I saw Dreamlands at the Whitney on November 9, 2016, after having woken up to a voice on the radio confirming the winner of the US elections. There were a few moments prior to opening my eyes where I hadn’t yet remembered what had happened the night before. (I had left my friend’s apartment drunk and in a leaden silence and taken a wordless uber ride home with strangers, two white women and a Sikh driver.) My alarm now plays fake nature sounds.
I feel that it is important to mention this to provide some context for my reception of the exhibition, which was absolutely colored by the election. Walking through the world felt like walking through some kind of rainbow sludge, where everything was so stimulating as to numb one’s perceptions, the grays of a rainy New York fall day, altogether too bright, painful. The subways were silent. At the time, not quite sure what to do with myself, I thought that going to this exhibition might do me some good, “get my mind off things.”
Of course this would not be a fair standard to hold anything to. Dreamlands, like the many distractions that followed, was not able to transport me.
The show’s full title is Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art 1905 – 2016. This self-conscious linguistic reframing of video installation grated on me. Calling cinema immersive felt redundant, but then maybe I’m old fashioned. I also didn’t quite see the necessity of aligning video installation with cinema, aside from a transparent attempt to make the genre more commercially appealing. (Also, I’m pretty sure I hated everything at that moment.)
The Whitney’s text notes that the show “focuses on the ways in which artists have dismantled and reassembled the conventions of cinema—screen, projection, darkness—to create new experiences of the moving image.” Early reviews praise the show as a “retort” to the shrinking apparatuses of the production and consumption of moving pictures. Is this, I wondered, totally necessary? Is the general audience for this work (presumably your average, educated middle class viewer) so removed from immersive cinematic experiences that institutions like the Whitney need to qualify this experience as “new”, and give critics the impression of a “retort”?
Dreamlands is a reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s “alternate fictional dimension,” a world of dreamed escape. Added to the fact that the show presents itself as “the most technologically complex project mounted in the Whitney’s new building to date,” the entire endeavor feels like a largely unchecked celebration of a technologically-induced disconnect from reality.
In many of the actual works that I encountered, I only felt more acutely how technology had duped yet another population, myself included, into feeling as though they were participating in something bigger, but only ended up isolating us further from reality, perpetuating a dangerous self-congratulatory isolationism that in turn produced a figure like Donald Trump. However, some artists were ahead of the curve in recognizing both the seduction and potential dangers of technological escapism. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ‘DiNA’ (2004–2006), which was one of the first artworks to use Artificial Intelligence felt eerily prescient of this insularity. The viewer is invited to speak to an artificial woman, whose face is reflected, along with one’s own, in a mirror, and speaks back in an endless loop of technology-induced narcissism.
Ian Cheng’s ‘Baby feat. Ikaria’ (2013) is a similar closed loop, captures three ‘chatbots’ engaging in an endless, simulated conversation. The abstract forms of the bots jabber away adhering only to the internal logic of their world, their pre-programmed parochialism, placing the viewer in the position of an outsider, but to what? The chatter is so radically provincial that it has no import to anyone but the three simulated beings who are using it. Again, not dissimilar to the endlessly generated content produced on social media, which I abandoned the following day out of necessity.
I was excited to be able to see Hito Steyerl’s ‘Factory of the Sun,’ installation in person. The piece, which was originally shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale is a playful video game parody in a futuristic, gridded room. Viewers sit on lawn chairs to watch the projection as ‘players,’ in a historic and linguistic tragi-comedy that encapsulates both the optimism and ominousness of the Internet’s potential as either a generative or exploitative force. “THIS IS REALITY” said the video. Didn’t I know it. The flashing, ambiguous words at the end saying “YOUR TEAM WON” hit me like a pound of bricks. Who is the “your” — what binaries was this simple phrase drawing? This was maybe around the same hour as the #notmypresident hashtag was being cooked up. I looked around and wondered how many people in the room felt as uneasy as I did. This is our world.
Most of the other works felt as though they were hitting necessary notes for an exhibition of this scope. Anthony McCall’s “Line Describing a Cone,” and Trisha Baga’s “Flatlands,” brought a refreshing matter-of-factness to an inquiry of perception, light and space. Frances Bodomo’s “Afronauts” and Aidan Koch’s “Light Drifting Up a Wall,” played with the passage of time and narrativity in different ways, each with its own bittersweet poeticism. Dora Budor’s “Adaptation of an Instrument” and Ivana Bašić’s “SOMA 2013” brought in necessary and intelligent sculptural interventions, implicating the body, and a sensation of disembodiment through technology and real and imagined inhabitation of space. Yet, as a whole, and within the exhibition framework, I could not help but feel the show was generally well-rounded and well-behaved (translation: market-driven, complacent). If I learned anything from this exhibition it is that these half-baked narratives – by curators, institutions, and politicians and corporations alike – really don’t hold up when shit hits the proverbial fan. We deserve better.
Header image: Dreamlands (2016). Installation view. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum.
