Uploading your whole online existence to the cloud is straightforward enough. Picturing the servers where your data finally winds up, however, is a much more hazy proposition. Where are these mysterious computers designed to house our messages and pictures, and how do we know they exist? Rachel Adams’ Lowlight speculates about the cryptic nature of these monolithic hard drives scattered across the globe, backing up our files incessantly while always remaining out of sight. Running in parallel with another exhibition – Noon at the David Dale Gallery in Glasgow – the project tests out ideas about the crossovers of automation, physical labour and nature, with the concept of data storage looming like a spectre throughout.
Manifestations of ‘The Cloud’ surface in several of the works. ‘Hidden Hardware’ is a structure composed of patchwork cloth across a timber frame, a motley assemblage of bolts and grids integrated into its otherwise amorphous surface. It sprawls across the gallery floor like an ominous subterranean network, bristling with data. While ‘Continuous Noon II’ also looks as though it has been ripped from the bowels of a giant machine, the effect is mediated by its more decorative tie-dyed surface. It could be that the integration of fabric is a way of accentuating the physical matter of the apparatus, hinting at the binding and weaving processes necessary to the construction of machinery as well as textiles. If we are used to thinking of The Cloud as some sort of esoteric off-screen character, then these works begin to re-configure it as part of a concrete chain of labour.
The interaction between natural and fabricated forms is articulated further in the work ‘Lowlight’, a series of lamps strung throughout the space. Delicate cabbage leaves encase the bulbs, their organic beauty initially seems at odds with the more starkly industrial presence of other works. It is only when you examine the lamps more closely that their fragility is undermined; they are acrylic light fixtures, as synthetic as the rest of the objects in the room. They are also its only light source, meaning that the show’s viewing conditions are mainly determined by natural sunlight. If you turn up on a sober and muted October afternoon, then the work will in turn feel sober and muted. They exist within, and not outside of, an ecosystem.
Adams continues to question the collision of natural and automated forms with ‘Saboteur (Pepper Moths)’, a series of moth silhouettes scattered across the gallery walls. These are a subtle nod to the first literal ‘computer bug’, logged in 1947 when a moth flew into some machinery and caused it to short circuit. Pepper moths have a history of interactions with technological progress, by all accounts – during the Industrial Revolution they darkened their wings to blend in more effectively with smog. This might suggest that we aren’t the only species having to reformat.
Lowlight picks up on the fact that the work behind technological developments often eludes mainstream understanding. ‘My Monster’ breaks from sculpture and in the form of a framed photograph of trailblazing computer programmer Grace Hopper, who was responsible for some major innovations to coding. The image acts as a sort of compass to the works, a tacit reminder of the engineering and intensive labour that underpins the technologies we rely on today. This human presence acts as a counterpoint to the bleak anonymity of the rest of the works, reminding us that mechanical systems, even at their most opaque, are nevertheless the product of someone’s elbow grease.
This exhibition doesn’t preach about the onslaught of technology, nor warn us about the dark satanic servers hoarding our photos. The dismembered hardware and repurposed cabbages are presented as part of the same whole. By divorcing these objects from their original contexts, Adams is honest about the ambivalent nature of our relationship with electronic devices and Cloud storage, and challenges us to question how the communication systems we so actively partake in remain so persistently unknown.
Lowlight runs at block projects 6-27 October 2018.
Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.