Theo Triantafyllidis & Slugabed Present: Still Life With Platypus
Still Life With Platypus, a Fact original commission, sees Theo Triantafyllidis and producer and sound artist Slugabed navigating a series of increasingly complex and surreal vanitases.
Though Still Life With Platypus marks the first time artist Theo Triantafyllidis and Slugabed have collaborated, the London-based producer’s singular sound has influenced Triantafyllidis’s work from the beginning. “I love Slugabed’s music,” says Triantafyllidis, “it’s been a major influence for me that has in some ways made it into some of my works, even though we hadn’t collaborated before.” The multi-faceted work is the latest iteration of the artist’s ongoing experiments with real-time reactive visuals, as part of which he has collaborated with Sun Araw on Velocity Holomatrix Warp 7, a fully playable, interactive experience, as well as with Giant Claw, on the video for ‘Until Mirror’. “I had been developing this system for live audiovisual performances where I could have these scenes built in a game engine, as well as a MIDI input and an audio input that gets plugged into the engine, that can then control all these graphics,” he explains. “Together with some real time triggers and keys, I could be performing the graphics together with a musician. There is something interesting about making both these audiovisual performances and also stand alone videos where I don’t have complete control of how things are going, but it’s more like a collaboration with a system where we are both performing and the end result is more of a performance than it is a pre-recorded, very carefully timelined thing.” This newly commissioned version of Still Life With Platypus sees Triantafyllidis and Slugabed navigating a series of increasingly complex and surreal vanitases, ultra high detail assemblages of crab legs, apricot halves, esoteric knight’s helmets, glowing mesh nets, lit cigarettes and tree trunks, as well as the titular Platypus, revolving and reacting to Slugabed’s atmospheric score.
Triantafyllidis’s preoccupation with the vanitas can be traced back to a much earlier work, How To Everything, with which Still Life With Platypus, which was originally commissioned by Amsterdam’s NXT Museum, shares some playful DNA. In that work the artist attempted to create an algorithm that could generate a theoretically infinite sequence of visually amusing arrangements, a technological inversion of an artistic form historically associated with more existential themes. “Traditionally used to refer to a type of still life painting popular in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century, the term ‘vanitas’ now describes art that meditates on the ephemeral character of earthly pleasures and worldly accomplishments, and highlights the fragility of our desires in the face of the inevitability of death,” writes Triantafyllidis in a text accompanying How To Everything. Rather than a sombre monument to the transience of life, How To Everything and Still Life With Platypus both represent the artist’s darkly funny vision of the flattened, technologically mediated, eternal expanse of the now, what he describes as “devices, animals and plants all connected. Always on, always augmented.” A constantly evolving contradiction made manifest, Still Life With Platypus subverts the traditional function of the vanitas and still life painting, eschewing the loaded symbolism of everyday objects contrasted with skulls and gold coins and instead demonstrating that, thought possibilities of computational art might be infinite, the freedom to create everything doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything. “Fragments of today’s internet culture are treated as archeological finds that are repurposed to fit the needs of artificial life,” writes Triantafyllidis. “YouTube ‘How To’ videos, trompe-l’œil, video game artifacts and computer graphic demos inform this new language of painting, hopping around the uncanny valley. The result is a never-ending orgy. Just like in real life.”
As with Triantafyllidis’s explorations with computational humour in his live simulation and performance works, Still Life With Platypus serves as sustained reflection on the complex nature of comedy and the difficulties computers have with analysing and generating things that are genuinely funny. “I’ve been spending a lot of time reading all these research papers about computer scientists trying to make a machine that tells a joke,” he says. “I’m trying to think about how they are trying to completely deconstruct humour. Humour is this bizarre thing that when you deconstruct it immediately stops being funny and stops being effective. This is an interesting paradox.” Rather than attempt to take it apart, Triantafyllidis stays tapped in to the never-ending orgy of life online, carefully arranging absurd assemblages highlighting the inherent, cosmic humour of internet aesthetics. Though a computer might not be able to make you laugh on purpose, watching it try is often even funnier. As Slugabed’s wonky synths lurch into motion and a ghostly arthropod glides overhead, Triantafyllidis’s techno-vanitases refuse to stay still. As snatches of modulated voices, detuned piano and squalls of noise announce themselves, a virtual garden of delicate flowers blooms amongst a suspension of purple gloop. The titular platypus springs forth, its slightly upturned beak flashing an approximation of a smile, a knowing, anthropomorphic grin directed at whoever might be trying to make any sense of its impossible surroundings. Better to relax into the somnambulant sounds of Slugabed, float free like the platypus you want to see in the (physical) world.