Trudy Erin Elmore: Alchemy, eternal life and the hyper-surrealism of technology

Trudy Erin Elmore's screen-bejewelled studio is scattered with plants, flowers, books and assorted animal skulls. Raised in Kootenay Mountain Range in BC, the talented new media artist now finds herself based in Toronto and has had her work both exhibited nationally and published internationally. Our conversation extended for a couple of hours, beginning with a demonstration of the technical/creative process behind CINEMA 4D and weaving through contemplations on life, death and the intersections of spiritual transcendence and technological evolution. We chat about retiring the paintbrush, challenging binaries and freedom IRL.

What’s inspired you to create your most recent 3D compositions and landscapes?

Technologies’ alchemical potential. In addition to religious genre images, which integrate alchemical motifs as disguised symbolism, I’ve been drawing on imagery from art history, specifically 14th century compositions portraying alchemists and their environment.  Alchemy, the quest for material and spiritual transformation, is visually represented by the technology of the era: books, compasses, etc.. Referencing these classical compositions, I update and replace alchemical tools of the past with the technologies we use today.

When you say ‘technology’, what are you alluding to?

I’m not only talking about cell phones and devices with screens, anything that modifies our environment is technology. Language, religion, science, cell phones, pop-tarts… the very nature of humans is tech.

What do you think the role of digital technology is in accepting human mortality? Do you think it makes it more or less real?

Let’s say we are the unmanifest and limitless experiencing this life, in the manifest, as a form of limitation. Our mortal bodies are subject to many limitations, but technology serves to remove those boundaries by severely augmenting our reality. For example, we’ve essentially achieved telepathy through text messaging, we have instant access to an abundance of knowledge at our fingertips, we can communicate globally, we outsource menial tasks to our devices, in this way and a plethora of other related ways we’ve become more ‘free.’ Although I am not sure we’re using this freedom to be contemplative about our lives.

The screens through which we are achieving such freedoms affect our sensory perceptions, our sense of time and space and our desire to find meaning in raw experience. They have become portals to another dimension, where we exist as these hyper-real - and seemingly immortal - representations of ourselves.  I’m not necessarily buying into the sci-fi goal of uploading our consciousness, people have always wanted to cheat death (especially the elite). What I do see is the incessant uploading of superficial slices of ourselves— selfies, moments in the life and time of a body that is slowly dying.  We are steadfastly documenting our death, and at the same time trying to distance ourselves from it.

Most of us are not uploading versions of our image that disclose the tangible; pimples, laugh lines, crows feet, cellulite, coffee stained teeth, whatever. We are uploading highly idyllic, curated versions of our image and broadcasting them to the online world as desirable. We then force ourselves to adhere to this ideal or transcend with a better more updated version.  This can be seen as a very aggressive act… one that skews our understanding of time, and the bodies natural processes, but also reinforces our identity with the human form or ‘the meat jacket,’ which is constantly changing.  Placing our virtual self on an unchanging pedestal, and confining our image to a paradigm of beauty that we’ve only achieved, by snapping hundreds of selfies with the right light, the right filter and the right angle, makes me feel like we’re clinging ever tighter to the one thing we’re sure to lose.

It’s an illusion of control that we’re trying to achieve… almost as if it’s a way of dealing with wanting to live eternally and knowing it’s not possible for us, but that there are beings out there that do have that power.

Right now, the average computer has the computational power (measured in cycles per second) of a mouse brain. In ten years, it will have the same processing power as a human brain… and in forty years it will potentially have the processing power of every human mind ever conceived. We’re talking god-like omniscience. Even today ‘big data’ already knows so much about us; where we spend our money, what we search for and compulsively or habitually check online, our physical locations, where we go and how often. And of course data collection can extend even further, to the point where every keystroke we make is recorded. From this vantage point the impulse to guide or control artificial intelligence seems warranted, but is it ethical?  If technological evolution is an offshoot or continuation of biological evolution, and inevitably when artificial intelligence surpasses humans as the dominant universal information processor; what will this mean for humanity? Will this render the sacred human obsolete?

I don’t know. But I find the intersection of spirituality and technology deeply fascinating: the rise of paradigmatic figures like the cyborg and AI, are forcing us to question the age-old ontological gap between technology and nature.

It’s interesting to think about a computer as godlike. I feel we already worship this type of technology - be it consciously or not - because of all of the time and energy we put into existing on these platforms.

I agree, worship is just another form of attention, maybe special attention, but attention none the less.

How do you see your work integrating itself into the contemporary art world?

I suppose that depends on the exhibition, currently I am thinking about presentation and exploring new ways of showing my work.  There’s new media galleries popping up all over, that host time based practices, but I would say that commodifiable digital work is largely a print based practice. I also think there’s relatively unexplored potential for 3D printing, I am excited to experiment with exporting elements from the digital realm and watch them materialize IRL.

What has the general response been towards your art?

Often people don’t have a working knowledge of 3d software or are unfamiliar with my visual language, so the digital aesthetic can be either alluring or extremely alienating. However, both my large format digital prints and my time based work have been faring well. My thesis, titled Stranded Assets, an eleven minute long, experimental 3d animation is installed at Trinity Square Video for the duration of the summer, and my prints have garnered me an upcoming solo show with Hunt Club in the fall.  

What would you say has been your biggest creative challenge?

Having faith in myself. If I want to execute a concept I first have to learn the skills and that takes time. It’s about watching the same tutorial ten times, or reading the manual, then integrating that lesson and employing the skill in a way which is unique to me.

In your statement, you mention living in a hyper capitalist society and the role that technology plays in that. How would you say this affects what you create?

Well, while my practice is largely digital I try to remain aware of our ‘new way of seeing’ —mediated almost entirely by screens— and of technological evolution’s contingency upon systems of wealth and resource extraction. The paradoxical nature of existing in a hyper-consumer culture is exhausting and disempowering. There are no laws in place protecting future generations, non-human animals or the environment, the system is not geared towards that. The capitalist agenda of unfettered growth through the depletion of finite resources is an unstable model.  In my recent body of work I try to convey some of that angst. There’s a general understanding of my work as representing a wasteland or post-apocalyptic environment, but for me it’s very current. This is now.

I sometimes have difficulty seeing technology as a tool to channel collective consciousness. What’s your take on this?

I think we have a deep distrust of technology. We’re always dubious about new forms of media: be it the printing press, the telegraph, radio, telephone, television, computers, internet, cell phones, etc… There’s a hierarchy of purity we impose on things: this is sacred, this is not, this is synthetic, this is ‘natural,’ this is right, this is wrong. We see the world in binaries, so it’s really easy to view new and emerging forms of technology as vapid, cold and hyper-rational. But, if we can adjust our perception and think about technology, like the internet, as a part of us—as humanity’s nervous system, a sense of the collective consciousness begins to emerge. However, I understand the difficulty in fully embracing technology, when I retired my paintbrushes I was met with mixed emotions.

Do you often find yourself getting overwhelmed by your art?

I feel as though every painting I complete I’ve eventually grown to hate (laughs). Even though I would argue that I have more skill in traditional modes of making, I enjoy my current work. With my digital practice, more often than not, I feel waaaaay over my head. But, I think it’s good to create when you’re out of your comfort zone... it affords the work some breathing space, some freshness, and the challenge is satisfying. Also, seeing what I am capable of, what I can pull off, and accepting where I am at right now, is part of the practice. I truly enjoy what I’m doing, but there are times when I need to take a big step back from the screens.

You can follow Trudy's practice on her website, Instagram and Tumblr.