Following their 2014 run across seven European cities, including their November session at London’s ICA, and latest appearance with Life: Feminism at Stockholm’s Tensta konsthall in December, the Lunch Bytes discussion series is wrapping up with a booked-out conference in Berlin.
“If our bodies don’t end at the skin,” writes the press release, “but instead extend to and reconfigure themselves with the material environments they engage with, what kind of implications does this have for notions like representation, embodiment and gender?” Much like some of the other female-identified artists we’ve covered in the past, the conference begins with the body.
Moderated by Maria Lind, director Tensta konsthall, the conference invites artists Jesse Darling and Sofia Hultin, curator Rózsa Farkas, and editor and writer Elvia Wilk to discuss their work and how they “make use of, configure and create identities” through it. The discussion is also organised in conjunction with Hultin’s TK-comissioned project, ‘I Am Every Lesbian‘.
“I’m going for a deeply oceanic look today”, Holly Childs is reading from her upcoming book Danklands, to be published via Arcadia Missa on December 9. It’s an excerpt of what she calls, “a make-up tutorial that is also subliminally a climate change awareness campaign, or a self-defence for women pep talk”. It features a persona called ‘Augustine’ pointing at ephemeral hyperlinks from inside a computer screen, while recommending “slut shame” eye shadow or “urban decay & deathzone 4 Eva” liner to suit any lifestyle: “maybe you’re a scientist who’s just started dating again after a massive break up, or doing some whaling”. From here come the ideas of “dredging and resurfacing” that Childs actively explores in her work, a subject that is revisited in various forms across ideas and artistic practices expressed in conversation with several other writers and artists. They include Cally Spooner and David Jablonowski, as well as art historian Florian Cramer and panel moderator Elvia Wilk at Lunch Bytes exploring Life: Language. The film that should follow the ICA programme is being delayed as the last in the London editions of the Goethe-Institut‘s European series applies some interesting ideas to the computer generated future of communication via the internet.
“’Always scared amateur porn is going to turn out to be a snuff film”, Childs is quoting Australian artist Aurelia Guo in exploring the “rerouting of form” where a format meant to present one agenda exposes itself for harbouring another. Hence the post-presentation question time concerning Emoji and their relationship with the corporate interests of the companies that produce them – say, the myth of “John Appleseed” embedded in Apple’s tiny pictographs. It’s a technologised type of social interaction that started in emoticons and has since been colonised by corporate entities; Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! encoding them with their own ideologies. Spooner goes further with these “shared behaviours between labour and speech, and therefore politics” citing Hannah Arendt’s derailing of a political form of life through speech and actions in the “big musical collapse” of her ‘And You Were Wonderful, On Stage’ (2014) performance. It was inspired by the artist’s experiences working with an advertising agency in a campaign that would refill its employees’ real-life stories with a company’s brand and values, only to resell it to its staff.
“I was thinking about how people use Emoji when they’re sexting, like an eggplant is supposed to be a dick”, Childs deadpans about the subversive potential of recalibrating said characters’ intended corporate meaning via context. This is something Cramer also illustrates via the encoded language of early 4Chan image boards, where he draws parallels between the highly referential “visual linguistics” of 17th century allegorical art and something like ‘Y U NO?’ or the Anonymous meme-cum-hacktivist group-cum-global symbol of dissent. The latter’s famous Guy Fawkes mask signifier is, of course, an iconic image that draws from Alan Moore’s cult graphic novel, V for Vendetta – which in turn was inspired by the 16th century activist – resurfacing via a Japanese anime-inspired culture transfered to Western image boards and manifesting physically via the #occupy movement.
In his ‘Powerslave, Revolution Main (Signature Series)’ (2014), recently shown at BRANDS – CONCEPT/AFFECT/MODULARITY, David Jablonowski draws a link between political revolutions via his found object sculptural arrangement of Iron Maiden tour merchandise from 1984. The band are regarded as the first rock act to cross into the Eastern Bloc at the time, while the limited edition Vans shoes were discovered by the Netherlands-based artist during a visit to New York when the 2012 Arab Spring in Egypt had erupted.
That sort of layering of symbolic objects not only expresses a sort of density of information but also an emptying out of a self-contained object’s self-contained meaning, especially when presented in pairings as disparate as the plexiglass and lacquered bamboo boxes in Jablonowski’s ‘Alibaba (dot cn dot sa dot com)’ (2014) sculpture at To Satisfy Algorithms/ Still Life with Asparagus. It’s inspired by a Chinese-founded trade website (alibaba.com) with an Arabic reference that has no connection to the region’s history except for its global potential for brand recognition.