After the previous marathons Extinction (2014) and Transformation (2015), we turn our attention to something more magical. Developed with artist Sophia Al-Maria, this year’s theme looks at ritual and repetition “to consider ways in which the imaginary can not only predict, but also play a part in affecting long-term futures.” The extensive line-up brings together a number of cross-disciplinary practitioners from the fields of art, science, activism, music, literature and theology among many others.
Day 1 will take place in West London at Serpentine Sackler Gallery and will also be live video streamed here.To begin the program, Gilbert & George present ‘FUCKOSOPHY FOR ALL’followed by Al-Maria’s own ‘The Unblinding’.
This year’s transmediale programme of exhibitions, conferences, screenings, performances and publications is on at Berlin’s HKW, running February 3 to 7.
With the theme of ‘transmediale/conversationpiece’, 2016 marks the first time the annual festival will run without pertaining to a central theme. It will instead host a series of discussions that take place each day with invited speakers and specific titles all owing to the anxiety of late capitalism.
There are four key strands that the organisers ask its audience to consider in relation to the unfolding, and in parts overlapping discussions: anxious to act, anxious to make, anxious to share, anxious to secure.
We reviewed 2015’s event here, and below have some recommendations for the upcoming week’s conversations and discussions:
A massive survey of the impact of the internet and computer technologies on art practice is happening at London’s Whitechapel Gallery opening on January 28 and running until May 15.
Electronic Superhighway will bring together over 100 artworks spanning four decades between 1966 and 2016. It will be curated in reverse, so that the viewer will walk progressively towards the most historical experiments in media and sensory technology.
Is it hyperbole to, in the words of Boris Groys, call the digital image a visible copy of an invisible God? The people behind Grazed Images, a group exhibition running June 18 to August 9 and curated by Inesa Brašiškė at Vilnius’ Contemporary Art Centre (CAC), argues that it is not. “In this digitally driven world,” the press release states, “we are surrounded by images. An illusion prevails that we can get rid of them as soon as we switch off our computers and smartphones. However, images live long after we go offline: they transgress the realm of television and computer screens and enter our everyday world, albeit slightly grazed.”
The group exhibition invites seven international artists to examine the power of the image in the contemporary world, but “the real task for them is to filter the images, to recognise the systems that images operate within, to follow their paths of circulation in the contemporary (art) world, to predict their abilities and the sociopolitical, aesthetic and ethical dimensions images acquire as they traverse different realms of reality”. Participating in this lofty endeavour were artists Hito Steyerl, Harun Farocki, Pierre Huyghe, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Factum Arte, Gintaras Didžiapetris, and Seth Price. **
The London-based artist-run space organisers Kate Cooper, Marianne Forrest and Marleen Boschen will speak with Feigelfeld, academic coordinator of the Digital Cultures Research Lab at Leuphana University Lüneburg, on questions raised by the exhibition theme inspired by art pioneers General Idea. The Canadian collective’s work preempted the viral dimension of the hypercirculating image in contemporary culture by decades, most famously with their Imagevirus series.
Th exhibition features work by the Lensbased class of Hito Steyerl, including Pauline Niedermayer, Bruno Siegrist and Till Wittwer among others, and follows ideas of anarchic images in the digital era, their circulation and representation and the “activist potential of the image in a contemporary discourse of hyper circulation”.
“I’m going to need a bigger house!” A satisfied collector says this in front of a 12 foot high Georg Baselitz painting, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear. He is standing possessively next to the work in a suitcase-scrunched linen suit at the 56th Venice Biennale, running May 9 to November 22. Given that this year’s curator, Okwui Enwezor, has placed Das Kapital by Karl Marx as a “filter” through which the work should be read, the irony of this small observance is flatly obvious. Enwezor has avoided a descriptive theme, instead proposing the biennale be viewed as a “parliament of forms”, a landscape of conflicting viewpoints in democratic contention in one place at one time. But here in Venice, where socially progressive messaging meets big capital, there is a peculiar schizophrenic sense a visitor might experience, sandwiched between the microscopic soul searching of isolated works and the macroscopic market processes of the art world.
Much has been written about contemporary art operation within a broader biopolitical and neoliberal economic context. As sites of efficiently produced creativity, gentrification, networking, translation and disruption, contemporary art has grown to become an essential tool in what Hito Steyerl has called “a transition to post-democracy”. This broad investigation is the topic of e-flux Journal’s contribution to the curated exhibition, Supercommunity, a daily release of texts by artists, writers and thinkers which are circulated via email and also posted on a billboard within the Giardini. “I am the supercommunity, and you are only starting to recognize me,” the manifesto-like editorial statement claims before laying out a hypothesis for a swarm-based, supranational system of cultural organisation which efficiently translates affect and reorganises resources seemingly purely for the pleasure of it. In some ways this project feels like a better introduction than Enwezor’s curatorial statement for the Venice Biennale, given that the event is too big to submit to summary and whose organisation is so much more decentralised and non-linear than the image a central curator presents.
