Jakob Dwight's "Autonomous Prism"


The exhibit Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, which first debuted in 2015 at Seattle Art Museum, and through September 18 occupies a place at Brooklyn Museum, brings together twenty-five artists who offer a contemporary spin on the ritual of African masquerade. In this rendition masks presented as video and photography, and made of neon lights and paper collage, stand in for the familiar materials of wood, metal,and raffia. 

Artist Jakob Dwight's contribution to this modern masquerade is a series of digital masks titled, The Autonomous Prism

  The Autonomous Prism, MSK01.  Still video for projection or plasma screen. Courtesy artist.

The Autonomous Prism, MSK01. Still video for projection or plasma screen. Courtesy artist.


Much of Jakob Dwight's work is "a lament over the loss of materiality [sic] in our present world; a nostalgia for earth and clay." This yearn for the biological originated in the artist's childhood, due to his mother's assemblage of pottery by Alabama-based artist Charles Smith. She also had a "small but inspiring" collection of African masks, of whose influence lends to Disguise.

The Autonomous Prism is a series of digital videos framed within the silhouettes of masks. Played on a continuous loop, the masks morph one into another with a smooth continuity. Subtle moments of shapelessness - seen in the embryonic phase of each mask - liken to a potter's yet-to-be-shaped amorphous portion of clay. The digital metamorphosis occurs to a rhythmic pattern: The masks form and dissolve in tandem with a pulse, so that this incorporeal artwork becomes personified with the heartbeat of the human wearer of a traditional mask.

The rhythmic origin of The Autonomous Prism traces also to the artist's youth, to age 12 when a brain tumor was removed. "Part of my affinity for avant garde electronic music is because that's exactly what CAT scans sounded like, this really rapid-fire mechanical staccato-knocking in both ears," he revealed. "To make it bearable for myself I musicalized [sic] the sounds, and imagined melodies to keep myself occupied and sane." 

BLANC Modern Africa spoke in depth with the artist on understanding digital art, artists who inspire him, and whether The Autonomous Prismis truly 'African art'. 

The interview has been edited and condensed.

BLANC: What was your process to develop The Autonomous Prism?

Jakob Dwight: The Autonomous Prism is derived from a digital misfire that occurred one night during a residency in Berlin. I was attempting to create a piece for an animation that resulted in a field of colorful visual noise that I immediately thought useless and threw away in frustration. Before emptying my trash a few days later, however, I pulled this video artifact out and began to work with it and to manipulate the lines and have been playing with it ever since. ForDisguise, I used stencils made from photos of masks in Seattle Art Museum's [SAM] collection; and then, in other videos I sculpted the abstract data stream into mask forms, like "MSK11" which is inspired by Sogo Bo (Antelope Bird Mask) in SAM's collection.  

BLANC: Does it have a particular meaning?

Jakob Dwight: No, The Autonomous Prism instead offers itself as a point of departure for poetic reverie where a myriad meaning and associations can be made by a viewer with each passing moment. I think of them as fires, in the way that Gaston Bachelard in The Psychoanalysis of Fire speaks of fire's ancient significance to human psyche and poetic imagination, being this a site in which images and symbols are born, transformed and reborn; the works are more invitation to psychic transformation than anything.

The title references its being this found object - a found video artifact - that seemingly acts on its own.    

  The Autonomous Prism, MSK04.23SY.   Still video for projection or plasma screen.   Courtesy artist.

The Autonomous Prism, MSK04.23SY. Still video for projection or plasma screen. Courtesy artist.


BLANC: Do you think of your work within the category of "African art"? If so, have you always held this classification or has the context of Disguise now attached this label?

Jakob Dwight: Usually, I don't think of my work as African Art, or Black Art, because for the most part I am an abstractionist, studying nature and materiality - existence itself.  If I'm speaking of identity at all in my work, it is in a suspicious manner and from a distance:  What is identity? And are you [or] we the same person or thing from moment to moment? This is what I think Autonomous Prism-MSK series asks. At its core are some real ontological existential questions as a viewer is faced with a flood of possible identities, potential being.   