Illustrating language as highly coded and malleable to its context – whether corporate, political or personal (often all three) – it’s in a clash of cultures and concerns that makes contemporary communication and the Lunch Bytes Life: Language discussion such a dynamic one. Cramer references Heath Bunting’s 1998 “social sculpture” ‘_readme.html (Own, Be Owned or Remain Invisible)’, where an article written by the net artist for Wired magazine is entirely linked by words to a corresponding .com domain. Starting out with mostly dead links, in the almost two decades since, they’ve been almost entirely populated and commercialised – even the conjunctions like ‘at’, ‘and’ and ‘to’.
Meanwhile, Spooner’s ‘Damning Evidence Illicit Behaviour Seemingly Insurmountable Great Sadness Terminated In Any Manner’ (2014) opera takes its title from a public statement made by Nike after Lance Armstrong’s revelations of doping. The opera itself outsources its scores to comment threads reacting to public controversy like Beyonce’s lip-synced Obama inauguration performance (“if you can’t trust her, who can you trust?”). All this, while Cramer suggests, “a new kind of writing needs to be invented”. But when Childs shares her “cute and nice conversation” with a Microsoft Word spell check function via an error-box gesturing, “it didn’t have the exact language to convey what it was thinking or feeling”, I rather think it already has. **
The first of a two-part exhibition to culminate at London’s Evelyn Yard in January 2015, Paul Kneale‘s SEO and Co., running at tank.tv from October 13 to November 21, reclaims and reconstitutes the work of the speech-to-text transcription that’s applying Search Engine Optimisation to video. With the internet being essentially a text-based medium, the difficulties of uploading films online while making them accessible, or more appropriately, ‘rank-able’ by search engines means that Google and YouTube have developed a new approach to inscribing the ephemeral image through auto captioning software. That means some laughably off-point transcripts of recorded events to follow, including the highly theoretical Lunch Bytes Structures and Textures panel discussion in May this year – where Kneale spoke along with Ben Vickers, Wendy Chun and Boris Groys – only to be translated automatically into an absurd collation of phrases like, “nothing series your working, additional culture, %uh gutenberg!” and “sweetie what happened to you?”.
While the text doesn’t necessarily relate to content specifics, somehow it’s been interpreted into the right subject of art with a ‘Warhol’ dropping in from nowhere and leading nicely to becoming a piece of it (as in art) with Kneale’s resulting SEO and Co. exhibition. The artist transformed the transcript into a screenplay, split into four ‘scenes’ and read by five London-based creatives including himself, Harry Burke, Melika Ngombe Kolongo, Nina Cristante and Oscar Khan -as ‘FRAMER’, ‘INTERJECTOR’, ‘ELABORATOR’, ‘STUDENT’, ‘DISTURBER’ (not necessarily in that order). The performances were filmed inside and on the roof of Kneale’s current home and muse, the disused Rotherhithe Library (occassionally known as the Library + project space), before being projected on to parts pulled from the condemned building and reinstalled in the tank.tv downstairs space.
The result is various makeshift ‘screens’ made up of material crossing ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ space. A part of a flourescent light that undulates in the background of Kolongo’s reading on-screen is nailed to the back of the board where its showing. There’s a hole roughly cut through a perpendicular panel with a view to the metal framed tarp projecting an image of that same substance. Speakers playing the sound of the SEO mash-up hang in branded bags or the plastic that they came in. A microwave, brown from burnt CDs cooked inside it, is on the floor behind a suspended film of dazzling chameleon-coloured bubbles of polycarbonate plastic; their digital data lost with the melted material.