Having said this though, many works operate comfortably within the Das Kapital filter applied by Enwezor and work as deconstructions on ideas of exchange, value and labour. Most directly Isaac Julien’s two-channel video work ‘KAPITAL’ (2013) presents a public discussion between the artist and notable academic and lecturer on Marx, David Harvey. Marco Fusinato’s work ‘From the Horde to the Bee’ (2015) resulted from a residency in Milan with the Primo Moroni Archive of radical left-wing publishing. Fusinato places books containing scanned copies of resources from the archive around a large square table and, in exchange for ten euro thrown into the centre, visitors can take a copy away. Over the course of the biennale the pile of money, which is ultimately intended to end up donated to the archive, will grow, the stakes for its security slowly becoming higher. As such Fusinato plays out an experiment on the possibility of anarchism and grass roots self-organisation.
Walead Beshty’s sculptures are the result of a residency conducted in the Jalisco region in Mexico, which specialises economically in high-temperature fired ceramics. The clay sculptures are painted with reproductions of historic frescoes by José Clemente Orozco which depict the Spanish conquest of the Americas. In contrast, moving away from economic specialisation to artisanal production, Fatou Kandé Senghor’s documentary film ‘Giving Birth’ (2014) portrays the Senegalese ceramicist Seni Awa Camara sculpting a human form from clay inside her home. Hiwa K’s work ‘The Bell’ (2015) consists of a large church bell forged from recycled metal taken from salvaged weapons in Iraq, a process which reverses a repeating historical occurrence where cultural relics are melted down to produce artillery. In doing so he unpacks the international arms trade while presenting a silent icon for hope. Hito Steyerl’s video, entitled ‘Factory of the Sun’ (2015), consists of a science fiction narrative in the form of an unplayable video game which speculates on the coercion and measurement of immaterial labour within a “motion capture Gulag”.
Pamela Rosenkranz’s exhibition for the Swiss Pavilion called Our Product reframes the artwork as a scarcely existing commodity. Lighting effects, dispersed musk perfume and the softly playing synthetically generated sound of water operate on all senses at once often leaving the audience disoriented as to what they are experiencing. The effects are introduced so subtly that it is often difficult to tell whether what we are experiencing is a minor hallucination or real. Central to the exhibition is a bubbling fountain of generic “European skin tone” liquid, which casts the room with a reflective pink glow. This solution is concocted from a secret formula of trademarked ingredients used in the cosmetics industry, which are notable for the physical and psychological effects they promise the end user.
On the other hand, outside of the Central Pavilion and Arsenale, some exhibitions sit in stark contrast to Enwezor’s selection. Especially notable is the exhibition Slip of the Tongue which places a sizeable body of Danh Vo’s work alongside curated selections from the Pinault Collection. In welcome contrast to Enwezor’s curated show, this exhibition is generously spaced, which allows the viewer’s mind to meander obliquely through whimsically severe sculptural plays on demonic possession, Freudian slips, dismemberment and transformation. Works in this show subtly act upon each other to slowly reveal hidden meanings. For instance the lacerated plastic sheets of David Hammons’ ‘Untitled’ (2007) transforms to resemble flayed skin after it’s seen in association with Peter Hujar’s photograph ‘Andrew’s Back’ (1973) and Martin Wong’s painting ‘Inri’ (1984) not to mention countless other works featuring disembodied heads, genitals, lips and other body parts. The exhibition as a whole feels like a reader for Danh Vo’s mothertongue in the Danish Pavilion, providing an expansive set of visual reference points for a show whose meaning the artist seems to feel apprehensive about giving away too readily.
The biennale is also the natural place for countries to confront their pasts. The Belgium Pavilion takes its starting point from it’s troubling colonial history. Elisabetta Benassi’s work ‘M’FUMU’ (2015), whose title is taken from the name of a Congolese activist and intellectual of the early 20th century, consists of a Belgian tram stop constructed from casts of bones of exotic African animals sourced from the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Sammy Baloji’s series of photographs documents the historic 500 metre (the flight distance of a malarial mosquito) undeveloped sanitation zone between the city of Lubumbashi’s white and black neighbourhoods. Vincent Meessen presents a video installation ‘One, Two, Three’ (2015) which records his project to develop a new rendition of a near lost protest song written by Congolese Situationist Joseph M’Belolo in 1968. Together the exhibition serves as a series of actions against forgetting and an assertion of one of the central preoccupations of Meessen’s practice, that modernism occurred in dialogue with Africa and was not a purely European phenomenon.
In a similar vein, the Armenian Pavilion seeks to reconnect a global Armenian diaspora on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The exhibition takes place inside the orthodox monastery on the island of San Lazzaro which itself actively collects relics and heritage objects relating to Armenian culture and identity. The artworks are installed among these efforts at reassemblage and as such the loaded site and the exhibition bleed together seamlessly in a way that no other venue in Venice manages to do. In the meticulous central courtyard garden, Rosana Palazyan has placed pressings of weeds on fabric embroidered with human hair. Beneath each image reads a text taken from a horticultural handbook such as “… has not yet been discovered a quality that has transformed them into a culture…”. Nina Katchadourian presents a series of video documentations of her and her parents’ efforts to learn to adopt one another’s accents, while Hera Büyüktaşçiyan sculptural works deal with the artist learning the Armenian alphabet as a child.
