Virtual (inter-)Reality: How Manuel Rossner shines his UltraLight Beam through the ‘Dark Enlightenment’

, 16 January 2017

Manuel Rossner’s UltraLight Beam starts off using an unusual tactic. For this latest solo exhibition at Frankfurt am Main’s 1822-Forum, opening January 16 and running to February 25, the gallery turns out to be the most limited site for viewing the work — just two large, chrome, tubal sculptures are mounted from the floors and ceilings, spanning the breadth of the space and situated amongst garish primary-coloured walls. The artist and subsequent curator of the physical space in the German city, as well as the Float digital gallery it expands into, presents a multi-way viewing experience to the audience, which also includes the more intimate experience of UltraLight Beam via a customized Google Cardboard Head-Mounted Display unit (HMD). When worn, a virtual reality landscape appears that you can move through, wherever you are, at your own leisure.

Manuel Rossner, UltraLight Beam (2017). Exhibition view. Courtesy the artist + 1822-Forum, Frankfurt.

A high-gloss reflective catalogue accompanies the work, complementing the show with a text from Frankfurt-based curator Miriam Bettin. There’s also a 3D-rendered reality that is displayed on the Float galley webpage archives, where the project will exist online, forever. Rossner adds layers, ideologies and realities to each of these scenarios — physically, virtually and theoretically — in a cumulative work of curated space that ends on a viewer’s personal laptop screen through the website.

The first impression one has of UltraLight Beam’s maverick architecture is one of playful humour, not mentioning the reference to the 2016 Kanye West pop song of the same name. Large, garish pipes run through kitchens resembling those of an IKEA showroom, as well as familiarly rendered brutalist institutions with sweeping concrete elevator shafts and baroque concert halls. Child-friendly lemon-yellow pipes burst through the rooms, alongside lime-green, strawberry-red and blackcurrant-purple; nothing short of a packet of Fruit Pastilles.

The interesting part about Berlin-based Rossner’s work, however, is the philosophy he combines with these glossy infinite sculptures. In the show’s press release, he alludes to this intricately mapped space as a site of innovation via quotes from political theorists Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Controversial In art and philosophy circles, the 2015 text outlines a demand for full automation,’ universal basic income and the “de-linking of work from income” on a global scale through technological acceleration. It could be easily mistaken as another re-interpretation of Nick Land’s contentious ideas from the early 90s on Accelerationism as a form of technological advancement to the point of destruction, creating a new world reform in its wake from the position of what he calls ‘Dark Enlightenment.’ Yet, Srnicek and Williams also articulate that if “the future left is as technically fluent as it is politically fluent,” — as Rossner re-quotes in his catalogue — then they too have a chance to rebuild from a socially-centered positioning, but at the price of establishing some sort of Universality. The term itself is not always an agreeable one due to its limitations in maintaining the fallacy of a common product, or idea, or status quo. You have to question whose ‘universal’ they’re referring to in the first place. If it’s what Srnicek and Williams call one of a Macro scale, rather than a Micro one, you can’t help but wonder if universality here is just another word for majority, and although that approach can combat certain struggles, like basic income for all or global connectivity, it also eradicates the individual and the strike or opt-out notion of a minority.

Manuel Rossner, UltraLight Beam (2017). Exhibition view. Courtesy the artist + 1822-Forum, Frankfurt.

One idea that resonates strongly, though — both within the book and in Rossner’s UltraLight Beam — is the “post-Enlightenment Matrix.” It argues against resistance, withdrawal or exiting as a leftist-strategy, instead salvaging modernity to enable a way for a new political movement of scale and expansion. UltraLight Beam’s fluid aesthetic form and content mediates between platforms — on and offline — via real space, Google HMD units and personal devices for what seems like a digital infinity (or as long as the tech-life span of the project goes). Rossner’s work doesn’t shy away from any space, but lambasts its way through walls, corridors, ceilings and viewers alike in real and ‘virtual’ space. What is at times rather controversial about Srnicek and Williams is their call for the left to end its love affair with what they call folk politics’ – local, authentic places of a temporary and autonomous nature in favour of a new form of universal action and conditioning. This, they believe, is capable of outwitting modern neoliberal capitalism through market and technological horizontality. A new model of a post-work economy would be possible in their eyes via a globally-interconnected system of technology and machine manufacturing without human labour. It would bring cryptocurrencies and blockchains to the forefront of trade, a ‘full automation’ that Srnicek and Williams claim would be the “new money of the commons, divorced from capitalist forms.”

Rossner’s work visually outlines this new global Matrix of automation. He pushes his pipe-like forms through multiple environments and historically-designed interiors, capsizing any pre-existing notion of being outside the neoliberal planetary network. The way in which he easily and comfortably guides the viewer through these spaces via Google HMD is at times worrying, at first seeming to promote a calm and collected world of networks, advising on how we too can be a part of it. But as we know, the political negotiations of said global network is drenched in authoritarian power, surveillance and censorship, rather than freedom of movement. Take the case of Chelsea Manning, who was convicted in 2013 for espionage against the United States after disclosing classified information to WikiLeaks. She dared to walk through these networks, copying and collecting evidence, in the hope of gaining transparency, which would enable a new model for the future. Yet, she remains in jail serving a 35-year sentence for revealing United States military misconduct towards civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Manuel Rossner, UltraLight Beam (2017). Exhibition view. Courtesy the artist + 1822-Forum, Frankfurt.

Rossner could easily be giving us the runaround, however, in UltraLight Beam’s aesthetic utopia without borders and boundaries. The artist repeatedly states, we are using Google cardboard HMD — Google being the third largest financial conglomerate online, with the biggest, unmatched reach across the web. As much as we enjoy this pleasant and infinite online space, is Rossner also showing us that sitting too comfortably in the world of digital aesthetics is rife with complications too, especially when enjoyed courtesy of one of the internet’s corporate giants? In the case of capitalism and technology, nothing is certain, nothing is neutral, and everything has the potential for being an illusion.

Notably, Rossner’s work is free of people. There is no worker, or player, or community present on a global or local scale, in UltraLight Beam, only the user/viewer. In doing this, the artist appears to gesture towards a self-determined enlightenment of the mind — with no borders or restrictions, you as the user are the one in control. Manning did this too, when she used the global digital network to expose nearly three quarters of a million military and diplomatic documents. But as she searched this terrain, Manning herself was alone, wandering through vast computer networks, in a world spanning centuries of physical global history with a digital paper trail made up of virtual codes, much like Rossner’s digital installations.

Perhaps, what that artist, Williams and Srnicek, and Manning all have in common, is that they represent a redirection of desires in favour of a post-national state; of movement across the sphere of technology and communities. That is, in affording international and global human rights for individuals, in terms of their ‘personhood,’ not just their citizenship or nationality. Ultimately, these artists believe in the possibility of creating a platform for knowledge transfer, participation and transparency that maps, not only the world we live in physically, but that of the digital and empowered global mind they hope for in the future.**

Manuel Rossner’s solo exhibition UltraLight Beam is on at Frankfurt’s 1822-Forum and online at Float gallery, opening January 16 and running to February 25, 2017.