Titled after Nate Silver’s book of the same name, Bernhard Buhmann’s exhibition The Signal and The Noise continues his in-depth study of the individual within the Information Age. In today’s highly-digitalized society, the ease of access to an overwhelmingly large amount of data, and its rapid distribution proves easier for people to extract what supports their pre-existing views. In a world perpetually flooded by technology, Buhmann’s new works scrutinize its affective ability to limit our own perceptions or beliefs.
Bernhard Buhmann contemplates the consequences from both a social and individual level in the event of when shared information is misconstrued. Silver explains the signal as representative of what is relevant and crucial, which is however, surrounded by noise; a deluge of distracting data. The book comments upon the brain’s innate tendency to search for patterns where there are none - in such circumstances, how might one distinguish the truth from an influx of big data?
Throughout the course of Buhmann’s overarching body of work, he has portrayed the gradual development of multiple elements which accompany the characters which have consistently occupied the contents of his canvases. Mimicking the laser-cut, vector graphics of the online era, planes of smooth, sweeping gradients unfold across the surface as Buhmann leads the eye across all corners of the painting to follow fluctuating, undulating lines, and his own painterly interferences.
The trajectory of the source can no longer be discerned from the ceaseless cacophony of information that submerges the digital sphere. In such a transient environment, each multi-layered composition builds upon a conglomeration of shapes to depict the fragmented, changing self. Buhmann cites references to early 20th century Modernism, and concomitantly, alludes to the foundations of the computer screen - the pixel. With a myriad of hues derived from a technicolor spectrum, the paintings chart the fluid transformation of the collapsible interior framework in its constant deconstruction and reconstruction. In their regenerative nature, his abstractions are variations of archetypal appearances in an ever-evolving, online world.
Could you provide us with some insight on the title of your exhibition, The Signal and The Noise?
The Signal and the Noise is the title of a book written by Nate Silver, in which he examines the susceptibility to errors of forecasts. "The Signal" symbolizes the "truth", the relevant, while he equates "The Noise" with the noise that distracts from the signifier. Silver uses examples ranging from the financial crisis to the poker game to show how experts are often wrong with their assessments, and presents models that could counteract these failures. The starting point for his considerations and the point of reference for my exhibition is the fact that the digital revolution has immeasurably increased the amount of information available on a daily basis. This is a development that has its roots in the invention of book printing, and has now reached its peak in the age of big data. Dealing with this overload of information, and in particular, the ability to distinguish the essential from the insignificant, is important for the individual area of life as well as for the society as a whole.
What are the topics and themes you delve into for this exhibition, and how are these situated in our current context?
As in my previous exhibition, I refer to current social and technological developments. In particular, the digital revolution that has been advancing since the end of the last millennium and the associated, downright revolutionary changes in everyday life are in focus. With a view of the current Covid crisis, the question arises of how far-reaching, individual decisions can be made on the basis of a flood of information and, in particular, how what is useful can be distinguished from what is misleading.
The large number of conspiracy theories and misinformation about the current crisis shows that this does not always succeed. The fact that algorithms rank emotional information higher, regardless of their validity, makes it even harder to provide an accurate analysis. This has consequences on both the individual and the social level, from health to political areas. Often fear alone guides the action, regardless of whether the underlying issue can be factually proven or not. In this context, Silver refers to the pronounced human tendency to identify alleged meaningful (explanatory) patterns where there are none. This biological system is very old and has helped people to perceive danger at an early stage. In the digital age, this feature is often misleading, as patterns are identified even where there are none. This is even more true if the amount of information exceeds our processing capacities. Under these circumstances reliable, fact-based predictions are rather the exception.
In dealing with this challenging situation of getting a reliable picture of the world under these conditions, Silver introduces two archetypes: the Hedgehogs and the Foxes. The former constructs stories that appear neater and tidier than the real world. This creates an image consisting of “winners”, “losers”, “heroes” and “failures”. It is a worldview without intermediate stages and nuances. In the world of the “Hedgehogs”, facts and personal values are mixed up, and new ideas are not very welcome. Rather, new information is adjusted in such a way that it agrees with the existing point of view; the more information is available, the more they manipulate and change it to confirm their bias.
While Hedgehogs are convinced of themselves and only see the one big homogeneous picture, Foxes know about the variety of things. They pursue many approaches to find “the truth” and are aware of the contradictions, the complexity of their environment and the associated uncertainties. In my exhibition I refer to these “characters” and add some more. In doing so, I refrain from a specific assignment to one or the other type. Rather, my aim is to introduce further “protagonists”, which represent “present-day actors” in the context described. For my paintings I use a modernist aesthetic that has its origins in the beginning of the 20th century. The reduced forms of the works symbolize the bridge between art historical references and the building blocks of the digitized world (pixels). The compositions represent a temporary, fragile order that can collapse at any time.
How do these new works tie into your overarching body of work?
The immediately preceding exhibition is my starting point for further developments in terms of form and content. This creates a coherence across series of works. Usually literature has a big influence on my work. The book Unrast of nobel price winner Olga Tokarczuk was an important inspiration for my exhibition last year, at Marinaro Gallery in New York.
For my exhibition The Signal and the Noise, figures are more complex and new elements appear and at the same time representational figurative reminiscences disappear. Overall, I think that the images have become more precise in relation to the topic and thus also give a stronger picture of the social atmosphere to which they refer.
What is a fundamental step within your process that helps you ultimately realize the composition of your artworks?
In my older series of work, I usually developed the compositions directly on the canvas. This time I chose a different approach. In preparation for each canvas, I created collages, which served as a starting point, from which I developed the work further on the canvas. After this first step, I destroy the collages in order to create new compositions from their individual parts - it’s a playful element, and a nice addition to my work process.
Is there an underlying narrative for the individual characters you portray in your paintings?
The basic narrative of my protagonists is characterized by the prevailing social atmosphere. I usually focus on uncertainties, imponderables or misunderstandings that become apparent in connection with social, technological or other innovations. My personal interpretation of these circumstances forms the character of my figures.
How would you describe the evolution of your works, and are there other ideas or subjects you are interested in dissecting further in the future?
In the beginning I was particularly concerned with figurative painting as well as with various painting techniques. Over the years I developed an own visual language, which, although more and more abstract, for some years still contained the clear features of figuration. The transitions have mostly been designed harmoniously via intermediate steps.
Although now ostensibly abstract, it is the “idea of figuration“ that sill interests me in my work. By turning away from pure representation, I have more freedom to work with topics that are relevant to me. For some time I have been playing with the idea of working with objects in space. As with my recent work, however, it is important that new approaches result from the process and thus fit in coherently into the overall context. Creating sculptures is definitely a future project.