PRINT November 2015


Tabor Robak, Where’s My Water?, 2015, HD video (color, silent, 9 minutes), twelve flat-screen monitors, twelve networked interactive digital signage players, HDMI cables, solid-state data storage in SD format, wall-mount brackets, power supplies and adapters, 11' 10 1/2“ × 9' 5”. Rendered still.

THE MOST VISIBLE ART about technology today often comes across as a kind of Net art brut. Think of glitch art, of the nostalgic proliferations of drop shadows and gradients, of the post-Internet preoccupation with stock images, or of vaporwave. The hacking-versus-defaults debates of the early 2000s seem to have devolved into a primitivist mannerism: de-skilling as thoroughly emptied branding. Tabor Robak’s work, though, is anything but. His slick confections are the antithesis of crude: Sparkling and synthetic, color-splashed and sumptuous, they are gloriously seamless and refined—a luxe steroidal brightness conjoined to a world of brilliant surfaces.

At least since Donald Judd hired an industrial factory to make his aluminum boxes, much high-gloss contemporary art has been planned by artists but executed by professional fabricators. Now, the mass availability of sophisticated consumer technologies has brought outsourcing in, making specialized techniques available on your desktop. While many of Robak’s peers try to detourn such technology, to dumb it down or make it fail (often to effect yet another tortured critique of commodity and capital), Robak has spent his entire life mastering it completely. His proficiency with software such as Photoshop, After Effects, CINEMA 4D, and Unity is virtually unmatched; indeed, he brings an old-school sense of integrity and craft—even disciplinary rigor—to his digital practice. His working method is fluid, intuitive, obsessive: He can lose a full day in CINEMA 4D, adjusting the parameters of a virtual environment, its “air density” or “gravity,” so that the objects he’s meticulously constructed—the bundles of writing utensils that fall into a digitally rendered cup in Where’s My Water?, 2015, for instance—move in a way that’s perfect, that’s right. This might sound like a romantic vision of some fin-de-siècle masterpainter, but Robak is more like a gamer on an eighteen-hour binge: The belle epoque had absinthe; today’s green fairy is Mountain Dew.

In a sense, Robak’s work—like so much work, still, today—can be understood as a form of Pop. His videos, typically presented on grids or other arrangements of HD screens, draw from a ubiquitous yet largely untapped reservoir of mass-culture imagery, from the eye-catching bedazzlements of Times Square LEDs to the refulgent motion graphics announcing BREAKING NEWS on NBC, SportsCenter, or Fox. Video games are one of his main sources of inspiration: The weirdly hypnotic sequences of Xenix, 2013, offer a loose taxonomy of the weaponry you’d find in first-person shooters by Activision or Valve; Vatican Vibes, 2011, a music video for Fatima Al Qadiri’s eponymous track, is modeled on a video-game trailer; and A*, commissioned by the Swiss Institute in New York in 2014, is a high-definition study of the twee, synthetic lushness of such smartphone apps as Candy Crush Saga and Bejeweled. Robak has stated an interest in the expressive possibilities of his art, such as its capacity to convey the euphoria of a summer day. And indeed, in Where’s My Water, when a blue sky appears in a gorgeous, heady sweep and a flock of white doves soar by, we the audience are caught up in something. It’s not joy, per se, but a menacing, designer-drug variant: MDMA for the eye, a dose of ersatz bliss.

But comparisons to Pop take us only so far. If anything, Robak’s work is less a product of the appropriation of visual culture—of reference or even simulation—than it is of the appropriation of the technology that produces that culture in the first place. “I go with what the tool naturally encourages,” he has said. “It does shiny surfaces really well, so it’s a shame not to use shiny surfaces.” If the result happens to look like a video game or commercial, then, it’s in part because that is what Unity and CINEMA 4D were designed to create. Robak, moreover, is constantly inventing techniques, finding ways to express the latent possibilities of his tools more fully. He knows, for instance, that if you want to craft a cool bubble in Photoshop, the best way to do it is by making a certain sequence of adjustments to the lens-flare function. This misuse is not some performative “gesture” but the expertly applied, next-level skill set of a virtuoso.