As was the SEO and Co. script, so too is said CD melting fetish directly inspired by nonsensical algorithmic associations. It’s from one of the recommendations following a viewing of the same YouTube upload of the Lynch Bytes #2 discussion video that inspired the screenplay. As an artist interested in the “rerouting and transference of meaning”, Kneale siezes on Harold Bloom’s idea of “poetic misprision” – where one wilfully misinterprets their inspiration in order to open up the imaginative space – and presents an exhibition that recognises the potential of technology’s ludicrous lack of intentionality in broadening our perspective. **
It’s appropriate that I’m talking to Metahaven on PiratePad. Having pushed for Skype and settling for ‘chat’, Daniel van der Velden – with creative partner Vinca Kruk always cc’d into email – sends a link to a ‘Hello!’ on the online etherpad doc, the design agency’s answers highlighted pink, to my green, in what is a last-minute interview graciously granted and swiftly started within a day of the suggestion. It’s a real-time conversation as both ends multitask – answering, waiting, working, searching for links – with van der Velden occasionally poking fun, once bluntly retorting, “is this an attempt at an art school examination?” to my inane inquisitions on a colour choice. Another time simply replying, “’magic realism’ sounds nice” to a long-winded interpretation of what the use of the term in the press release for their role in Auto Italia’s upcoming POLYMYTH x Miss Information exhibition is all about –apparently nothing much.
Dry humour aside, Metahaven’s insight on both the formal and political machinations of aesthetics and design is unparalleled. It’s something they already examined in their recent Black Transparency exhibition only to generously elaborate in conversation; from the influence of Walgreens and Sandra Bullock on the visual language of US intelligence agency, NSA, to the role 90s sci-fi and Ferrero Rocher plays in their recruitment strategy. This is, after all, the duo who developed the brand for renegade micronation, Sealand, and designed merchandise for Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks.
“We were always interested in pop”, says Metahaven, as they point to the “pop phenomenon” that is the aforementioned Australian-born enemy of the state, suggesting that the move to working on the visuals for cutting-edge electronic artist Holly Herndon is “not like a switch at all”. All pretty pastel icons and feathered circle cutouts their debut collaborative video for ‘Home’, released by RVNG Intl, is essentially a break-up ballad for Herndon’s laptop. After celebrating the embodiment of her complete being in her harddrive in ‘Chorus ’, ‘Home’ follows a betrayal, a breach of trust, where she suddenly realises nothing is as it seems and there’s someone else involved -her computer wasn’t the person she thought it was.
PiratePad doesn’t sound nearly as cute as Google Docs. There’s the gooey voiced velar stops of a baby in the latter, the pursed-lipped ‘p’s’ of the former evoking an off-the-grid exile stalking the peripheries of mainstream channels, cut adrift on the swampy surface of the deep dark web. ‘Home’ too looks nice and sounds like it’s safe but bad things happen where you least expect them.
I noticed the colour scheme for the major text in video you did with Holly was very similar to Google’s primary colours. Was that intentional?
Metahaven: No. You will see that of Google’s colors, yellow is missing. The colors used are red, green and blue.
Is there some special significance to those particular colours?
Mh: Not particularly, but they are RGB.
And RGB is relevant because…?
Mh: RGB is what our screens have. It is the CMYK of the digital world. But nothing of such portentiousness was behind the type color choice. We tried different options and this looked nicest, the most bubblegum like.
It seems like there’s an emphasis on this ‘soft’ aesthetic around of these enterprises like the NSA in the icons that inundate the screen of ‘Home’. Are these images that already existed or are they ones as imagined by you?
Mh: Trevor Paglen has done a lot of work on the so-called “black programs” and the patches that are worn by pilots who fly Darpa spy planes from Groom Lake Air Force Base, etc. The NSA’s secret programs have similar icons but ones that are mixed with a system administrator, USB key, Windows / Office art world that reveals the aesthetic realities of waging war from behind a fake wood veneer desk.
To us it is fascinating that these icons and brands were developed purely internally; never to be seen or understood by the public, which in a way gave their designers total freedom. One NSA program is called BOUNDLESS INFORMANT. A GCHQ homemade computer Trojan is called Ambassador’s Reception.
Indeed, the icons in ‘Home’, which are the NSA’s, are more Office and Post-It than these black world patches. All the icons used are found images. We designed none of them but on some occasions made them black or embossed them with marble, depending on how much NSA we wanted in that part of the video—highlighting their shape, or silhouette, rather than their content.
That’s interesting when you consider the internal branding of a corporate office; videos and slogans that try to humanise a purely economic, or productive intent. Also with advertising, that 4G campaign that says something like ‘now you have no excuse not to stay in touch’, like that’s something you should be excited about…
Mh: Why are you not excited about staying in touch all the time? (laughs). Telecommunications companies like o2 used to sell the idea of connectivity of which they were also the caretakers and providers, like you connected to the network using their equipment, their telephones, and now they are by comparison much more invisible and merging into ever larger abstract connectivity gateway corporations.
