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Strangers in a digital world

Tom standing by his artwork Foodbank

Depression by alum Tom Webb

Strike Me Down by Tom Webb

Foodbank, digital art by alum Tom Webb

Power to Destroy a Planet by Tom Webb

University of Sussex Business School alum Tom Webb (BMEc 2014) debuted ‘Strangers’ in Soho, London this summer, a digital art exhibition which reflected the darker side of human existence. Serena Mitchell, Alumni Relations for the Business School, reviewed the work and chatted to the artist.

The show, which was held at Woodbury House Gallery, used digital technology to comment on themes that consider the darker side of the human condition. All the pieces featured real time data feeds and reflected back to the viewer the perceived value of human life in the binary scope of a computer.

“I’m a dark person,” says Webb (formerly Tom London), "and the work reflects my own experience of depression, medication and my fascination with the world of real time human data, as well as the ease with which this can be obtained. Everything here is a reflection of me. The Instagram piece illustrates when my appearance on 'America’s Got Talent' went viral; the clock is my fascination with the world. These are all aspects of me in my art and I hope that viewers too can find in some way a reflection of themselves that they can understand and relate to.

“With the artwork Depression, I wanted to reflect real time emotions. What is powerful about this is that the second someone hits the Tweet button it appears on the screen. I built a piece of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that can go through every tweet available and publish the relevant data to the screen. With the light sabres in Strike Me Down, I connected these (using AI) to the internet to read the real time suicide data of men and women.”

Between the two infinity mirrors of pink and blue light sabres that flash all too frequently is a perpetual waterfall of Xanax anti-anxiety tablets, which shows the rate of new prescription purchases in the USA. A striking work, it dominates the room, and has me transfixed whilst I contemplate the power of the pharmaceutical industry and how Western society has medicalised mental health, treating the symptoms with quick fix ‘Easy Mode’ pill popping but not really addressing the fundamental causes of many mental health issues.

Next to this piece is a real life digital counter juxtaposing the death rate from starvation around the world with the amount of money spent in the USA on weight loss programmes. Again, a stark reminder of hunger, survival, the vast imbalance in global society around access to food and the impact our relationship with it can have on our health. In the next room, another light sabre flashes all too quickly. Power to Destroy a Planet shows the real time rate at which hectares of rainforest are being cut down, and I’m reminded of the global price being paid for feeding Western diet trends: avocado production, coconut water and palm oil spring to mind.

The work is haunting, moving and deceptively simple. It really does make you stop to think about the subject matter, and how easily our digital data can be acquired. Webb said: “I’ve put all of my emotions on the wall for people to experience and I hope they enjoy and get something from this.”

As a relatively recent Sussex alum, what advice would Webb give to current Business School students? He said: “Sussex has a tradition of daring to be different; my advice would be don’t be afraid to disrupt; break something and find a better way.”

Follow Tom on Instagram @Webb

By: Serena Mitchell
Last updated: Thursday, 30 August 2018