Please upgrade your browser

For the best experience, you should upgrade your browser. Visit our accessibility page to view a list of supported browsers along with links to download the latest version.

Emily Sparkes

MPhil work

Painting in the time of memes: hysteria, humour, and circulation AFK.

This practice-led research aims to account for AFK (away from keyboard) painting practices which utilise the aesthetics and gestures of digital technologies. This will build on concerns for identity/becoming by focussing on the visceral aspects of acceleration and stillness in a ubiquitous and non-hierarchical flow of data via codes and algorithms, refuting binary separations of time online and IRL (in real life). My hypothesis is that by problematizing circulation, complexity and multiplicity within these practices, a radically different approach to contemporary painting emerges: one that foregrounds entanglement [Barad: 2007, 2015], diffraction [Haraway: 2016], incompleteness/fractal materiality [Golding: 2014, 2016] and the figural [Lyotard: 2003].

My practice-led research (painting) is situated between the discursive and the figural, utilising a discursive methodology [Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard]. Working discursively allows for an analytic / critical consideration of flow, discontinuity and the logics of sense / poetics all critical for this project. By complicating the figural and non-representational moves well known in abstraction to return to the body, this research also utilises certain radical queer and feminist frameworks [Blas, Colebrook, Freeman, McCallum; Nigianni, Storr].

The current phenomena of (re)making and sharing images in online / virtual spaces in the form of memes/gifs/emoji at once seems commonplace and puerile. However, far from banal, image-sharing culture and our contemporary dependence on the screen is arguably creating a new power of the image, with emphasis on absurd humour, hysteria and play. As well as my own art practice, artists studied include Josh Reames, Allison Zuckerman, Matt Hansel, Philip Gerald, Jamian Juliano-Villani, and Laura Owens. By utilising internet appropriation and gestures of touch-screen interfaces in their work it allows these artists to explore the impact of the digital age and develop an expanded notion of painting. This new understanding of the image allows one to deal with the practical embodied aspects of creating artworks, embracing the inherent trans-disciplinary nature of new technologies (digital / analogue) while simultaneously situating painting as central to art practice.

Keywords:  painting, figure, tactility, internet, technology, neoliberalism, data, forums, humour, paganism, temporality, skeuomorphism, interfaces, networks, appropriation, play.


  • MPhil


    School of Arts & Humanities


    Arts & Humanities Research, 2017–

  • Emily Sparkes is an artist and practice-based researcher exploring the entanglement of painting and internet imagery. Sparkes has exhibited her work both regionally and internationally, with work in both private and public collection, including the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. She is a current studio holder at Stryx, Birmingham while contuning her MPhil / PhD research at the Royal College of Art.

  • Degrees

  • BA Fine Art, Birmingham School of Art (BCU), 2014; MA Queer Studies in Arts and Culture, Birmingham School of Art (BCU), 2015
  • Experience

  • Subsidiary Teaching, Birmingham City University, School of Visual Communication, 2017-present; Subsidiary Teaching, MA Public Sphere, Royal College of Art, 2018; Module Leader, Themes and Concepts in Art (BA Fine Art), Birmingham School of Art, 2018 - present
  • Exhibitions

  • Next Wave 2018, Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, UK; Open Out festival [solo show], Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum Tromsø, Norway, 2018; NN Open 2018, Northampton Contemporary, UK; Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait Prize 2018, London, UK; sitcom laughing [solo show], Artefact, Birmingham, UK, 2017; Little Monsters, The Jubilee Trade Centre, Birmingham, UK, 2017; Artist of the Day [solo show], Flowers Gallery (Mayfair), London, UK, 2016; Small is Beautiful, Flowers Gallery (Mayfair), London, UK, 2016; Salon, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, UK, 2015; Emily Sparkes [solo show], Havill & Travis, West Midlands, UK, 2015; A Line Drawn From the Eye to the Summit, Birmingham School of Art, UK, 2015; New Art West Midlands, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, UK, 2015; for I am, Birmingham School of Art, UK, 2014; Cold Tea, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, UK, 2014; What’s the Agenda?, mac, Birmingham, UK, 2014
  • Awards

  • Gertrude Aston Bowater Bequest, 2014; Arts, Design and Media PhD Studentship, Birmingham City University, 2015-2017; Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Bursary, 2017
  • Conferences

  • Marl: Sometimes Hard, usually Soft: A Carnival of Entanglement, Royal College of Art, 2018; "Know Your Meme The treachery of (internet) images: ceci n’est pas une pepe", The Politics of Pop Culture conf. Univeristy of Birmingham, 2018; Research Matters, Birmingham School of Art, 2016