dozens of variations" on what the final artwork could look like, slowly narrowing down his vision and refining the proportions as much as possible.

    After choosing or creating a subject to work with, Spence hand-sketches "dozens of variations" on what the final artwork could look like, slowly narrowing down his vision and refining the proportions as much as possible.

  • The next step in his process is to painstakingly cut the image into

    The next step in his process is to painstakingly cut the image into "pixels" ranging in size from 0.1 to 1 square inches. "This is done with a ruler and a utility knife or scissors. While I'm cutting it into pieces, I'll simultaneously be sorting the fragments into color spectrums. The logic of the spectrum is a mix of completely objective visual calculations (based on hue, saturation, and brightness), and some intuitive aesthetic choices."

  • "Depending on what effect I'm looking to create, the spectrum will vary in organizational accuracy and placement of color bands. I'm basically defining how the original color palette will be expressed."

  • "Prior to 2012, I was only using found prints. The imagery was predetermined and I was only able to use what was available. This was a fun restriction, but the result had its limitations."

    "Prior to 2012, I was only using found prints. The imagery was predetermined and I was only able to use what was available. This was a fun restriction, but the result had its limitations."

  • In Spring 2012, Spence began to capture his own photographs, giving him greater control of the creative process. He also began to adhere his work to wood panels, which made them more stable and long lasting. "That shift in scale and materials forced me to reconsider my work in the context of historical abstraction and its relationship to the architecture that traditionally surrounds it."

    In Spring 2012, Spence began to capture his own photographs, giving him greater control of the creative process. He also began to adhere his work to wood panels, which made them more stable and long lasting. "That shift in scale and materials forced me to reconsider my work in the context of historical abstraction and its relationship to the architecture that traditionally surrounds it."

  • While Spence's past pieces subverted small sections of larger artworks, his latest pieces take a two-panel format, with a slice of the original image accompanied by an abstract dataform.
    "These oppositions led me to consider adopting a contiguous two-panel format. There is also a narrative before and after element suggested in the two panels which, I believe, leads to a more transparent process. There is a certain satisfaction that one gets while unravelling the mystery of how the image was created."" src="http://cdn1.vox-cdn.com/entry_photo_images/9291791/7_EdSpence_KelownaAerialDissolve_verge_super_wide.jpg" title="">

    While Spence's past pieces subverted small sections of larger artworks, his latest pieces take a two-panel format, with a slice of the original image accompanied by an abstract dataform. "The affect of my work is largely contingent on binary oppositions: representational vs. abstract; allusions to binary code; intangible vs. material; corporeal vs. metaphysical."

    "These oppositions led me to consider adopting a contiguous two-panel format. There is also a narrative before and after element suggested in the two panels which, I believe, leads to a more transparent process. There is a certain satisfaction that one gets while unravelling the mystery of how the image was created."

  • The most recent dataforms focus on beach scenes and poolside swimmers, found in vintage tourism magazines from Spence's home province of British Columbia.

    The most recent dataforms focus on beach scenes and poolside swimmers, found in vintage tourism magazines from Spence's home province of British Columbia.

  • "At this point in my practice I'm trying to resist having any conclusive and readily apparent meaning in my pieces," says Spence. "I have little control over what meaning anyone draws from my work. I want the work to take on a life of its own beyond my expectations. There are certain things I'm shooting for, but I'd rather let the viewer discover them on their own — I would like it to instill in them a sense of intense curiosity."


All images copyright Ed Spence.

You can find more of Ed Spence's dataforms — and his other work — on his Tumblr.

The Verge
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