After leaving Venice the biennale begins to exist as an uncertain collection of memories where the order of works seen becomes muddied. My own imaginary exit-point is Sarah Sze’s installation ‘Landscape for an Event Suspended Indefinitely’ (2015). It would have been easy to walk past it and it is nice to think that it could be a quiet surprise accidently stumbled upon by an exhausted traveller weighed down by exhibition catalogues. Inside an overgrown, walled off garden at the very end of the Arsenale, the small sculptural interventions – fiddly assemblages of folded photographs, broken sticks, rocks, tape, string, clamps and candles – seem like attempts at busy work by a lonely last human trying to keep a sane mind. A garden tap drips slowly onto an installed bronze heap, ticking like a clock for a future era where time no longer matters. It’s easy to imagine that eventually the water would wear away the bronze monolith, the fragile works falling to the ground and decaying, in time becoming this rock here, that bush there. Amongst a densely compressed collision of attempts to deal with history and ‘all the world’s futures’ this garden felt like time softly reclaimed from human points of reference. With nothing left to bump into I lie down on the grass and overhear the old stones in the walls whispering, “Is this too big to fail?” **
Hito Steyerl looks tired. If it’s not right now –as we’re talking in London the day of her self-tilted survey exhibition opening at the ICA –then it’s a couple weeks later when she’s nodding off during the Lunch Bytes Medium:Format panel, after a hectic travel schedule and heavy subject in a talk with philosopher and friend Peter Osborne the previous night.
But long before this point, where the Berlin-based artist, writer and filmmaker strikes a fatigued figure wearing a tiger-themed hoodie and waiting the “seven minutes” for her laptop to boot, the world had already taken its toll. “Essentially I had a nervous breakdown”,she says frankly in her characteristic whisper, leaving me to worry about whether my Dictaphone will pick up on her soft-spoken voice and its reasoning for the eight-month delay of Steyerl’s latest film ‘Liquidity Inc.’ (2014). “I could have made it but it would have been a crap video, so I just decided not to make it. That means that I lost the budget, of course, which also means that it was delayed because then I had to basically do most of it on my own”.
Originally commissioned by Bergen Assemblybut since self-funded,the film is a thirty-minute insight into the life of Jacob Wood –a cousin of editor, art critic and frequent collaborator Brian Kuan Wood –who began as a financial advisor before losing his job to the GEC and finding a future in martial arts. “[Brian] told me about it and I said, ‘this is amazing, we have to do something with Jacob’,” Steyerl says about the initial inspiration for the film, “I found a budget very quickly, it was also gone very quickly,” she adds laughing.
‘Liquidity Inc.’ is plugged in to the overwhelming and inescapable reality of hyper-connectivity. A CNN reporter explains the “short bursts of information” of a Google Glass prototype and a disguised Weather Underground anchor presents future forecasts across the double-edged “trade winds” marked on a geopolitical map; Steyerl finally capitulating to too much stimuli via chat box in a sea of chat boxes: “nervous breakdown cannot make Norway deadline”.
At one point, among the uncharacteristically au courant graphics (one of the few things a cash-poor Steyerl wasn’t forced to lift from YouTube tutorials and browser windows), ‘Liquidity Inc’ announces via text, “Weather is time. Weather is money. Weather is water”. Here is the space where climate change-meets-temporal shift, a reality where time is shattered, reduced to a deranged surge of fragmented micro-moments driven by technological progress. “The poor creature is thrown into a sort of wind-channel experience, constantly being tossed around”, Steyerl explains in a talk with Nina Power that night in relation to her evolving concept of “junktime” –also the title of an upcoming exhibition at Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan in April. “Duration cannot be sustained because people are exhausted. They cannot afford it anymore. They don’t have time. The time they have has to be artificially boosted or extended. You have to pretend you’re basically present on one online channel while you try to catch some sleep, but all the tab browsers are open at the same time.”
That’s what ‘Liquidity Inc.’ and, to a degree, Steyerl herself seems to embody. In naming the “multiplication of bodies” and “stand-ins”, an “exhaustion of extension” that effects both her physical body and body of work, there’s a fascination with this “form of matter” we all inhabit that can no longer withstand the demands of mass communication: “it’s a production mode that’s based on exhaustion of resources and basically of everything else as well. ”
I could imagine that making a film like ‘Liquidity Inc.’ would be overwhelming, also considering the all-consuming subject itself.
Hito Steyerl: Yes, I probably underestimated that, but also the process of making it was quite tough. I made it basically on the back of the budget of another film. I flew out to California for four days and we shot two films during that period. I was totally, totally jetlagged and then I started editing when I was on my way home, so that was the kind of time frame the movie was supposed to be produced in.