Those ads are interesting, as the experience of connectivity is nothing all that special anymore.
How do you achieve such insight into the internal processes of these organisations?
Mh: What do you mean?
Is it information that is readily available to the public? Like these in-office NSA icons etc…
MH: No, it’s basically us guesstimating our way through, based on having viewed NSA recruitment videos and having seen every YouTube appearance of Keith Alexander [agency Director]. As designers we have quite a keen eye for the psychology of font use, color use, and drop shadows, for example. You can tell that most icons for the NSA were done under quite nerdy and boring circumstances, coming out of something that is an overlap between army, office, hacker, and wannabe. The aforementioned British government Trojan AMBASSADOR’S RECEPTION refers to a Ferrero Rocher TV ad from the 1990s. That in turn may tell you something about the age of the person who has given the Trojan its name.
It is really interesting you mention these visual cues, considering the complexity of these systems and interconnections between economics, entertainment, war, food, business…
Mh: I recall many years ago, I was doing some teaching in an art school in the US, and you had to come to the system administrator to get access credentials to the network. This was pre-9/11. The system administrator was very corpulent, had a ponytail, and had a USB key and cell phone dangling from his belt, and was seated amid monitors, paperwork, and half-broken routers and so on.
Then he didn’t really look at me but just said, “ARE YOU VISCOM?” It took me time to realise that he meant “visual communication”. The NSA seems a bit like that; acronym-obsessed and wanting to appear really “robust” but it is all a lot messier than that. But you are right: entertainment, war, food, and business. That’s what it’s all about.
Do you think then, that these are conscious, systematic decisions being made by some kind of political elite or a culmination of all this imagery, ideology and conditioning, black swan events, that has lead to this bizarre visual culture?
Mh: The irony is that it’s probably not all that centrally controlled. The programs maybe are, but their iconography looks so chaotic. The NSA recruitment videos make the agency seem like a sort of Walgreens. They make it seem like everyone can get a job there, and it is in some way portraying itself as a sort of paradise of equality but you are encouraged not to think too much. They also have a public counsel, who puts everything the NSA does operationally which they can talk about publicly in very soft, democratic, and agreeable terms.
It sounds a lot like Silicon Valley.
mh: But without the competitive edge and the glam. There is no Evan Spiegel[Snapchat CEO] at the NSA… yet.
In what sense?
Mh: The NSA is a behemoth-sized state program with a large revolving door with the private industry. But it is not in itself innovative or cool. It is a state enterprise, and I think quite a good caretaker of its employees, because why would you encourage disgruntled former staffers to become whistleblowers? It may run on “unquestioned loyalty” more than on being a hip VC-funded startup.
Many of the NSA’s employees may have read some form of cypherpunk science fiction (Bruce Sterling has stated this—“They are my readers, those high-IQ spook geeks”) and then probably non-fiction books enlisting various “bad guys,” enemies of the state, etc. We think of the NSA as very The Net. Every time Keith Alexander says “cyber,” Sandra Bullock is hitting the keypad of her hacker pizza computer. That is also the scariest part. There is so much nostalgia and past in the NSA. It has nothing to do with the future—it doesn’t want it.
Okay, so you’re suggesting that they achieve this “unquestioned loyalty” by adopting an aesthetic that is different or similar to The Net? Because the Sandra Bullock movie isn’t very ‘bubblegum’…
So then the other side of this is public entities that avoid these 90s science fiction tropes, visually and linguistically. Like the Google Glass colour range for example: “charcoal”, “tangerine”, “cotton” and “sky”, rather than black, orange, white, blue. It’s essentially a surveillance device, that you pay for but don’t own, packaged in smooth contours and neutral colours. If it looked more like a William Gibson character’s accessory people might react differently…
Mh: Totally, the aesthetics of totalitarian products are non-offensive and liberal; “apricot” rather than orange, “yoga” rather than martial arts, completely smooth, with the actual abstract power that is at work (in a Hannah Arendt kind of way, mind you) being neatly packaged on unilaterally positive and “amazing” terms. There are these Amanda Rosenberg videos where she (as the former PR lead for Google Glass) personifies various characters who are fascinated by someone they encounter who is wearing Google Glass. And one thing she says in this roleplay is that the glasses must be so helpful, because she always forgets names, and you can invisibly Google anyone you meet.
