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2016.18_Henrik Olesen

Henrik Olesen

A.T. 2012
computer collages on cardboard
20 parts: 48 x 32.7 cm (image), 52.6 x 37.4 cm (frame), 111 x 420 cm (overall)
Monash University Collection
Purchased by the Faculty of Science 2015

Divided across a rectangular grid of twenty greyscale digital images that collage photography, typewritten text, binary code, newspaper clippings, equations and hand-scrawled philosophical queries, Henrik Olesen’s A.T., 2012, constitutes an idiosyncratic, politically potent portrait. Its titular subject is Alan Turing, the quietly iconic British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, theoretical biologist, homosexual man and acknowledged progenitor of the modern computer. Read from left to right, Olesen’s work narrates Turing’s achievements, loves, and the inhumane treatment he sustained at the hands of a homophobic British government. The range of texts and images illuminates an authority’s hypocritical attempt to have it both ways—by celebrating (and greatly benefitting from) Turing’s computational genius in wartime, while simultaneously punishing him for his sexuality through suppression and, unbelievable as it is today, chemical castration.

Significantly, the artwork organises each aspect of its subject’s biography on a single, non-hierarchical plane, repositioning Turing’s sexuality as indivisible from his scientific achievements. A.T. could easily be accompanied by the adjunct: ‘art in the age of homosexual reproduction’ as its consequence is to recreate Turing’s story for the twenty-first century; one gay man reproduces another by generating a reborn, holistic image to substitute the damaged version that kept Turing’s work sanitarily cordoned-off from his sexuality.[1]

A.T. is an example of how queer experience is frequently communicated through non-traditional, somewhat messy and chaotic channels—stories, lessons, slang, images, jokes, graffiti and friendships to name a few. These modes arise out of necessity, as one often has to look sideways from the family line to locate queer intelligence, activity and role models to supplement blind-spotted ‘official’ records. Continuing this tradition, A.T. uses coded assemblage to affect a post-mortem repair to Turing’s torn identity, and in doing so resurrects Turing as a real, impactful archetype—one with a past, a present and a legacy that continues to unfold today. This visual language is economical and rough, hinting, on the part of the artist, a desperation to communicate something important. Through this urgent resurrection, and most scandalously, Olesen (agit)propagates computation itself as inherently homosexual. Wherein to recognise Turing as both gay and the ‘father of modern computing’ is to recognise that modern computing is inherently a homosexual progeny—radically expanding the signs of queer activity available to anyone looking.[2]

One panel in A.T. features the existential question to self ‘How do I make myself a body(?)’. And, in self-reflexive response, the work offers a series of conventional photo studio portraits of Turing, handsome and goofy in a boy-next-door way, overlaid by digital cables that replace Turing’s features—literally melding his body with digital technology in shared compositional and conceptual space. These are visual equations: Turing = computing / computing = Turing. In this culture-quaking manner, Olesen renders digital technology a fundamentally homosexual space, reiterated through each and every tangible object of its hardware.

In considering the self-shaping many queer people do in the process of ‘making themselves a body’, often at a remove from the ancestral line, observation of what is or is not theirs within culture is a primary strategy. Queer body-making is (for many if not all) not an additive construction that builds confidently outward, but a deductive one that looks cannily for the unoccupied zones left in straight society, subsequently finding the body’s shape in those negative spaces. Following the logic of A.T., if computing is ‘gay’, then the spaces of the homosexual body are, suddenly, practically limitless and enmeshed throughout global culture to an unimaginably comprehensive degree; the ratio of negative to positive space is inverted in a convulsive flash of realisation, and every would-be homophobe with a smartphone in their pocket is rendered an instant hypocrite. To my mind, A.T. amounts to a queerly didactic rejoinder to the British government’s original injustice of trying to separate Turing from his sexuality, and in doing so affects a radical broadening of the horizons of homosexual self-(re)production in our computer age.

Andrew Atchison is an artist currently based in Melbourne/Narrm. He works across multiple forms and has ongoing critical interests in queer identity formation, public art practices, and the aesthetics of withholding. He is a current resident studio artist at Gertrude Contemporary.


[1] ‘Art in the age of homosexual reproduction’ references cultural theorist Walter Benjamin’s influential 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, published in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, Schocken, New York, 1969, pp. 217–51.

[2] See the following web-book for an in-depth and thoroughly researched account of Turing’s foundational contribution to contemporary digital technologies: B. Jack Copeland and Diane Proudfoot, ‘Alan Turing: Father of the Modern Computer, Rutherford Journal, vol. 4, 2011–12, http://www.rutherfordjournal.org/article040101.html. For an excellent analysis of how the visibility and proximity of queer objects shape one’s sense of being in the world queerly see Sara Ahmed, ‘Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology’, GLQ, vol. 12, no. 4, 2006, pp. 543–74. Ahmed draws upon the work of Edmund Husserl, Judith Butler and Lee Edelman, among others, to explore the historicity of the objects we (deliberately) surround ourselves with, and how those objects connect we who touch them to queer histories while also orienting queer ways into the future—a dynamic, formative contact.