The Virtual Sublime: Fraser Austin's 'Totally There'

By Tim Gentles

Writing on the exhibition ‘TOTALLY THERE - Hit refresh til satisfied’ by Fraser Austin

5 July - 5 August, 2012
Audio Foundation
Hours: Mon-Sat 12pm - 4pm

Today we can only really know ourselves online. The same is true for the people in our lives;
you can learn so much about someone by reading their twitter.
Online we seem to confront our essence, the place from which our identity comes,
the feedback loop in which we recognise that we've created ourselves.
While a lot of energy has been expended recently in the art and critical theory
worlds explaining the significance of personal branding and self-fashioning in
contemporary social-media informed self-understandings, questions about the body
in the virtual era have lately fallen by the wayside.
Fraser Austin's work is concerned with these kinds of questions, using the trope
of Photobooth as a literalisation of the way people behave online, and
reorienting it towards an account of narcissism and the virtual body. In these
works, Photobooth and Skype occupy the position of the inaugurating moment of an
online identity and the primal scene of the digital economy.
The question here is of how we relate to the body when so much of our social,
intellectual and psychic lives are embedded in online practices, and Austin
answers it with his avatar. As a substitute to the real person behind the
computer, the avatar has always functioned as a mode of self-representation ,
instilling an immediate gap between it and 'the real thing'. It is this
relationship between a real, physical human body, and its virtual corollary--
the avatar-- that Austin's work is concerned with.
In a move characteristic of the digital economy, Austin seeks to invert this
relationship, drawing attention to the ways in which our bodies are inseparable
from our avatars. While the avatar's greatest strength is its mutability and the
possibility of perpetual reinvention, Austin reverses this by rendering his as a
hyper-realised version of himself, and in doing so, muddies the waters between
the virtual and the real. Austin's avatar is both realer than real, and somehow
more virtual than virtual. By rendering his work using clunky and outdated 3D
software, the effect is to evoke a hyperreal digital sublime.
In this regard, Austin's work may be situated alongside the concerns of a number
of contemporary internet artists and musicians whose work has lately and
somewhat vogueishly been dubbed 'post-internet', a term floating around in the
digital ether in recent times to describe the products of a cultural moment that
revel in inverting the ontological relationship between the virtual and the
A clear parallel can be drawn here with James Ferraro's work. His recent album
'Far Side Virtual' shares Austin's interest in the tones and timbres of an
idealised, almost utopian virtuality. Both Ferraro and Austin draw on imagery
that documents the nascence of the integration of digital/virtual culture into
everyday life, evoking refined interfaces, a lifestyle-enhancing sense of
functionality and a slick, corporate attitude. Austin's focus on the body as
both an object of scrutiny and as something to be exposed, projected outward
into cyberspace, acts as something like a repository onto which the ideologies
of narcissism and virtual-capitalism are enacted.
The current interest in virtual sublimity-- an appropriation and fetishisation
of the attitudes and iconography of the nascent computer/network-culture of the
1990s-- suggests the need for a reactivation of network culture's founding
ideological framework now that the digital is so thoroughly interwoven with our
daily lives. Austin's work looks back to this formative moment, while using the
language of the present (Photobooth, Skype), to investigate these new taxonomies
of curatorial and delivery mechanisms within digital and visual cultures at
large. It hints at ways in which the contemporary moment can be articulated in
the language of repressed impulses of the past, by reframing questions of originality
and value in terms of velocity, intensity and spread.1

1. The significance of velocity, intensity and spread to the digital era are explored in Hito Steyerl, “In Defence of the Poor Image,” e-flux #10, Nov. 2009.



Image Credits: Exhibition Texts: Sarah Callesen - exhibition poster

SoundBleed is an online journal of critical writing around sound in NZ/Aotearoa – a forum for discussion around sound-related activity and practice.



SoundBleed is an online journal of critical writing around sound in NZ/Aotearoa – a forum for discussion around sound-related activity and practice.

Image Credits: Exhibition Texts:
Sarah Callesen - exhibition poster