Do you recognise some sort of primal fear that drives all of this? This idea that as technology becomes more complex and its functions obscured, people seem to react in a similarly awed way… through conspiracy theory, myth-making, worship…
Mh: On the one hand technology is so integrated with life that we don’t see it and don’t question it. On the other hand it is some sort of ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Big Other’. So there’s the abstraction of technology’s embedded-ness, which is a bit like the classical idea that “good design is invisible”. We don’t question it.
Then there is technology’s overpowering Big Other presence, which is also an abstraction, but more Stalin than Dieter Rams.
It’s interesting to watch Holly’s work evolve as it has. From something acutely personal and seemingly uncynical to this overtly political project she’s doing with you. Yet, outwardly it seems as though your position hasn’t changed since working with Wikileaks and Sealand. Was there a point in your career as Metahaven where there was a certain switch?
MH: Holly’s music has always been acutely personal and it still is. But she is interested in looking over the fences and boundaries of the music industry, while increasing her impact and audience at the same time. It is amazing to work with someone with such a strong sense of artistic autonomy and, at the same time, such a capacity for collaboration. Working on this is obviously very different from working with WikiLeaks and even so much more different from making things for Sealand.
We were always interested in pop. Around the time of the Sealand identity we were reading a lot of Richard Hamilton’s writings, and WikiLeaks was itself a pop phenomenon with Julian Assange telling us that in every given merchandising situation there should be no more than five choices for the consumer. The continuation with cutting-edge pop music feels very natural, and not like a switch at all, with the added pleasure of an amazing record label, RVNG. We just last week spent three days in Amsterdam with Holly and Mat, filming a new music video, for a forthcoming track. It will be insane.
How did the collaboration come about?
Mh: They sent us an email last year, and everything evolved from there.
The press release for your POLYMYTH collaboration mentions ‘magic realism’.
Mh: We didn’t write that press release! In our forthcoming book [Black Transparency] there is an essay that deals with Russian internet memes and their deployment in the Ukraine conflict. That is what magic realism makes me think of… what if we are not going towards more transparency but to an unaccountable, free-ranging fantasy. **
This segment of the discussion series focuses in on materiality in the digitised world and examines how living online has affected an artist’s understanding of substance. Featuring artists Dan Stockholm and Timur Si-Qin, as well as Berlin writer Ana Teixeira Pinto and Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts professor Mette Ramsgard Thomsen, the panel will be moderated by Copenhagen curator and critic Toke Lykkeberg and Lynch Bytes curator Melanie Bühler, in taking a close look at the digital tools used in contemporary art making, and how and why material and physical qualities are being replicated digitally.
Lunch Bytes presents an all-day event, titled Structures and Textures: Sound, at Helsinki’s Sinne on June 10.
Structures and Textures: Sound explores the changes to sound brought on by digitization, its increasing presence in the contemporary art world, and how these experimentations with sound are treated in art versus music.
Following up on the recent Medium: Formatat the space in March, Professors Wendy Chun and Boris Groys, as well as London-based artists Paul Kneale and Hannah Sawtell will examine how the invisible infrastructures of the digital world “compose and condition the platforms, devices and applications we use daily”, modifying our perception and engagement with information.
The next in a series of discussions across Europe as part of Lunch Bytes‘s European edition, the Structures and Textures: Data panel discussion is happening at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), May 9.
Previous topics included Medium: Photography in Amsterdam and Medium: Formatin London, while for anyone wondering what the current catch-all of ‘Big Data’ actually means, maybe this coming one can help elucidate.
As part of the European edition of Lunch Bytes discussions to happen across the region, Medium:Photography, is happening at Amsterdam’s Foam, March 30.
Following last week’s UK inauguration of the at London’s ICA with Inke Arns, Hito Steyerl, Huw Lemmey and Harry Sanderson, based around medium as format generally, the Amsterdam event gets more specific with its focus on photography.
In expanding its reach to a series currently being held at the ICA, and launched with last weekend’s Medium:Format talk event, the London to New York transplant is an apt bridge between these US and European editions.
An artist and writer behind Further Materials Towards the Theory of the Hot Babe, Black’s ‘My Bodies’ video translates via the sights and sounds of watery grottos and cavernous echo as pop RnB cut-up references to the body travel over a montage of white men’s mouths.
A karaoke instrumental of Ciara’s Body Party dominates, facilitating a poignant petition to pass through “this dead place” of “scrolling without end” to “keep hold of what it means to have hand eyes teeth”.