With a background in critical arts practice, Alan Warburton found a shifting point in his approach when he won an online competition to study 3D animation at Escape Studios in London. “It was focused on gearing students up to work in industry, and I never would have been able to afford the course otherwise,” Alan tells It’s Nice That. The course ended up changing his approach to art, breathing life into his formerly dormant interest in art and theory.
Starting off with the technical and logistical side of CGI, Alan found himself exploring what he sees as a niche in art history, a discipline that is still grappling with exactly how to include digital art into its orthodoxy. “I jumped from the postmodern end-of-history ship, armed with all the critical theory I needed. With that and a copy of Autodesk Maya, I built myself a raft to sail away on!” he jokes, describing his practice as a hybrid one that combines the artistic, commercial and critical approaches that were previously separate to him.
The product of this hybrid practice is a body of work that often uses the specific attributes of CGI as a medium to comment on the medium itself. One instance is Alan’s 2012 film Z, where he was commissioned by Animate Projects to make a film only using Z-depth images, which Alan describes as “spooky black and white images used in post-production to fake depth of field cheaply.” The film guides the viewer through a foggy monochrome city, devoid of any sign of life, using data-driven imagery to question how we produce historical narratives.
In another project, Homo Economicus, Alan examines the relationships between finance, masculinity and work. Resulting in a triptych of CGI portraits of men who work in the Square Mile, Alan gathered his references by interviewing male, working commuters on their routines and attitude towards work. “As a gay man who has worked in very male environments for most of my life, I was acutely aware that far from being invulnerable, these kind of men are deeply sensitive towards group dynamics, and incredibly susceptible to the judgment of their male colleagues,” Alan notes. “Pillars of toxic masculinity remain underexposed precisely because men themselves can barely recognise their own complicity in them,” he adds, noting that many of his interviewees often denied ever feeling vulnerable, despite the deeply self-conscious nature of the stories they tell. In the humorous piece, Alan inflates and deflates stock models of businessmen, while a completely uncharismatic male text-to-speech voice narrates the interviews given by these men, whose routines sound immediately ridiculous once the models start inflating. Alan is currently working on continuing the piece in an ongoing project titled Golem, where he “asked 50 men to describe how they would like to change their body and then aggregated all these changes onto a 3D model.”
In the labour-intensive CGI world, Alan had to find a way to balance the increasing workload and stress that comes with making highly polished CG films. “I don’t think that many people realise just how many decisions go into CG films,” Alan says, highlighting that although the period between 2012 and 2016 was his most prolific, it was also the most exhausting. “The process had become less fun for me, so my work since 2017 has adopted more of a ‘light touch’ approach. Homo Economicus is a good example of that, and it’s done well because of it.”
The artist has also explored the form of video essays in an attempt to contextualise the rise of CGI, both in the commercial and artistic world. Within Spectacle, Speculation, Spam, he is particularly critical of digital artists that don’t create the 3D work themselves yet leave the CGI workers uncredited, identifying a deep contradiction within the practice. “How else are you going to get insight into a world mediated by software unless you’re implicated within it, getting your hands dirty with plugins or code or hardware?” he explains on an indicative shift in how artists work today.
Currently completing his practice-based PhD at the Vasari Research Centre in Birkbeck, University of London, Alan is brimming with ideas. Still finding inspiration in the ever-evolving CGI world, he has an ambitious solo show coming up in east London’s Arebyte Gallery in 2020 and an exhibition at Somerset House titled 24/7 about the hidden labour behind the CGI industry. If that wasn’t enough, the artist is also working on an upcoming new set of video essays, including one that he just completed for Tate Exchange about the “overlap between art history and new technologies of vision" titled Fairtytales of Motion.
His work to date, and as it continues, is establishing Alan as a notable voice in an increasingly cluttered discipline. As the adoption of CGI into fields like graphic design becomes more ubiquitous, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take a page out of Alan’s book and be more aware of what it means to produce and consume CGI.