The Benefit and Danger of being So Heavily Invested in Our ‘Screen Lives’

Michael Stevens made a natural transition from photographer to digital artist when he fell in love with the creative potential and endless range of possibilities available when digitally constructing an image.

He began photographing architecture, and is inspired by geometry, space and tunnels. Mike possesses an impressive talent both behind the camera and the iPhone or iPad – which he now uses to make most of his artwork.

Playing with lines, pixels, patterns and perspective, he continues to utilise architecture for inspiration, but after moving from photography to digital art his work has taken on a more abstract, conceptual feel.

The images I make are tailored to Instagram specifically and my artwork probably wouldn’t exist without this medium. I am not sure if my work can even exist outside of a social media context. My pictures can reach between 15,000 to 40,000 people – but how many glance at them for more than a second or two?

——Mike Strevens

We met with Mike to find out more about his creative processes and his thoughts on the future relationship between art and social media.

THE PLUS: How did you get into digital art?

Mike Strevens:
Digital art was initially a coping mechanism for me when I was going through a tough time. Our daughter was still a baby and my Dad was terminally ill. Sitting around in hospital for hours on end, I did some experimental editing of my old photos with iPhone apps. It helped to distract me and keep the anxiety at bay.

I became obsessed with mobile photography after I bought my first iPhone in 2012 and discovered Instagram. I tried out every genre I could think of, but my favourite was architecture.

TP: Has Instagram changed your perspective of photography?

I did all sorts of photo series and projects (including photographing all 270 London Underground stations). Taking and editing photos on my phone and sharing them on Instagram became a way of life. I really loved it. It made me see my city in a whole new light.

Overtime I lost my love for photography, my family took priority and I was dealing with the loss of my Dad. I went to Berlin to try to regain my spark. I took some nice photos, but there was just one problem: they were the same as everyone else’s.

I realised that Instagram was having an unhealthy influence on me. I was taking those pictures because I was desperate for the approval and the likes.

TP: Then you had a long break on Instagram, what happened next with your artistic approach?

After a long Instagram break, I decided to focus exclusively on digital art. I don’t have a background in graphic design and have never owned a Mac or mastered Photoshop, so it took a while to develop my own style. I make my work with iPhone and iPad apps. As well as being more intuitive, I like the tactile part of pulling my works into shape using a touchscreen.

TP: What is your process while creating a new piece?

I experiment a lot – I usually start off with a base set of colours or lines and then put them through various processes until I find a pattern I like. I use certain apps to create the tunnel effect and others to play with colour and add texture and sharpness.

Once I’m happy with the results, I apply the finishing touches with photo editing tools. I always add the figure at the end, and it has become my signature. Some people may find it gimmicky, but I use it purely as a device to give the impression of scale and perspective.

It allows the viewer to orient themselves in the image and turns the abstract pattern into a ‘location’ of sorts. It takes me anything from a couple of hours or a few days to finish a piece.

TP: Black and white, or colour?

My Instagram feed alternates between colour and black and white, which is an attempt to impose some sort of order on the chaos…

With my black and white pieces, I like to make optical illusions and play with the viewer’s sense of perception. I try to create dynamism and movement using lines and patterns. I take a lot of inspiration from the artist Bridget Riley and the OpArt movement. She had a big show at the Hayward Gallery in London and it is amazing to experience these paintings up close. If you stare at them long enough you start to see colours!

TP: Tell us more about the colours.

For my colour work, I prefer retro palettes.

I want to incorporate a feeling of nostalgia. Neon is a favourite. It is an aesthetic that has stayed with me from all the films, TV programmes and computer games I enjoyed as a kid in the 80s and 90s.

The ingredient I want all my pictures to have is ‘atmosphere’. The thing that stays with me in any work of art, be it a painting, film or book, is how it made me feel. If I can make you pause for a moment and feel something, no matter how fleeting, as you scroll through your Instagram feed, then it’s all worthwhile.

TP: How do you think social media has impacted you?

I have very mixed feelings about social media and the impact in has on my art and life in general. We are more connected than ever before, but we have also become a generation of smartphone zombies, mindlessly consuming content all day in self-imposed isolation.

I rarely tweet but avidly read the daily onslaught of bad news on Twitter. Like all addictions, it doesn’t make me feel good, yet I am compelled to keep scrolling and checking. Instagram is different and has its own dark side.

It can be an amazing platform for creativity, but it is also a giant narcissism factory. I often take social media breaks, and I think it’s healthy to question your motivations and ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ I go through periods when it gives me so much energy and others when it sucks the life out of me. Being creative is good for your sanity – the obsession with social media engagement can damage it.

Generally Instagram has been a positive part of my life but taking my pictures beyond the small screen is something I’d love to do in the year ahead. I’ve met a number of people I follow, and it makes a big difference once you’ve made the connection with someone in person. In other words, the ‘social’ side of social media is usually a force for good.

TP: Where do you see social media and art moving in the next few years?

I think artists and galleries will continue to develop their use of it to connect with their audiences. Exhibitions like Olafur Eliasson’s at the Tate Modern have become huge social media events. People share their photos from inside the fog tunnel or standing in front of their rainbow silhouette and it helps create a buzz and make others want to see the work for themselves.

This runs true for choosing where to eat, or go on holiday – people want to go somewhere that looks ‘Instagrammable.’ Sometimes it seems no experience is valid unless you can share it on social media.

As for the future of digital art, it covers such a broad spectrum of work – ranging from artificial intelligence, 3D printing and virtual reality through to pixel art, animation and even electronic music.

As technology continues to play such a prominent role in our lives, it’s inevitable that artists will make work that both responds to it and embraces it. Having said that, I think there is still a long way to go before it is fully accepted and has the same status as more established art forms.

TP: Any editing tips to share?

We all pick up our phones hundreds of times a week so why not do something creative with it? The apps I use are all cheap and many are available on both iPhones and Android. Here are some of my favourites:

Patternator, iColorama, Assembly, Union, Pixomatic, SKRWT, Glitché, Mextures, Enlight, Whorl, VSCO, Snapseed, Circular, Reflect, Lens Light, NeonCam and Trigraphy.

Happy experimenting!