The air is hot, stifling really, as the city heaves itself into one of those irrepressible cycles that make up the summer months. Mosquitos are born, cars bellow out their invisible smoke, and butterflies hover over the canal in Ladbroke Grove. I’m on my way to meet Dominic Harris, a graphic artist whose works appear primarily virtual, but below the surface belly a complex web of bespoke machinery, the intricate lacing of wires and code, and an attention to physical detail which extends to every pixel on his touchscreen canvases. His art is an attempt to digitally synthesise the capture of beautiful moments observed in his own life, with an enduring focus on the butterfly as a symbol of this untouchable ephemerality. Often you can reach out, towards the expansive collection of hundreds of 2-D Lepidoptera, and watch them fly in all directions in response to your own movements. Later, he’ll explain to me how the wings of many species are so delicate that even the most delicate contact would cause them to tear, but that through his screens he has managed to simulate this impossible contact: perhaps the raison d’etre of his practice. However, for the moment, all I’m concerned with is whether or not all those computers will need air con; the comforts of a covid-mask are starting to wear thin.
The studio itself is a little imposing, sliding glass doors cut into an old industrial building, sub-divided into a labyrinth of offices and workspaces, somewhere within which sits the extra-dimensional butterfly house. I wonder if Harris would approve. Originally an architect, Harris turned towards a full-time pursuit of his aesthetic preclusions after realising the emotive impact that his work could have on an audience. After one of his early works, ‘Flutter’, was picked up by former McLaren Group owner Ron Dennis, he’s found himself under a generous succession of patrons and sponsors, allowing him to exercise a level of control over his creations that requires a space like this; with room enough to squeeze in multiple workshops and an office. I will see each of them later, twisting through the corridors to a Joy Division soundtrack, which plays as his team work. But first I have to make it up to the office, and the place to where I will begin my tour.
Dominic himself cuts a curious figure, extending a handshake as I enter, and walking me through to his desk past a small computer lab of clattering keyboards and the syncopated clicking of mice, all modelling scenes and new creatures which I’m told I cannot talk about. On the walls sit some of the larger pieces: “World Stage” with its iconic American flag made of butterflies’ shimmers as somebody walks past. Upon just catching your eye there’s a moment where they could be real, a mistake often made by his young children or so I’m told. There’s something rather Bond-villain-esque about the whole operation, between the rows of computers, the life-size golden skull in a developing piece, or Harris’ own curved monitor, wide enough to swallow most of the main-deck from Star Trek. But if there is an air of megalomania about the work, it can only be charmingly so, offset perfectly and driven by an aesthetic obsession in full flair.
As we walk and talk, Dominic’s pre-occupation with cycles comes up over and over again. It’s soaked into the screens, and baked into their Stanley Kubrick inspired magical properties, in the laying of careful hands on impossible objects. Cinema captures time, but Harris’ work does more than this, it lets you touch it, or approach the asymptote of proximity at any rate. From birth to death, and across a painfully short life-span, he’s conjured for his butterflies a virtual immortality, that hangs on the wall and traces the motions of your hand. A flick of the magician’s wrist, and the great monuments of iconography, the flags red white and blue disperse into emergent chaos, each butterfly programmed with AI to dance and stir its neighbours, with all the disorder captured interactively within the borders of the frame. Another tap, and one by one they turn a brilliant gold, and begin to settle back into their original places. There’s a surreal element to the wizardry at work in this way, a preference and an exaggeration of what Harris finds beautiful in the butterfly as a figure. He leans in, as if to whisper a secret, that unlike his creations, the wings of the genuine article are likewise only coloured on one side.
I am told that if you look closely, you can just catch the simulated iridescence on each insect’s wings, glistening as the minute scales shimmer under a virtual light. As I lean in, Dominic explains the depths him and his team have had to trace in order to conjure the illusion. The individual insects have been painted digitally by hand, composed scale by scale over multiple layers, so that they shine with the graceful complexity possessed by the original creatures. Everything in Harris’ studio operates in this way, from the infinitely customised screens themselves, assembled downstairs in the ‘dirty’ workshop from a myriad of in-house tooled parts, to the lattice of software involved and constant work to perfect the butterfly’s flight, as if perhaps to exceed reality in some way. It’s in this respect that you have to really meet with the art in question, to feel the tactility, and appreciate the sculptural detail of its computer engineering. The whole project is gripped by the pursuit of a constructed beauty, and its photographic capture in a touchscreen canvas developed specifically to fulfil the artist’s desire, as raw technological prowess overcomes the need for any ready-made medium, in this case. The work here becomes the distillation of chaotic interactivity, and how from the merest pixels and brush of a fingertip, can a world of unpredictable possibility skim the surface of the virtual screen.
Suddenly, the tour is over. We’ve had a great chat, and I’ve snapped a few photos, and now I’m back on the streets beneath the blazing afternoon sun. Still taking it in, I realise that indeed the office was air conditioned, as another diesel people-carrier trundles past belching torrid smoke. In one of the larger pieces around the studio, I remember Harris showing me an interactive space he has built for the Disney characters of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Following a trail of breadcrumbs through the diptych, the pair of them can be sent hurtling around the world, from the rooftops of New York, and London, to a romanticised Paris and back again. I watch the pair of them, separated to their own screen, but happily languishing in the evening breeze, as it curls around the Eiffel Tower in the distance. In reality, a house alarm goes off, and I’m sequestered back to fumes of half-molten tarmac and tube trains. The air is hot, stifling really, and quite heartbreakingly, the butterflies aren’t coloured on both sides.