In terms of the ICA exhibition, it’s quite clear the link you’re making between all the films, especially this ‘art, war and business’ connection. There’s the part where you and Brian are talking and joking about selling your art…
HS: Selling art to weapons manufacturers in order to raise budget, yah [laughs]. I mean you have to imagine all of this is going on at the same time. I’m trying to write the lecture, which, is now called ‘Is the Museum a Battlefield?’ while I am dealing with all of these budget issues with the other works, it’s all happening in parallel.
I didn’t know whether it was farcical or you were just illustrating these connections of complicity in that lecture performance. Where you’re in the battlefield getting spammed, while inadvertently pointing your lens at the ammunition that has the same diameter of the sculpture at the exhibition your being spammed with.
HS: Yah [laughs].Okay, I pushed facts a bit on that one but the point I tried to make is that at any point in the world you’re connected to spam. You’re also connected to art advertisement and all this kind of thing. They’re not separate realities. It’s all happening at the same time, on different layers.
These incidental elements feature quite heavily and you come away from it with this sense of helplessness.
HS: Helplessness or hopelessness?
HS: Is this the case? I did this earlier work called ‘November’ and in there I make these claims about November being the state after October, a post-revolutionary state of stasis. It’s a state of post-revolution and things are falling apart, right? When people asked me and said, ‘oh, this is so hopeless’, I always replied, ‘well, after November there is going to be Spring’.
I said this since 2004 and Spring wouldn’t come, you know? [laughs] It’s just not coming for us. So yah, I think people are exhausted, waiting for it and fighting for it also. It’s not coming forth, it’s just not happening yet. So what are you going to do about it? I can’t fake it in my videos just to make people feel better about the situation.
Remember Karl Kraus during WW1? He said: ‘The situation is hopeless, but it’s not serious’. Or to rephrase it for today –only if it were serious, it would be hopeless. It would be helplessly hopeless but it’s not.
The survey of works covers such a short span of time that it feels like it’s identifying a point of terminal velocity, or complete collapse.
HS: Yes and no. Wide-ranging collapse did happen in fact, so it’s about rebooting a past crash. In fact most of the works are already about the reboot, not the crash. You fell apart and now there is a toe where your nose used to be, or a Twitter handle. You get used to it and get on with it. The twitter handle falls off, you replace it with some piece of scrap and take your kid to school, on a flotation device.
The crash was in fact a tsunami. Millions of people are living through this under much worse conditions right now. Forget about botox, just plonk some discarded piece of e-junk on your face. It’s so much more 2014 and you will not be face recognizable either! In the 90s we thought the cyborg was a planned device, engineered, artificial but still functional. Now I realise it comes about by just substituting missing limbs for scrap and rattling on –whatever works. People look more like Soyuz space capsules than iPhones these days.
I feel like this mentality of defeat is kind of converging with this macro outlook of Accelerationism.
HS: No, I think I’m absolutely doing the contrary of Acceleration. I’m really dealing with the point of impact, the crash, and the time after. Actually one of my previous works is called ‘After the Crash’, and it’s about cycles of Capitalism being constant cycles of acceleration, and then crash, and then regaining new dynamics from the crash itself, and then accelerating again, and crashing again.
This is what Capitalism feeds off, the moment of crash and collapse. It is thriving on ever-quicker successions of crisis, not breaking down. The more velocity and crash the more productive, from a Capitalist perspective. The only ones breaking down are people and some other life forms. With accelerated crisis and permanent crashing the rich get richer and the poor more sleepy, hungry and strained. I am not arguing for slowing down either. Rather for learning to ride out the waves or disappearing off-screen maybe, instead of mindlessly heading into yet another un-survivable crash.
But the crash also has quite baffling side effects. A lot of people I met recently who went through recent activism and brutal crackdown have, in my view, developed supernatural abilities, like the X-Men. They were beaten to pieces, or endured live fire and they come back glowing, and dashing, and fearless, and invincible; troubled by nightmares and PTSD, like Marvel superheroes. This is fascinating to me, a completely unforeseen side-effect of frequent crashing, of police batons coming down on people’s foreheads causing a mutation of minds, perhaps even an evolutionary quantum leap. Have you seen Captain America two? It’s a documentary!
So I don’t believe a bit in velocity, but in what happens after it’s taken away from you. Speed is not a political project. I think it’s a helpful conceptual tool for analysing the situation. A political project would be how to survive sudden deceleration and impact in a flamboyant and sustainable fashion.
I find myself suspended between the two ideas. There’s the one of the violence of the image and then this acceleration that comes from a specifically privileged perspective, where it’s easy to hide behind abstraction. But I feel like both approaches are reaching a similar conclusion. This exponential growth and endless progress, which is ultimately destructive, and there’s nothing we can do about it. I don’t see much hope in either.
HS: But we can do things about it. Create other connections for example. All these networks and networking can be done differently on many scales, on and offline. Just do basically something very similar to what exists but in non-proprietary ways and protect these from being swallowed up and exploited by quasi-info-monopolies. Also, undo connections. Cut. Interrupt. Shut down. Freeze. It’s all about montage again, this time on the level of infrastructure and social relations.