I've been grateful to participate in Disguise because it challenged me with those questions of African-ity [sic] and Negritude that I rarely have a chance to explore in my work but think about often, though inconclusively. So for me I'd rather define myself or be defined through the work solely.  Even though the work is abstract and it is more definitively of me than any of the aforementioned ways of describing my being.    

  The Autonomous Prism, MSK04.   Still video for projection or plasma screen.   Courtesy artist.

The Autonomous Prism, MSK04. Still video for projection or plasma screen. Courtesy artist.


BLANC: The Autonomous Prism is simultaneously a light-based and video artwork. Have the practices of artists James Turrell or Theo Eshetu, who are revered in those mediums, respectively, guided how you view or approach your work?

Jakob Dwight: Turrell has been very important for me over the years since finding out about his work as a teenager through one of my father's engineering books, of all places, which featured an article on his Roden Crater work.  Turrell is the reason I identify myself as a light artist - when I have to label myself - and not as a video artistper se.Even though video may be the vehicle delivering light in my works I am seeking to explore the illuminated rather than time-based image (video), to experiment with light and space in ways similar to Turrell.  He inspired my earliest projected light works featuring explosions in deep red colorfield whose light bled off the screen and washed the room in red.  

[Eshetu's] Brave New World continues to be a very transformative experience and important work for me.  Even though the bifurcation or mirroring effect in video art has a long tradition, it remains attractive to our psyches because mirrored image gives birth to a multitude of associations. These new images that are made tend to mimic animalistic or biological forms that our brains are wired to recognize, in the way that we can see (specifically) faces in many things instantly. In Eshetu's work the flood of this innate form-recognition bias happening simultaneously with the video images, themselves very intense scenes once you figure out what they are, like an animal sacrifice for instance, makes for poetic fire. Brave New World is a masterpiece in my opinion.

  The Autonomous Prism, MSK08.   Still video for projection or plasma screen.   Courtesy artist.

The Autonomous Prism, MSK08. Still video for projection or plasma screen. Courtesy artist.


BLANC: In an interview with Seattle Art Museum you said that digital art is a language. How can viewers become versed in this language? 

Jakob Dwight: My point about art being like a language was that it is a long-held system of expression, a technology that is socially-mediated and adaptive, something that can be forever changing with expressive necessity throughout the ages.  

So I'm talking about cultural diffusion and currency, the ways in which cultural forms are born and made semi-permanent by adoption and usage; the ways that cultural forms (styles) are passed move around from population to population and are changed over time like a language.  

In that interview, my entire statement was that:  for artists, not only are they building their own lexicon and individual modes of expression or inquiry, but also contributing their findings to larger longer-held discourse and system of expression and communication.

BLANC: And elsewhere you've described your work as reflective.

Jakob Dwight: I mean that the ultimate aim for much of my work, more than to express anything per se, is to provide sanctuary in which a percipient of the works can reflect on themselves in their environment, themselves in the world, or to imagine themselves in another world.

The writer Octavio Paz wrote of a Spanish word 'ensimisarse', which means "to take a stand within oneself." To guide people towards finding or making this space within themselves is one of the highest roles of art, especially in a hyper-capitalist, highly work-based society like we have in the US in which reflective or meditative thought can be discouraged as being un-useful or somehow wasteful.  The image and the senses in our culture, attributable to marketing, public relations and the media, have been commandeered to be maximally useful in driving us towards specific ends, usually consumerism. So to counter this it's becoming increasingly important to establish and re-establish spaces and experiences of humane reflection to avoid becoming complete automatons.  In this way Joseph Beuys' assertion, that, "art has become a revolutionary force," definitely resonates with truth.


Disguise: Masks and Global African Art is on view at Brooklyn Museum through September 18.

Nadia Sesay