In a dimly lit space in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood, artist and PhD student Umut Gunduz is four versions of himself.

The first lies in the center of the room, where a few of his neon-green, 3D-printed bones sprout from a pit of moss, grass, and dirt. The second hangs against one wall, as projected on a television screen: shirtless, alive, and intimately examining his exposed, tattooed skin with his fingers so slowly that it's as if he's hunting for individual freckles. The third appears on a different TV screen, where he's on the ground and still, maybe decomposing, amidst polygonal foliage—his likeness scanned into a dark virtual world, like World of Warcraft had shut down and left his digital body to rot. And the fourth is an alive, very real Gunduz holding court, dressed for his own veritable funeral—black on black on black, plus black sunglasses—and laughing about it all.

Artist Umut Gunduz laughing at the burial of his bones. SAM MACHKOVECH

“Hopefully you’ve noticed I'm not being entirely serious,” Gunduz says at the opening exhibition for his multidisciplinary work Savage Alms at Mini Mart City Park in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. “I'm mocking the technology in a lot of ways. This is not death. I am not trying to imagine my own death. This is not morbid for me. This is what I can do with this technology. I can make this on my own as this kind of working-class tough from the UK. [Laughs] I’m able to come here and do this.”

In talking about Savage Alms, Gunduz makes clear that he’s applied some seriousness to the work. Each of the three elements has its own intentional design, and each links to the other. In the most profound example, the self-massaging sequence plays directly into the creation of the skull in the middle of the room.

Death, at your fingertips. SAM MACHKOVECH

Gunduz says he sculpted and 3D printed his skull and ribcage not using 3D scanning technology, but rather after approximating their shapes on feeling alone. “There’s this idea that imagery and literature are not enough to explain the world around us,” Gunduz tells The Stranger. “We now, more and more, need measurement and diagrams. I feel like that has an impact—we lose something when we start seeing ourselves, erm, diagrammatically. We lose the subjective experience to ourselves when we start thinking of ourselves through incalculable networks of knowledge that exist at our fingertips.”

Hence, he opted for a different kind of information discovery through his own fingertips: slow, methodical touching of his face and body. He likes the intimacy of it, along with a different “network of images” that the human mind references with interpretation via touch. “This might look a little like me, with the frown and everything, but my skull probably doesn't look anything like this,” he says, gesturing towards his physical bones in the dirt. “Those differences—and the gap, the space between those bits of knowledge—are where I think something interesting happens.”

What Gunduz's skull looks like, kind of. SAM MACHKOVECH

The virtual corpse, as built in the popular Unreal Engine framework, is admittedly not as interactive as its origin might suggest; there’s a constantly running, randomized weather cycle that either casts the scene in darkness, rain, or gaudy light, with each version exposing more or less of Gunduz’s still body. (He admits that the work is lacking the “normal maps” you’d see in a proper video game, which he says with a laugh better sells its “bloated” appearance.) But Gunduz talks about where this series of artistic works might go next—perhaps another combination of the real and the virtual, with a video game version of himself activating objects, thus triggering real-life moments near whatever computer they play out on.

Digital decay. SAM MACHKOVECH

The interplay between all three pieces is inspired, Gunduz says, by the Japanese artistic concept of Kusôzu, which depicts phases of death, from initial fall to bloating and eventual decay, on separate watercolor panels. That kind of look at death is very different than what a modern artist might make with access to a fully digital life, Gunduz argues:

When we see images of ourselves—constantly now, social media, right—within this context, we're immediately stricken with grief. We’re torn from ourselves, from our own existence, and know that that image will live on without us. We will start to die from that moment but that image will be immortal.

And it will live in various networks of various servers across the world and continue to persist. Like a drone of your life when you’re gone. And I think that we inherently embrace these technologies with a sense of grief. So we frantically try to stay in the moment or on top of it in that way.

So in that sense, I think that the digital death is... it's the digital, constantly reminding us of a death that is always trying to be delayed.


Savage Alms is featured at Mini Mart City Park until October 28. It is part of the wider-ranging SPAM New Media Festival, which showcases “art and discussion around technology and digital culture” at multiple Seattle venues and art spaces through October 28.