By VITTORIA BENZINE, July 2021
Imagine the Wild West of the early World Wide Web, compared with the well-oiled hyper-virtual machine of this post-pandemic world. Canadian conceptual artist and curator Doug Jarvis has asked questions of this inexorable progress at every stage, treating new technologies like new mediums. Raised in Toronto and based in Victoria, BC, his inquiries serve a quiet duty that artists have engaged with for generations.
The son of a school principal, Jarvis enjoyed access to gadgets like video cameras from an early age. “I got to play with them,” he recalled to me over video chat. By the early 1990s Jarvis followed these explorations into his undergraduate studies at the University of Western Ontario, where he continued working with cameras. Jarvis wasn’t interested in video art itself, but the art that could be made using video devices. Conscious beings commonly take perspective for granted. Jarvis wanted to play with his. He began building armatures, attaching cameras to his head and walking around the mall, taking footage and making spectacle. Raised as a “songster” in the Salvation Army, he simultaneously flexed his ability to keep cool.
For his undergraduate final project, Jarvis built an opaque plexiglass ball called the Viewing Sphere. Participants would step inside and be pushed through the mall, a video camera and monitor acting as their eyes. “You were looking through this mediated experience,” Jarvis explained. The Viewing Sphere proved a powerful, simple method to simulate consciousness’s perspective of viewing life through the body it’s trapped in—without the arduous task of leaving that body.
He began working with Open Space Gallery shortly after relocating to Victoria in 2001. There, he learned from Bill Bartlett, an early pioneer of slow scan video. Bartlett had worked with his own colleagues to humanize rising telecom technologies since the 1970s, connecting artists with devices for purposes of creation rather than surveillance, conquest, and commerce. Jarvis and his collaborators tapped into this history, merging with existing efforts at the critical moment of the dot com boom and all that followed. In 2005, Jarvis, Jeremy Turner and Todd Davis presented at the Banff Centre’s first REFRESH Conference on the history of new media. The next year, virtual world Second Life swept the globe.
“This is 2006,” Jarvis chuckled. “You could order your Domino's Pizza through Second Life.” At the Banff, Jarvis met Scott Kildall, an artist considering recreating performance art references in Second Life. Soon, Jarvis, Kildall, and their global network of colleagues founded Second Front, a performance group staging original performances in Second Life. With Second Front, Jarvis no longer served as subject like he had with the armature work—his avatar activated the art in his stead. But similar to the armature project, Jarvis was intrigued by Second Life’s cameras, which provided the view of his avatar. He got slick with the keystrokes, adjusting the cameras’ angles, practicing like any diligent performer.
While common consciousness considers the digital less real than “reality,” Jarvis noticed tangible manifestations of his extensive time spent in virtual spaces. He recalled sitting home at two in the morning waiting for a live performance on the other side of the world to commence, getting nervous in the lead up. “I‘m just pushing buttons and moving my avatar on the screen,” he pointed out, but the sensation prevailed. He sometimes tried to control the 3D world like Second Life. “You start to see that these digital environments are a part of our world,” Jarvis said.
Second Front grew into a generative project. The group took footage of their performances, to post on their blog and YouTube Channel. However, Second Life ultimately faded away like so many fads of that fast-paced era. “We had done what we wanted to do,” Jarvis said. These artists were simply exploring, looking for the boundaries. Feedback on the hypnotic, sometimes unsettling nature of their performances gave rich information about society’s delineations in this unchartered virtual realm.
At the aughts’ end, Jarvis earned his MFA at the University of Guelph. He encountered the Belly Brain project by Toronto-based Barbara Balfour in Technologies of Intuition. Jarvis became enamored of the unrecognized potential that lies in the gut—an actual entity with neurons and computing power comparable to a cat brain. “I always knew of the gut reaction or gut feeling, but I hadn't read of it being identified in this certain way,” Jarvis said.
This new inspiration laid bare the paradox of locating his own body within his practice. “How do you build a relationship with a non-material entity in this way?” Jarvis asked. First he tried wearing a brainwave sensor around his own belly, procured with help from colleagues at Noxious Sector. The Gut Reaction series elaborated on this relationship as the artist began talking to his belly brain, reaching out to it.
So far these explorations have culminated with The Doughnut Eaters, which pairs the belly brain with different projects around the doughnut mythology of WWI. Members of the Salvation Army Donut Lassies would bake doughnuts for soldiers on the front lines. “That care and attention in such an extreme context was meant to provide the nostalgic moment for the soldiers to step outside of the immediate horror that they were in,” Jarvis explained. Through the escape provided by physical senses, the belly brain becomes a portal for the de-materialized self, capable of time and space travel like an avatar.
While Jarvis’s unconventional, even dubious mediums challenge popular notions of art’s possibilities, the viewer/participant grounds his work. Jarvis was taught that art must breach the artist’s own space to become art. It should be shared and subject to multiple interpretations. “The interest to other people is that they can participate in their own realm,” Jarvis explained. His creative demonstrations provide new avenues for contemplation.
While the work can be complicated, he sticks with it, committed to expanding the range of his own perspective. Jarvis’s practice is presently winding him through animation, sculpture, and installation elements. On the personal front, he and his wife used the pandemic to transition to a plant-based lifestyle. He’s given up food and habits whose absence once felt unfathomable.“That type of openness to experimentation, even though I'm super nervous to do it, relates to the practice,” Jarvis intimated. “If you don't think about the world in creative ways, how are you going to get what art is about? How do you open yourself up to that way of being—being curious and being open to those possibilities?”
As society progresses at its ever-quickening rate, collective curiosity can save the train from running off its rails. Curiosity’s opposites—apathy or powerlessness—keep technology concentrated in the hands of power. Regarding reality as an emergent phenomenon stops circumstances from killing curiosity. “We are still walking around as these cellular structures,” Jarvis said. “We haven't gotten rid of that yet” Until then, he creates on—interacting and learning within the network as far as its boundaries have evolved. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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