It would not be wrong, then, to detect a return to the doctrine of medium specificity in Robak’s work. In his 1960 essay “Modernist Painting,” Clement Greenberg famously pronounced: “Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.” For a modernist painter, the exclusive effect was flatness—an “ineluctable” property of painting that the medium had to discover and reveal. And when Robak says his art has a “Photoshop-tutorial aesthetic,” he hints at a similarly reflexive approach to art making, one analogous to an analytic modernist “painting about painting,” which some might dismiss as retrograde but which today, when realized via these high-end tools, has enthralling force. Of course, Robak’s methods lead to infinite possibility, not the inwardness and purity of high modernism, and their various effects—their various special effects—are designed for precisely the sorts of pictorial illusionism that Greenberg detested. Yet when Robak uses filters like sparkle and glare, he never disguises them in photorealistic verisimilitude but takes them to a hyperbolic extreme, fully indulging in the luxurious digitalness of the digital, its peculiar and inherent properties. So when we’re faced with the ceaselessly inventive visuals that mark Robak’s art—the dazzling explosions, the heavenly glow, the supersmooth movement of frame interpolation—it’s as if some cyberpunk perversion of Greenbergian formalism were unfolding in crystalline LED.

Tabor Robak, Newborn Baby, 2015, HD video (color, silent, 3 minutes), two AUO transparent displays, three flat-screen monitors, five networked interactive digital signage players, HDMI cables, solid-state data storage in SD format, wall-mount brackets, power supplies, adapters. Installation view, Team Gallery, New York.

ONE DAY, Robak was scrolling through YouTube videos when he saw a clip showing something he’d never seen before—a transparent screen. It was mesmerizing: Shapes and logos shuttled across a sheet of clear glass, like ghosts. At that point, implementation of the technology was limited primarily to high-end vending machines in Seoul. What else, he wondered, could it do? He ordered one of the screens online, and when it arrived at his Williamsburg condo six weeks later, he plugged it in and got to work.

The result, Newborn Baby, 2015, is a deliriously strange work of art; it may also be Robak’s masterpiece. The piece, which was on view alongside Where’s My Water at Team Gallery in New York last spring, is a triptych of sixty-five-inch flat-screen LED televisions, each rotated ninety degrees to portrait orientation. In front of the first and last monitor, he has bolted transparent screens of equal size. As the video loop begins, the transparent screens display a field of opaque black, concealing the imagery displayed behind them. Soon, however, the black begins to retreat, and over the course of the work’s three-minute running time, we witness a brilliantly considered interplay between the LED and transparent screens that is nothing short of balletic.

As if to acknowledge the technology’s novelty, Robak deploys a particularly infantilizing visual vocabulary of branding—Newborn Baby incorporates pictures of rubber ducks, stockfootage of a scarlet macaw and a baboon, visual stimulation toys for babies, and monitor calibration tests. With its smooth and authoritative allover kineticism, it evokes an HSBC ad on a flat-screen display at an airport. Looking at the work up close—and the piece beckons you to get really close—the outer screen’s black is inky, almost material. Colorshifts and glides across the gridded glass, inducing the giddy thrill of the new; it’s like seeing an iPhone touch screen for the first time. Like an antiutopian Moholy-Nagy, Robak has talked about showing Newborn Baby to infants to teach them how to see.

As Robak’s work attests, our “period eye” is remaking itself in real time. The phenomena that most clearly signify this transformation—Times Square visitors massing under the spell of titanic LEDs, preverbal children sucked into iPad screens; the kinds of specters Robak’s work courts and reproduces—may induce dystopian dread. But as much as these visions are tied to the present day, they are also ciphers of changes to come, of shifts in politics, economics, and media whose consequences we can’t even begin to know or comprehend. In the meantime, Robak’s enthusiastic tinkering, his curiosity about the aesthetic possibilities of bleeding-edge technology, his coder’s mentality, are genuine. His aim is not to judge, but to say, simply, “Let’s keep looking.”

Lloyd Wise is an associate editor of Artforum.