Duncan Poulton’s digital collages made from online waste

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A scroll through Duncan’s collection of material, saved in carefully arranged folders, reveals the ghostly strata that he’s so fascinated by: Blurry flash photography of used Fisher Price toys once on sale sit next to sparkling flower gifs from the early days of Web 2.0 and scans of chaotic drawings uploaded onto uninhabited forums. “Quite often, I wonder, ‘why has someone gone through the effort of taking this image and thinking they want to share it with the world?’” says Duncan. 

And so he takes these images, and rearranges and edits them using software like Photoshop. Reassembled, these pieces tell the viewer a lot about what everyday life on the internet looks like—what we collectively consume, what we spend our days uploading, and then what we forget when we move onto the next new thing. 

In one of his most recent artworks, “St. Anonymous,” a found photograph of a white, bearded man’s largely covered face, overlaid with glasses, is placed inside a series of framing devices made from swatches from Smithsonian textile scans and uploads of TV test patterns, coming together to evoke the composition of a traditional icon painting. “I was originally thinking of it as an ode to the anonymous uploader,” says Duncan—ie. the people who uploaded all the “digital junk” that inspires Duncan.

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When you sit down at the end of the day and your eyes are tired, your mind is full of a thousand images and bits of information.”

“Nuclear Summer (Everquest)” similarly combines disjunctive images to form a reflection on life during lockdown. “I had just moved back to my parents’ house in Birmingham, and was living this hermetic existence in my teenage bedroom,” says Duncan. “I made this particular work during the hot summer where we still had to be indoors.” 

Duncan found a low-res infrared scan, featuring a man testing out his infrared equipment from his desk, an image that “resonated a lot” with his current situation. He spliced the file together with a warped EverQuest logo, the late-90s 3D fantasy game. “I wanted to capture this feeling of a never ending online existence, to resonate with what many of us were living through,” he says. Two Mac “spinning wheels of death” puncture the top of the work, because as Duncan was making it—filtering his found infrared scan over and over again—his computer kept dying. “I then noticed the loading symbol had the same colors,” he says.

And what can we ultimately read in Duncan’s juxtapositions of images found in the subterranean depths of the net? “I suppose the works pay witness to the lives that we lead now,” he says. “When you sit down at the end of the day and your eyes are tired, your mind is full of a thousand images and bits of information.” It’s this whirring chaos of the subconscious struggling against overabundance that he attempts to capture. While his artworks may seem bleak, in a way, they quite accurately reflect the messy everydayness of collective life online. As Duncan says: “I call it digital grubbiness.”

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