Rule of Nobody (II)

Rule of Nobody (II)

Identification processes have become synonymous with forms, both paper and digital. These forms are given to us, we fill them out, and then trust whomever we turn them in with to guard the abyss of accumulated identities on these forms from prying eyes. While our identities have evolved from those that we inscribe onto paper into the ones we mold for ourselves in the digital realm, so too has the place we’ve made for ourselves within the larger context of the cultures we belong to. Multimedia artist Patricia Reed addresses issues of identity, technology, data, and the way that these three entities have become intrinsically linked.

As part of a retrospective at Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa, Canada, the artist displayed Rule of Nobody (II), a wall-sized piece consisting of an amalgamation of every internationally recognized nation’s citizenship form. These forms were recreated digitally and pieced together to create an anything-but-minimalist vinyl pattern on the wall. At first glimpse, the patterns appear to be nothing more than a series of lines and boxes. However, the more you look at it, the more the series of boxes start to look familiar and reminiscent of those forms we put so much effort into.

The tight, linear composition appears to have a numerical quality, though there are no digits present. Spending time with it only makes one more and more aware of what’s missing from it: numbers and letters. What’s interesting here is how the lack of human presence is only signified in this manner: we are represented (in our absence) by notations and symbols that we’ve chosen to express our identities, intangible as they may be. These symbols we choose to represent ourselves on such an important form as a citizenship application represent just how far removed we are from the forms that identify us. Illustrating the artist's depictions of this concept, Ester Ippolito says:

“Reed’s work analyzes the structures that exist within our world, those that are meant to help order through identification. However, as represented in her drawings on paper, in sculpture, and in text, the ordered nature of technology fails to be effective in a culture that is inundated with data, and additional organization only creates a disordered reception of this technology.
— Ester Ippolito, Berlin Art Link

Rule of Nobody(II) is the successor to a work of the same name that the artist created in 2011 in graphite on paper. The more recent version’s size and placement covering the entire height of a wall increases its power.  When confronted with a larger-than-life installation like this, it asks us to question the nature of identification processes and our complicit role in them. The artist has address similar subjects in her work for some time. In a 2009 piece, Pan-National Flag, she has again compiled artifacts from each country, this time, the outline of their flags.  This digital print consists of what appears to be thousands of dark lines and various patterns, all converging in what the artist has deemed a “black whole” at the center.

Pan-National Flag,  2009, Installation View, CUAG, Ottawa, 2016. Photo: Justin Wonnacott

Pan-National Flag, 2009, Installation View, CUAG, Ottawa, 2016. Photo: Justin Wonnacott

This juxtaposition of national symbols in such a confined composition erases the cultural individuality that these flags represent, and gives us a holistic view of what happens when we take the meaning away from the lines and colors with which we align ourselves. By using a digital means to create this composition, the artist has distanced the flag’s original nationalistic meaning from us even further, and shown that even an attempt to find order amongst diverse entities can be futile. This distance represents the gap between ourselves and these networked identities that range from an entire culture to the individual self. Furthermore, her choice to reduce complex entities such as forms and flags into merely line and negative space depicts how meaning is distorted once it enters a larger, technological information flow.

In her 2014 essay Constructing Assemblies for Alienation, the artist writes:

…for although sprawling networks of transport, communication, transactions, capital flows and movement are indeed organized (under a particular ideological constellation) all of their subsequent and compounded interactions cannot be mapped, leaving us in a state of cerebral resignation and without an intelligible foothold to begin scaling or reorienting us within this informational behemoth.
— Constructing Assemblies for Alienation, Artist website


The term “ideological constellation” implies that we have attempted to find order from the chaos (how do you organize billions of individual selves?) that is individuality, like how our ancient predecessors sought to organize galaxies of stars into constellations via astrology. However, Reed notes that this chaos ends up reigning supreme once we can view this information in its entirety with the aid of technology and networks like the Internet. Rule of Nobody(II) and her other works help viewers to realize how fluid our identities are becoming with the help of technology. If we understand that we cannot possibly find order in the abyss of cultural data, then perhaps we will begin to appreciate the beauty in its composite aesthetic.

Reed is not the only artist working to visualize composite amounts of data that are accessible within the networks that surround us. Addie Wagenknecht is a multimedia artist who uses her work to convey our place within the sea of data that we are creating, among other topics. Her 2014 piece XXXX.XXX compliments Reed's work nicely in how it takes her visualization of the networked further by using hardware and an intensely intricate sculpture as a basis for conversation. 

Installation view. Image:  artist website .

Installation view. Image: artist website.

The piece consists of 5 custom circuit boards wired with what seem to be an endless amount of ethernet cables. Apparently, these boards are collecting anonymous data, but from whom or for what purpose is never stated. This unsettling concept highlights how unaware we are of our networked identities and the online powers beyond our understanding. Visually, the tangled cables emphasize a frustratingly intricate network of lines and turn this simple compositional element into a data-laden object.

Like Reed, Wagnknecht asks viewers to consider the influence of networks like the Internet and the impalpable amount of data they are creating over our daily lives. Like the lines and boxes in Reed's work, the cables utilize negative and positive space to further illustrate the intricacy of these networks.As passive as we may be in acknowledging our place in this intricate web, portraits of this exchange of information like Rule of Nobody (II) and XXXX.XXX automatically require us to at least become active viewers in either the end result of compiling this information, or the very act of retrieving this information. 



-       Mould Essay:

-       Ester Ippolito article:

-       Artist website:




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