In the Cloud: Patrick Coll at The Front

Joseph Bradshaw visits Patrick Coll’s current show at The Front, which attempts to image cloud computing.

Patrick Coll, The Cloud #4: Anemone, 2016. Still from 3D animation. Courtesy the artist.

Divided between two rooms at The Front, Patrick Coll’s “The Cloud” takes its starting point from what he calls the “lazy metaphor” of the cloud as a description of shared computer-processing networks. He points out in his artist statement that the term implies the network is a natural, rather than a man-made thing, and that when we “accept something as natural, our capacity to critically examine it becomes diminished.” Thus, he proposes his exhibition as a series of “visual metaphors” (in the form of 3D video loops, video stills, and LED light sculptures), each one a new way to envision the cloud. (Though, strictly speaking, Coll’s metaphors are multimodal rather than visual, as their meanings depend upon the interplay of verbal and visual imagery.)

The proposed metaphors are often nuanced and ambiguous, and occasionally startling, like The Cloud #4: Anemone, 2016. At first glance, the video still appears to be a simple 3D animated rendering of a sea anemone, its tentacles splayed around its open mouth. It’s a clever suggestion: The cloud as a poisonous, slothful sea predator, its tentacles trying to coax the viewer—the prey—into its only orifice. (For the sea anemone, the mouth also serves as an anus.) Lingering with the image, other details emerge, like the glowing light at the center of the anemone’s open mouth-anus. A string of questions then come to mind: What is glowing at the center of the cloud? Have we, as a culture entrenched in virtual connectivity, been lulled into that glow? Have we been coaxed into the mouth-anus of the cloud? (And aren’t you glad that your mouth isn’t also your anus?)

Patrick Coll, The Cloud #10: AbandonedHWY, 2017. Still from 3D animation. Courtesy the artist.

Many of the videos and stills in the first room of the exhibit are as understated as Anemone, and as playfully sinister. The second room, however, is literally and figuratively darker. The room is dominated by two LED light sculptures, which are both presented as studies. The first, Violent Network #1: After Paul Nash, Battle of Britain, 2017, takes as its source the war painter’s depiction of an aerial battle. Nash’s painting is dominated by the exhaust trails of fighter jets, rendered in flowering, cloud-like shapes. These war clouds are juxtaposed with natural clouds, fluffy and white. In Coll’s study, warm yet intense LED lights are arranged in a pattern outlining all the clouds in the picture. It’s as if Coll cut out just the metaphor in Nash’s painting—that the ephemeral beauty of nature blurs with the destruction of war—and abstracted it into a light pattern bereft of an immediate reference point. In a way, he buried Nash’s metaphor in light. Violent Network #1 suggests connections between the violence of war and our connectivity. It suggests not just that wars are fought within the cloud, and on the cloud’s behalf, but that the cloud abstracts the very violence that keeps it in operation. It suggests that our connectivity is complicit in that violence.

The work in “The Cloud” is visually unassuming, yet lurking within its modalities is a deep skepticism of the means of our technological bonds. While Coll’s metaphors hint at violence, manipulation, and the grotesque, they do not describe the cloud itself. These metaphors describe the cloud’s effect upon culture and the senses; or, as Coll himself put it, they “describe our connected world.”

Editor's Note

Patrick Coll’s “The Cloud” is on view through April 2, 2017, at The Front (4100 St. Claude Avenue) in New Orleans.