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Panoptical illusions

Liam Mullally speaks to artist Jess Johnson about world building, her fascination with 1980s sci-fi and bringing her work to virtual reality

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Experiencing Jess Johnson's work for the first time can be a disorientating experience; it appears to have its routes in a very specific, although perhaps not immediately accessible, mythology. This does not, however, mean that it is not compelling or intriguing - on the contrary it boasts a certain weirdness which draws the viewer in. Her latest installation, Eclectrc Panoptic, is no exception.

The images that make up her work appear to visually represent the coming together of specific influences that are not instantly clear to the viewer. "Part of my formative mental stew," explains Johnson, "was an interest in comic books, science fiction, horror movies, early videogames, all that stuff...I'd devour anything detailing highly fantastic imagery." Through to adulthood, this interest has manifested itself into an interest in world-building, into "the construction of entire fictional universes across books, art, movies, role-playing games, computer programming, real-world cults and belief systems". Her work represents a holistic approach to world building, which is perhaps why it seems to be reaching to a specific mythology or language, because it is gradually developing these things through self-reference and the repetition of visual tropes.

Johnson's work is very much pre-occupied with the languages it speaks, both visual and verbal. She expresses, for example, an interest in Russel Hoban's book Riddley Walker where "a new world has been formed from the wreckage of the old. Language itself has been shattered and put back together." The thing which strikes Johnson is language's ability to steer how we see the world: "It's incredibly restrictive in this way. It's like it has a stranglehold on how you experience reality. If there's no words to describe an experience then it's like you're wading through mud... If you want to build a new world you need a new language to describe it. Language brings the world into focus. So naturally the language of my artwork is evolving and the language is gaining form at the same time."

The name of the installation itself seems to demonstrate this interest in how the restrictions of language construct our understanding. Johnson explains how 'Eclectrc' is taken from the work of Edward Deeds, an artist who spent the majority of his life in a Missouri mental institution, drawing on office stationery. "In this one drawing I saw," she describes, "he had misspelled 'Electric' but it had this powerful deliberation about it. I loved how he'd very intentionally made the word his own." The second half of the exhibition's title, 'Panoptic', is derived from the Panopticon. "As a work of architecture, the Panopticon allows a watchman to observe without the occupants knowing whether or not they are being watched. As a metaphor, the Panopticon is used as a way to trace the surveillance tendencies of disciplinarian societies." In both instances Johnson is intervening with language on a structural level in an attempt to describe, and perhaps even influence, its ability to control our understanding of her worlds.


The very authoritarian, architectural elements of Johnson's work are also met by uncanny organic forms that move through her imagined spaces. Johnson's contorted and sometimes demonic humanoid figures will occasionally look mockingly out of their frame. Johnson describes this as a tension betweeen the rigid and organic elements of her work: "I have the tendency to get lost in repetitive drawings and endless detail... but I find that tendency in myself irritating too. It's like being on the end of someone's long drug monologue. If I let it go unchecked I'll create this impenetrable wall of pattern. That's where the organic elements and bodies come into play. The figures and organics give people a way in." So while they may be otherworldly, Johnson's humanoid figures exist ultimately to make her spaces more accessible, for her viewers to project themselves into.

The centre piece of Eclectrc Panoptic is Ixian Gate, a virtual reality experience that arose from collaboration with Simon Ward. It makes a particularly interesting addition to Johnson's work by immersing the viewer in her imagined world. It is perhaps the natural progression to her use of human figures to allow her viewers a way into her work, literally placing them within the spaces. Ixian Gate is a truly immersive experience, not only because of how it looks but also because of how it sounds. Collaborator Simon Clarke approaches sound design from the perspective of someone influenced by the 8 and 16 bit eras of videogame sound: "He uses the ideas of musical economy, enforcement through repetition and the notion of heavily delineated sound that hangs in space." In the context of Ixian Gate this approach draws its audience in gradually, starting out as relatively sparse and becoming more complex as the piece's visual elements develop.

For Johnson, the creation of worlds isn't something which sits comfortably within the borders of picture frames, in fact a quick Google image search of Johnson's work will reveal plenty of constructed spaces. "It seemed the logical step for me to extend the fictional world of my drawings out into physical space... my intention was to create these parallel worlds carved out of the gallery corners...The notion of 'manifesting your own reality' is extremely appealing to me. It's like if I were able to render the drawings and the environments with enough detail and internal logic that feeds back on itself, I'd be able to create a reality loop that will spark it to life."

From this perspective, the transition of her work into VR makes a lot of sense. For a brief period at least, the viewer can be completely immersed in a foreign environment. The totality of the visual and sound design, along with the unique kind of immersion that a VR environment can bring (if you have yet to try it out, it really is on another level), brings uncanny life to Johnson's creations. It is from this disoriented position that she is able to rebuild how you understand her worlds.

It might be a mistake, however, to think that she is striving to build a fantasy world as we would traditionally understand it. Talking of future projects and a possible Ixian Gate trilogy, Johnson describes: "The compositions of my new work have been moving away from the conventional narrative scenes of earlier works. The new imagery is more chaotic; scenes appear to be layered on top of each-other and time and gravity stretches out equally in all directions...I think I'm less interested in the mythology of the world, or trying to ascribe structure to its stories. I've been thinking of recent drawings as being analogous to a computer data scroll printout; or revealing the engine room of a gigantic planetary organism."

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