Up in the air 

Artist Joe Batt examines our mass exodus into the cloud

For the last several days, Joe Batt has been making large charcoal and pastel drawings on the 12-foot walls of the Brunswick Gallery. It's an exercise that recalls the rudimentary act of cave painting, except that his drawings are images of people interacting with technology—cellphone towers and wi-fi waves looming over a woman nursing her baby while surfing the internet, people with Bluetooths clamped to their ears, a man, surrounded by wildlife, texting on his cellphone.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • A detail from Joe Batt’s installation In the Cloud.

"I call it a meditation of where we're at with the mass migration into the cloud is happening," he says of the installation, titled In the Cloud. "It seems to me to be faster than what I can comprehend."

The artist, who earned his master's from the University of Montana's ceramics program in 1993 and now teaches art at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia, Wash., has been thinking about technology a lot lately. He hands me a photocopied article from a recent Newsweek called "Is the Web Driving Us Mad?" It's a cautionary tale about Jason Russell, a man who went from internet newbie to internet obsessed. Russell's web documentary on African warlord Joseph Kony garnered a lot of attention on social media and Russell reacted by spiraling into technology madness: reading every comment, Tweeting and sending out digital photos, instead of sleeping and, finally, to taking off his clothes and ranting on a busy San Diego street corner about the devil—an incident that became a viral YouTube video.

"I have a love-hate relationship with technology," Batt says. "I think that it's really attractive, especially since touch screens have come out. All of my most intelligent friends, even in social situations, they're just drawn into that world. And I've found since getting an iPad, that the same thing has happened to me. [But] there's some evidence it's addictive and can inhibit people's healthy development and make them unhappy, and that concerns me."

Still, Batt doesn't shy away from technology in his art classes. He asks his students to use iPads to create digital sketchbooks. The apps allow them to take photos of their hand-drawn work and manipulate it, or to compose sketches and paintings entirely in digital space. They can also play around with other people's art—taking photos of established artists' pieces and then changing them, which Batt admits feels a little weird. "They had such a good time with that and I thought even though it might have been a little bit wrong, I think most good things come from creatively pushing boundaries," he says. "It doesn't automatically make it good or bad. It's a little bit too fun to resist."

Batt wrestles with how to incorporate technology in art, but nothing shakes his conviction that apps can ever replace the conventional ways of making art. His students seem to agree. "When we've done our virtual sketchbooks," he says, "one of the conditions they put on me was, 'We'll do that. We'll do 50 pages of sketches but we want to be able to do some on iPad and some on paper. We want to feel real paint. We don't always want to be touching a glass screen.'"

Batt's Missoula installation is part of his sabbatical work. It opens at the Brunswick First Friday, but what you'll see is just the beginning of his project. The sketches, which celebrate hand drawing as opposed to digital drawing, will be painted over—wiped out completely—after October. But they won't disappear. Batt has been taking photos of the drawings and he'll post them on Facebook and use his iPad to create new versions of the images, to bring the conversation about technology full circle.

"I'll preserve them digitally and manipulate them and make different kinds of art with them," he says. "So, kind of on the good side, technology seems to give many lives to each art piece."

"We've got one foot completely off the path and the other one is about to step off," he adds. "And for me, I'm just not ready to do that. I want to use technology in my classes, and as a way to make art. But I think it's a good idea to pay attention to what we're doing."

Joe Batt's In the Cloud opens First Friday, Oct. 5, at the Brunswick Gallery, 223 W. Railroad St., with a reception from 5 to 8 PM. Free. You can also view it every Thu. and Fri. through October from noon to 5 PM.

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