Local Arts

These married artists use computers to help generate art and make people think

Joelle Dietrick is an assistant professor of art and digital studies at Davidson College, where a joint show with her husband, Owen Mundy, will open at Van Every/Smith Galleries on Sept. 4.
Joelle Dietrick is an assistant professor of art and digital studies at Davidson College, where a joint show with her husband, Owen Mundy, will open at Van Every/Smith Galleries on Sept. 4. Courtesy of Joelle Dietrick

Joelle Dietrick and Owen Mundy — spouses, artists and frequent collaborators — make art with a message. Their work deals with global trade, climate change and privacy issues in the Internet age.

This isn’t art you buy to hang over the living room sofa. This is art designed to make you think. And maybe even alter your behavior.

Their joint show, “The Speed of Thinking,” opens at Davidson College’s Van Every/Smith Galleries on Sept. 4 from 7-8:30 p.m. and runs through Sept. 25. Dietrick is an assistant professor of art and digital studies at the college. Although trained as a painter, she and Mundy are now mostly computer-based artists.

“I’ve been using digital tools for two decades,” Dietrick said. “But if I can ever find an excuse to paint, I will.”

Dietrick and Mundy are academics, and their work is cerebral. But it’s also relatable. Dietrick calls it “community-based art” that’s rooted in their interest in social justice. They “have long been interested in how our lives intersect with macro-economic, social and cultural trends, both in their individual and collaborative work,” according to the N.C. Arts Council website. They share a 2018-19 N.C. Arts Council Artist Fellowship.

Joelle Dietrick and Owen Mundy have created mobile apps, animations and massive installations, and they traveled to Germany, Chile and China in 2017 and 2018 for research and work on their art under Fulbright grants. CHRIS RECORD Courtesy of Davidson College

Dietrick’s interests have led her to explore the human toll of global trade. Her 11-feet-by-21 feet site-specific mural, “Sherwin’s Wall,” (2012) looked at the housing crisis and the resulting rise in foreclosures. She created this work she calls “the one I’m proudest of” with a sense of irony, focusing on the paint company’s annual “color forecast.”

NY Art Beat wrote: “Sherwin’s Wall remixes commercial wall paint in color forecasts suggested for better living with fragmented foreclosed housing forms.” A lot of research goes into determining what color palette will be on point a few years from now. Dietrick’s statement piece made some viewers wonder how essential that research really is.

For “Sherwin’s Wall,” Dietrick used Sherwin Williams paint and applied it directly to the gallery walls. The mural was destroyed after the exhibition closed.

The Internet is for cats

Mundy has most famously examined big data and privacy — or the lack of it.

His online experiment, “I Know Where Your Cat Lives,” gained him fame on NPR and in Wired and the New York Times as it demonstrated how hard it is in the digital age to keep anything private. He developed a website that tracked more than 7 million housecats using metadata tags from social media.

Why cats? They’re ubiquitous on social media. And seemingly innocuous.

“Welcome to today’s Internet,” reads the I Know Where Your Cat Lives website introduction. “You can buy anything, every website is tracking your every move, and anywhere you look you find videos and images of cats. Currently, there are 15 million images tagged with the word ‘cat’ on public image hosting sites, and daily thousands more are uploaded from unlimited positions on the globe.”

CO _ Joelle Dietrick Photo cred Holly Clark.jpeg
Joelle Dietrick and Owen Mundy — spouses and collaborators who share a 2018-19 N.C. Arts Council Artist Fellowship — make art that deals with global trade, climate change and privacy issues in the internet age. HOLLY CLARK Courtesy of Joelle Dietrick

And you thought cat memes were just a happy escape from the ugly news of the day. Not so fast. Refinery29.com’s Daniel Barna wrote: “Owen Mundy just ruined the Internet.”

He didn’t mean to. He simply “set out … to point out the ease of access to data and photos on the web. We sought to showcase how readily available social media users’ information and snapshots are to the general public,” he said on his cat-tracking site.

The project didn’t start with a cat. It started with a human — Dietrick and Mundy’s daughter, who’s now 8. “We were in our backyard in Florida, and Owen took a picture of our daughter to post on Instagram,” Dietrick recalled. “Suddenly he realized the location data was on the photo.”

Anyone on the Internet could see the photo and easily find the exact address for the Dietrick/Mundy home.

“We changed our privacy settings on Instagram immediately,” Dietrick said.

The couple has created mobile apps, animations and massive installations. Fulbright grants to Germany, Chile and China in 2017 and 2018 helped fund their research and the art that results from it. Both artists earned M.F.A.s from the University of California at San Diego, where they met, and now live in Davidson.

You’re being watched

Their exhibition in Davidson will showcase some of the work that came from the Fulbright-funded studies. One project, two years in the making, “gamifies data tracking,” Dietrick explained. It plays off the idea that the Internet knows what you’re longing for.

“You know how if you look online for a set of knives, suddenly the only ads you see are for knives?” Dietrick asked. “Because of cookies, the Internet knows where you’ve been. So, we’ve created a game involving ‘product monsters’” that mimics the online shopping experience.

“The Speed of Thinking,” a game that allows players to plunk colorful, virtual boxes onto a cargo ship, and an animation of a bamboo forest are included in the joint exhibition by Joelle Dietrick and Owen Mundy that runs Sept. 4-25. DAVID RAMSEY Courtesy of Van Every/Smith Galleries, Davidson College

Another game, “The Speed of Thinking,” allows players to plunk colorful, virtual steel boxes onto a cargo ship. Each one lands with a thud. The boxes just keep coming — and with increasing velocity. They threaten to sink the ship before it even leaves port. The player slowly realizes the game doesn’t end until it crashes (as it’s designed to do), and the player finds out he or she didn’t prevent sea levels from rising.

One of their older works, “Grid, Sequence Me,” will also be on view in Davidson. The three-channel video projection piece, made with custom software, was shown at the Flashpoint Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 2013 and reviewed in the Washington Post.

The video fragments “mirror mortgages repackaged and sold, titles lost in administrative tape and dreams confused by legal jargon,” according to Mundy’s website. “Like the complex financial systems of the housing market heyday, the software generates an infinite number of arrangements.”

The last installation on view is an animation of a bamboo forest. While living in China and working 10 hours a day, Dietrick was impacted by the population density and sensory onslaught. She needed an escape. Hiking through the forest became that for her, and she felt visitors to the Davidson gallery made need a similar “detox,” as she called it, after the digital overload.

Studying technology and its impact on us — and global trade and its impact on the environment — has made the couple more circumspect. But they don’t eschew the Internet. Nor are they assigning blame for the foreclosure nightmare that impacted so many. “Even the best-designed systems can fail,” Dietrick said specifically about those designed to protect the U.S. economy from the housing crisis of the mid-2000s.

“We’re hoping our art will make people pause and think: Are the systems we’re using really the best available?”

“Art doesn’t have the answers,” she said. “It offers a snapshot of where we are now.”

Speed of Thinking panel discussion

When: Sept. 17, 11:05 a.m. to 12:05 p.m.

Where: Davidson College’s Semans Lecture Hall, Belk Visual Art Center.

Details: The panel featuring Joelle Dietrick, Owen Mundy and other art professors will discuss artwork that deals with the impacts of global trade, gaming and how digital tools are affecting culture. davidsoncollegeartgalleries.com.

Want to get more arts stories like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the free “Inside Charlotte Arts” newsletter at charlotteobserver.com/newsletters

You can also join our Facebook group, “Inside Charlotte Arts,” at https://www.facebook.com/groups/insidecharlottearts/