On the materialistic reality of post-internet art & how the 6th Athens Biennale inscribes itself in an aesthetic of standstill

, 17 January 2019

Sarawut Chutiwongpeti’s ‘Wishes, Lies and Dreams: “Anti-Colonial Power”’ is an arrangement of a tiger about to attack its headless hunter. Perhaps the headless hunter is about to shoot the tiger but either way it can only be seen through the windows of adjoining spaces. It’s located in a locked room of an upper floor of the TTT building, the former Hellenic Telecommunications Center of Athens. The two duelling predators hang in the air, manifesting a tense oppositional standstill where nothing happens, creating a situation into which an antagonistic indissolubility is inscribed. The work can serve as an allegory for an understanding of the entire 6th Athens Biennale (AB6) — running across venues in the Greek capital from October 26 to December 9  — opening up a political kaleidoscope of so-called post-internet art that is at times quite sobering.

Sarawut Chutiwongpeti, ‘Wishes, Lies and Dreams: “Anti-Colonial Power”’ (2018). Installation view. Courtesy Athens Biennale.

This impression already emerges in the first floors of the venue’s Kafkaesque architecture, illustrating the technological progress of Greece since the 1930s, now lying fallow like a relic since the country’s crippling 2009 government-debt crisis. This sense is reinforced by Jon Rafman‘s video installation ‘Shadowbanned: Disasters Under the Sun’ video installation on the second storey. It begins and ends with the words, “I don’t know why I am writing to you and I don’t care if you read this […] There are no stories”, while a virtual tracking shot moves into the open mouth of a mystical figure. Everything is mystical and at the same time very empty. This rejection of reality in post-internet art seems to reveal its innermost secret: there is not much to be told in this form, and perhaps there never was. And further: it doesn’t matter if you listen or not. At this point, it seems as if AB6 is showing a snapshot of an artistic generation that has lost all belief in anything like reality, or merely perceives it as a surface phenomenon. In the context of the buildings housing the biennale, however, this supposed attitude encounters, above all, a materialistic reality. Compared to the much-criticized 9th Berlin Biennale — which also focused on post-internet art under the curatorial direction of the DIS collective — this present constellation in Athens creates a tension, yet to which many of the works of art have no answer.

Jon Rafman, ‘Shadowbanned: Disasters Under the Sun’ (2018). Installation view. Image by Nysos Vasilopoulos. Courtesy the artist and Athens Biennale.

This oppositional standstill applies most to Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and Daniel Keller‘s documentary ‘The Seasteaders’, that deals with plans to build a floating city near the French Polynesian island of Tahiti. Financed mainly by controversial PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, it would  be inhabited by a homogeneous elite of seemingly only white men. In interviews, they each emphasize the advantages of tax exemption in their self-established state and the security from rising sea levels, whilst enhancing their fantasies of a closed community with neoreactionary views. It is supposed to be a social experiment, but the conditions of access and its rules are clear. As part of the contract between the artists and the Seasteading Institute, the latter was allowed to screen (and use) the footage of the documentary before its publication on the DIS website. Eight days before publication, the Seasteaders edited their own advertising video from Hurwitz-Goodman and Keller’s material, publishing it online under the same title. Both videos face each other in the exhibition but despite this oppositional display, a question arises: is the art work itself to be read as critical — albeit with a commercial dilemma — or are the boundaries between neoliberal marketing strategy and critical (artistic) work becoming increasingly blurred?

“ANTI introduces us to the pleasure and discomfort embodied in both revolt and reaction”, announces the AB6 thematic statement. “It does not seek to merely outline such fantasies; we cannot fight reactionary culture and politics in the ‘post-truth’ era with yet another ANTI. To deal with ANTI means to oscillate between power and revolt by internalizing, reenacting or cannibalizing both.”

When questioned by writer Brendan C. Byrne in Rhizome, Hurwitz-Goodman expressed fascination with Seasteading Institute’s new cut of the film as it supposedly highlighted the meaning of subjectivity inherent in any documentary.  The question of subjectivity in montage, however, only seems to touch the surface of the dilemma here, because the two films are ultimately not radically different from one another in their slick advertising aesthetics. This fetishizing style of post-internet art not only displays a proximity to corporate tastes, but in this case becomes actual advertising for the Seasteading Institute.

Jacob Hurtwitz-Goodman & Daniel Keller, ‘The Seasteaders’ (2017). Video still. Courtesy of the artists and Athens Biennale.

The concept of the biennial successfully shakes the notion of self-evident criticality in art and art works, yet without offering an alternative. In the 2009 book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher tried to formulate possible exit strategies from postulated dystopias. One such strategy could be a shared acknowledgement of current and future climate change. Following Lacan’s reality principle and referencing Alenka Zupančič, Fisher distinguishes between the ‘reality principle’ and ‘the Real’, the first being natural, even empirical, and thus the highest form of ideology. He concludes: “So one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real(s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us. Environmental catastrophe is one such Real.”

Directly opposite the TTT building, the Esperia Palace Hotel is another exhibition venue that was abandoned overnight eight years ago when the the Greek crisis hit, even  — as the legend goes — without clearing the plates from the set tables. AB6 inscribes itself in this aesthetic of standstill. After the end of the exhibition, both buildings will be converted into luxury hotels. It’s an act of cynicism that ultimately underscores the relevance of encouraging a critical perspective of contemporary art on its entanglements with different realities.**

The 6th Athens Biennale was on across venues in the Greek capital, running October 26 to December 9, 2018.