With ‘IOU’, Harm van den Dorpel is asking us to believe in ghosts. In these newly commissioned works for narrative projects, van den Dorpel conducts something like a séance: bringing the past into the present; making visible the invisible.
The ‘IOU’ works are all made by firing a heat gun at thermo-sensitive paper, much like the sort used in till receipts. This method produces monochrome smears, smudges and drips on the once-perfect white canvas, creating something reminiscent of Abstract Expressionist painting. But the painterly effect is an illusion. While painting builds on the surface of the canvas, a heat gun agitates into visibility what was already there, lying in wait below the surface of the paper. Most pieces – such as ‘leucocyte’ and ‘ant’ – are Rorschach abstractions, while the malformed face of ‘bottle cork’ grins out to us like a tortured emoji: a Turin Shroud for the tech age.
Among the flurry of conceptual lurches in his artist’s statement, van den Dorpel briefly describes the exchange of money for a receipt. This thin strip of paper acts as a memorial, acknowledging – for the benefit of a later tax return – the sale of a commodity. In using this technology van den Dorpel points to a ghostly, real-but-can’t-be-touched global market. A receipt is a record of an exchange, but it also signifies a very particular capitalist social relation. The receipt is passed from the vendor to the customer at the point of exchange, and this moment may be the only interaction between them. The blunt irony is, of course, that the works in ‘IOU’ are also for sale: these memorials of commodity exchange are commodities themselves.
The receipts he describes are not printed with ink but, like the works in ‘IOU’, are summoned into existence through heat. However, when they’re crumpled in pockets or otherwise mishandled, more black is drawn out from the paper, and the ‘print’ washes out. Any useful information is lost, to the frustration of accountants everywhere. This loss mirrors another, much more tragic loss. van den Dorpel’s statement also situates ‘IOU’ alongside the work of computer programmer and hacktivist, Aaron Swartz. Involved in the creation of RSS, Reddit and Creative Commons, Swartz was deeply committed to the free and democratic circulation of information online. But his ambitions came to a lamentable end in 2013, when Swartz was convicted of data theft after downloading millions of dollars’ worth of JSTOR articles. He committed suicide shortly afterwards.
The dream of e-topia perhaps died with Swartz. Today the internet is saturated in sponsored content, SEO and data harvesting, and in this light it would be tempting to read ‘IOU’ as a requiem. But there’s also hope: a ghost only haunts us when it has unfinished business. Perhaps Swartz’s project isn’t over yet. In confronting monetised digital space and the merging of art and commodity, van den Dorpel summons a lost e-topia into the present.