I was thinking about how everyone has a role to play, in some way. You can have those with extreme radical ideals, then others who can interpret and offer an access point for someone else to approach these problems more practically.
HS: There’s a political project in what I’m trying to do, it’s just not that obvious but I think it’s very important. So let’s assume we live in the process of ‘after the crash’, where basically everything is collapsing, and falling apart, and failing, and being exhausted. That also applies to time, space and people. People stop being able even to communicate with one another, precisely because there’s too much communication, technology, going on.
But I think if anything is going to happen, or going to change, then the most unlikely people in the most unlikely situations have to start communicating with one another, which they are not doing now. Many times I get asked, ‘why do you link all these implausible and improbable plots to one another?’ This is precisely why. Because I think that people in completely different, unlikely situations have to be even forced to acknowledge that they inhabit the same world, that they share the same problems.
There is too much communication going on, but not at all between those people who might need to talk to each other. So again, rerouting, rewiring connections and probably, actually argue and shout and get real, instead of endlessly reproducing consumerist conformism. It’s not rocket science. The tech is all there, take out a bit of comfort and use it differently.
When you talk about this ‘crash’ and this inability to communicate, I suppose ‘Liquidity Inc.’ really does reflect that, through your own life in parallel with making the film. Do you think that the fact that you did reach this point of ‘I can’t go any further with this’ is a reflection of that mass exhaustion?
HS: Yes of course. It happens in my life but also so many other lives. I think it’s one of the prevalent conditions of our times, no? It’s exhaustion, nervous disorders of all kinds, depression, anxiety. It’s as if your physical nerves are getting wired, but wrongly wired [laughs], to some networks, which you don’t even know if they’re run by Instagram or the NSA, or it’s the same anyway. But they really connect to your body. You are wired to dysfunction.
When you say you can’t provide the answers, it reminds me of the mock instructional video of ‘How Not to Be Seen’.
HS: But actually it’s a quite serious set of instructions because it just flows through with the dissolution of distinction between physical reality and the world of digital images. You are basically using the same tools to engage with both, or to act on to both. So yes, now people are using PhotoShop all the time to act upon reality, one should really try to own it and make it real.
What’s really unnerving about that video is when it starts with the resolution chart and then pans out to this huge pixel chart viewed from space. Is that real?
HS: It’s absolutely real. I couldn’t go there because it’s on an actual military base but you can see it from Google Earth. It’s actual.
Why is it on a military base?
HS: Well, of course most of them would be on military bases because the aerial photograph was used for mainly reconnaissance flights [laughs], or they were practising for military reconnaissance. They were calibrating their cameras.
I got the impression that it was part of this engulfing idea like in ‘Liquidity Inc.’, that the earth itself is captive to this thing.
HS: Yah, it’s been captured. Not all of it [laughs].
In what sense not all of it?
HS: It’s interesting because I tried so hard to get satellite imagery from that battlefield, which is the topic of ‘Is the Museum a Battlefield?’. Even though I was willing to pay good money for it there was no footage I could use, or no stock imagery I could use because the resolution in this area is too low. It’s about 30 metres per pixel.
So those areas of the world, which have no commercial value, in terms of satellite photography, they are being represented with a much lower resolution. They are captured as spam. But is also means one can hide in there to a certain extent.
That makes me think about the low resolution spots over North Korea where there are potentially concentration camps. It says one thing about the country concealing itself from global surveillance and another that no one cares enough to try and see.
HS: Yah, this is precisely the space of disappearance. It has both of these aspects. People can go missing inside but they can also be shielded from surveillance, reconnaissance surveillance.
Like the inspiration behind ‘How Not To Be Seen’, where people shield themselves behind these sheets of plastic and water, which is hopeful in some ways.
HS: Yes, totally, yes [laughs].I was so inspired. I think for me this is really a hopeful example, that people could not only keep their good cheer under the shadow of the drone but also even read a book and educate themselves. It’s great.
In terms of commercial value, I was reading this article by an environmentalist about how on the coast of Nigeria the water is rising and slums are under threat. Meanwhile there’s a huge resort being built that is funded by and catering to those organisations that are largely responsible for global warming in the first place.
HS: Yes, of course [laughs].‘Waterworld’, it will be called. Upward class mobility will be measured in the number of floors in high rises. It already is if you look at many cities close to water.
And the economic term; liquidity meaning stable assets…
HS: It means that you are able to convert your assets quickly into cash, that’s what it means. If it’s real estate, it’s not as liquid as if it were, let’s say, art. Art is quite liquid. Cash is of course the most liquid of all assets.
It also makes me think about liquid itself; new economists thinking that rising sea levels are great because they’ll open up trade routes.
HS: Yes, of course [laughs]. There are always advantages. Siberia will do great. **
For Hito Steyerl’s ‘Liquidity Inc.’(2014), the ‘Inc.’ is essential. An incorporation, a corporatisation, it as much refers to the stable value of an economic asset as it does the “gorgeous, displaced animated water” of an online CGI lesson, playing out while Steyerl and associate Brian Kuan Wood joke about selling weapons for funding on screen. They communicate via countless chat and email windows that eventually inundate the frame, in the same way that water, or a simulation of it, engulfs the whole 30-minute film.
