The internet is ephemeral by nature – two screenshots of the same page taken a minute apart could contain vastly different content. But Louisville artist Benjamin Cook is taking screenshots – those instantaneous captures of fleeting information – one step further in his new exhibit “Amusing Myself,” which opens tonight at Swanson Contemporary.
“Amusing Myself” is Cook’s first solo show. The exhibit runs through March 29.
A Northern Kentucky native, Cook graduated from the University of Louisville’s art program in 2012 with a concentration in oil painting. After graduating, he started experimenting. The pieces in “Amusing Myself” are enlarged screenshots of informational and news Internet sources, hand-traced and -lettered onto frosted mylar, then colored in gold leaf.
“I was drawn to pencil and gold right off the bat, because there’s an immediacy that’s very similar to painting, but visually it was very different,” he says.
The technique turns a Reddit page about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden into an artifact that evokes echoes of illuminated medieval manuscripts or gilded iconography. Cook says the project is about slowing down the steady stream of information we’re exposed to every day.
“I look at them sort of like photography, where I’m exploring a world that exists that’s always changing, and I’m grabbing a specific moment in time,” says Cook.
He’s not just capturing any old Doge meme or Twitter beef. Cook engages with hot current event topics like government surveillance, oppression and human rights, like the Wikipedia page for the Russian dissident punk band Pussy Riot and the Facebook page for the Human Rights Campaign.
“I like to sit back and think about the implications of the event that occurred and pick ones that I think will stand the test of time,” he says. “I search the internet through different social media and different websites, then I screenshot images that work both conceptually, content-wise and visually.”
The show also gives Google Map screenshots a similar treatment. Cook focused on some of the country’s wealthiest neighborhoods, like Beverly Hills. The geometric outlines become strangely abstract when enlarged, but the intimate nature of the program (hi, I can see your house!) is always present.
“[Google Maps] is very voyeuristic,” he says. “I took these areas that are full of wealth, and you can tell by the number of swimming pools and tennis courts, and the landscape is clearly not the natural landscape.”
Despite the obsessive detail of this project, Cook is actually pretty ambivalent about the Internet. He deleted his Facebook account, but he’s active on Twitter. He keeps up with news and current events online, but this series of artwork helps him find his place among all the information and create something tangible from all of the 1s and 0s.
“If I just dive into it and let it control me, and always move, I don’t feel like I have a sense of my own life,” he says. “A lot of it is slowing down this process, and really taking it in and understanding it. For me, I’m a maker, I work with my hands, and that’s how I learn the world around me.”