Water incorporates everything, and everything is incorporated. Reference to liquid is expectedly pervasive, whether it’s through a projection during central character Jacob Wood’s Martial Arts tournaments or on a plasma screen behind his back when sat in an office, at a desk, dressed in a business suit and writing on a notepad, “BE WATER”. It features in the mantra recited by Bruce Lee through an iPhone –his image reduced to its dimensions, voice distorted and autotuned as he repeats, “Be water my friend” –and it features on the main screen of the ICA theatre. That’s the biggest and most central of the five films scattered across rooms, this one is full to the brim and emerging to the right on walking into the pitch-black space of Steyerl’s self-titled survey of work between 2012 and 2014.
Liquid, along with the light it refracts, bubbles up, out and through a glass container, words and the very screen. It’s whipped up into a satellite view of a hurricane and washes through a jetty behind Wood as he recounts his early history as a refugee from the Vietnam War’s ‘Operation Babylift’ –a US imperative to evacuate and assimilate its enemy’s orphans into American life via adopted families.
Wood would grow up to be a financial advisor, lose his job to financial collapse in 2008 and find a new calling in the Martial Arts. It might sound like a bizarre vocational digression but ‘Liquidity Inc.’ insists that it not only makes sense but it’s inevitable. In humanity’s networked and endless “fight to the bitter beginning” –as translated into English from the mouth of a little girl speaking German –a news report on Google Glass plays out as “a storm is blowing from hell; driving us back into the past”. The girl is wearing the same balaclava and t-shirt with an owl print, watching, as the adult representative of militant meteorologists Weather Undergrounddoes. He declares “your feelings are affecting the weather, and you are feeling not that great”. Those are the real-world effects of affective labour as illustrated via these weather forecasts and a tiled background of Ukiyo-e’s ‘The Great Wave’, mass-produced and flashing for popular consumption: “I am liquidity incorporated… the rainbow… torrent…cloud”.
There’s another browser window pop-up with its presenter announcing, “when you have liquidity, you’re in control” but one wonders if that’s true as animated 3D sketches of men in suits drown in the synthesised flood of a burst bubble with Wood describing a time when the money flowed freely during the 90s Dot-com boom. “It’s kind of like fighting,” he explains, while outlining the “shock proof portfolio” necessary to survive another economic disaster like the one that cost him his job.
The connection between business and war is made all the more insistently by ‘Guards’ (2012) to follow, while strongly implicating art in the process. Down a dark corridor and with its own narrow room, a vertical screen the size of its subject (or is it the authority?) presents Art Institute of Chicago security guard and ex-Marine Ron Hicks pointing his loaded fist directly at the viewer. But it’s less a standoff between Hicks and his audience than the invisible intermediary of the camera that faces him; its destructive, predatory nature felt all the more keenly as manager and “seasoned” police officer Martin Whitfield’s eyes falter under its gaze.
Hicks goes on to demonstrate his skills and training in ‘engaging’ his opponent, the gallery thief, while also explaining the “ancient art” of a particular defensive stance (“from there, we can do business”). Whitfield meanwhile explains that “art rather than people” has become the “priority response”; low-resolution images of social unrest playing out through frames of hung paintings, portraits of uniformed servicemen superimposed on the same walls that Hicks stalks in response to a hypothetical intruder: “Run my walls. There is no threat”.
Applause is audible from somewhere behind the ‘Guards’ screen, a sign saying “exhibition continues” points in that direction where the ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ (2013) and ‘Is the Museum a Battlefield’ (2013) lecture performances are playing on loop. Here Steyerl herself expounds on the unsettling collusion between art, business and war by making the logical connection between an artwork and German telecommunications company Siemens’ defence division, as an example. Audience laughter during the consciously farcical, though strangely lucid association between the 7.62 mm diameter of the hole in Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Single Form’ sculpture installation shot and the calibre of an ammunition cartridge, is punctured by the barking commands of Hicks in ‘Guards’ playing on the other side of the thin wall.
Steyerl connects her visit to a battlefield, running along the customised press release spam in her networked smartphone, to an exhibition funded by the very corporate body producing the ammunition her phone camera lens is apparently inadvertently pointing to at the moment she receives it. “Don’t’ ask who fired them but who sponsored them”, she says while Kris Martin’s 700 WWI Howitzer shells of ‘Obussen II’ become visible in the gallery, only when they become an artwork. The hole in Hepworth’ssculpture on the other hand is only “a shadow of a bullet’s existence”, where the effect remains but the cause is more elusive.
Decoding these symbols and abstractions of networked connectivity, making associations and implicating her audience in a funny, vigorous and intensely unsettling way is Steyerl’s ultimate strength. Her words from ‘Is the Museum a Battlefield’ –“it could be a data cloud or even a gentrified suburb” –echo through ‘How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File’ (2013), within its own four walls, separated and set between ‘Guards’ and ‘Liquidity Inc.’ An eerie automated voice narrates the mock instructions on visibility in a digital world, as a pixel-based resolution chart zooms out from the scale of Steyerl’s bust to the camera resolution test charts of aerial photography, then satellite imagery, on a planet where becoming “smaller than the pixel” is the only way to evade the gaze.
“Shoot or be shot” Steyerl tells us, while illustrating the ubiquity of the camera lens in her lecture. In ‘How Not to Be Seen’ “camera crews disappear when invisible energy rays emanate from the iPhone”, while the omnipresent automated voice explains “how to become invisible by disappearing”. The frame surveys a CGI plaza, its human-shaped inhabitants reduced to white silhouettes of negative space, while announcing “Love is invisible. War is invisible. Capital is invisible.” According to Steyerl, “resolution determines visibility” and there are ways of disappearing, into gated communities, military zones or by being female and over fifty. Better yet, become an enemy of the state, when you’ll be “eliminated, liquidated”. **
The lede of the press release for UCCA’s upcoming Art Post-Internet exhibition in Beijing promises to offer “a critical examination of an inter-generational group of European and American artists for whom ubiquitous digital transmission is the norm.” And sure enough, the line-up of artists and collectives featured in Art Post-Internet flits across the Western art landscape, highlighting the works of many art world forces, including the likes of Marisa Olson and Bernadette Corporation among the other 40+ featured artists.
And while the bill is impeccable, the conceptual cohesion of the exhibition appears ambitious at best, and dubious at worst. The apparent ambiguity of the term ‘post-internet’ presents the first point of contention, with various interpretations floating about the virtual and physical world and shifting rapidly, already threatened to extinction by the hyper-acceleration of the very culture it proposes to represent. Understood to mean not a culture past, beyond, or after the internet, the term “post-internet” – as Olson proposed in 2008 –instead references one so deeply embedded in and propelled by the internet that the notion of a world or culture without or outside it becomes increasingly unimaginable, impossible.
All this begs the question: if we are to understand post-internet art simply to mean art created within the modern milieu, in which we inevitably live our lives on the internet, then what meaning or constructive quality can the term ‘post-internet’ bring to the table? The spectrum of art works represented in Art Post-Internet seems to answer this question without distinctly asking it, as the monolithic exhibition yokes together works as diverse as the idiosyncratic, lo-res videos of Petra Cortright, the installations of Aleksandra Domanović as provoked by the‘Turbo Sculptures’ of former Yugoslavia, the simulacrum-like paintings of Juliette Bonneviot, and the stock-image inspired explorations of Timur Si-Qinall under the same umbrella.
One of the most significant names to grace the exhibition is that of Munich-born author and filmmaker, Hito Steyerl, whose recent videos act as a melancholic meditation on the notion and absence of visibility and how it is transformed through technological developments. In 2012’s ‘Zero Probability’ with Rabih Mroué, Steyerl explores the impossible, a person disappearing into thin air, and posits it within digital culture, asking: “How do people disappear in an age of total over-visibility?… Are people hidden by too many images? Do they go hide amongst other images? Do they become images?”
Another influential contributor to Art Post-Internet is Kari Altmann, whose use of the language and structures of consumption further conflates the notion of virtual vs. real. Tackling the emotive aspects of internet life –whether in her exploration of its “emergent spirituality” or in her dealings with the notion of affective labor –Altmann’s work cuts to the heart of the matter: how does the internet change how and what we feel? The fact that the majority of her work exists only virtually, converted –or as Altmann says “exported” –into physical form purely for the purpose of exhibitions hints to the changing landscape of the art world. As Altmann says, “[e]verything is live.”
The unruly and frantic videos of Kari Altmann seem worlds away from the melancholy ambience of Bunny Rogers’ work, whose innate poeticism travels seamlessly through various mediums –from musings on childhood, nostalgia and exploitation in her YouTube-assisted installation ‘If I Die Young’, to the shivering still-life installation of ‘O Columbine (Wo ist mein bruder)’.
It’s not until one hits upon the work of another integral contributor to the exhibition that the lofty classification of Art Post-Internet starts to congeal and find form. Harm van den Dorpel flits between mediums with his pieces, jumping from more classical physical media such as sculpture and collage to his necessarily virtual websites and online animation. But it is the trajectory of his ‘Dissociations’ that outlines the umbrella under which the works of Art Post-Internet fall: the notion that it is not the style nor the content of the works at play here, nor even their chosen medium or mediums, but rather the interconnectivity between ideas and forms, the very practice of creativity and the process by which it is realised.
When UCCA stresses the ‘inter-generationality’ of its artists, it is a helpful hint to the nature of the exhibition itself, peppered with ‘post-internet’ artists building their respective oeuvres standing on the shoulders of Net art influencers like Vuk Ćosić, Alexei Shulgin and Olia Lialina. In this respect, Art Post-Internet proves from the onset its awareness of the complexity of its subject, crafting an exhibition that aims not to present it as a coherent and cohesive discipline but rather as a dynamic process of cultural evolution. **