“I think we could say with microdosing on LSD, or taking nootropics within a larger programme of self-optimisation of the body, another psychedelic experience is being sought,” says artist, writer and filmmaker Zach Blas, on drug use in Silicon Valley. “But it’s one that’s much more focussed around being a neoliberal visionary.” Speaking with associate editor Jared Davis on topics spanning queerness in California, big tech and a “new psychedelic age” for AQNB’s bi-monthly Artist Statement podcast, this latest episode with Blas is available exclusively to subscribers of our Patreon.
Born in West Virginia, studying in California, and now at home in London where he is a Lecturer in the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, Zach has presented work for the likes of de Young Museum, San Francisco, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, the 2018 Gwangju Biennale and more. Talking from his South London home, Blas spoke on topics ranging from queer theory, what can be meant by “the trip” in our contemporary age, as well as notions of the apocalypse.
Taking its starting point from a screen shot of a Facebook status in which Blas outlines a transparent ‘user’s agreement’, foreswearing “any biopolitical position as a user of the internet” and points to the himself as “physical-data-body-nodes within the naturalised capitalised internet system”, this coming Thursday, Blas will talk about the “emerging militancies and subversions of ‘the Internet’”.
Also to be expected is a discussion of dildotectonics (a theory adopted against ideals of heteronormative sex), utopian plagiarism, and social media exodus, all in order to pose a challenge to the “control logic” with which we look upon our time and bodies spent online.
The talk by Blas, who has recently given similar lectures at Goldsmiths and RCA art schools, is a part of Whitechapel Gallery’s Electronic Superhighway season events programme.
In a bid to start 2016 with a big show, the Whitechapel gallery has put together a survey of over 100 artworks by more than 70 artists working with computer and internet technologies during the last 50 years. It’s called Electronic Superhighway (2016 – 1966), which sounds new and exciting, because it’s ‘about technology’. But the name also has a retro feel about it. Superhighway sounds a bit 70s. Indeed, the term was coined in 1974, by the artist Nam June Paik as a metaphor for the potentialities in a globalised world connected through technology. By choosing to name the show in such a way it allows the curators to situate today’s current state of affairs as one driven by technology, but also to situate the show historically, implying a previous state of affairs. This is made explicit in the exhibition layout, which splits the show into two distinct sections. Downstairs, where you enter the gallery, the work on show is from 2000 to 2016, and upstairs the work dates from 1966 to 1999.
This split between two states of affairs is one riven, simply, by the internet –not in relation to any specific point of origin, but in terms of the everyday colloquialism in which it is understood today. And herein lies the question that, for me, the exhibition poses. If this show is ‘about technology’ then are the technologies of the recent past homologous with today’s technologies? Or maybe even, what is technology?
The exhibition is arranged in reverse chronological order, but I thought that I’d reverse this reverse, as it were, and start with the earlier work. Upstairs is carpeted and peaceful. There’s lots of work up here – Ulla Wiggen’s paintings of electronic circuits (1967), Vera Molnar’s computer drawings (1974), E.A.T’s modified objects for performance (1966), to name just a fraction but to also illustrate the diversity of material. There is plenty of moving image –video and early computer generated works.
In Judith Barry’s film ‘Space Invaders’ (1981-1982) a voice muses over a night sky “we don’t know what’s really out there, just more stars, I guess”. The film continues into scenes of discos and video arcade games. A boy lies on his bed watching TV, dreaming, while the word ‘escapism’ intercuts. Dreaming toward the TV is echoed in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s interactive installation ‘Lorna’ (1979-1982). The work is styled like a 1970s apartment. A TV on a dresser plays an interactive film of the agoraphobic Lorna trapped in her apartment with her own TV, the only channel to the world outside. Nam June Paik’s ‘Internet Dream’ (1994), is a large video wall sculpture consisting of 52 screens displaying snippets of broadcast and electronically processed images. Is this heavy machine dreaming of the internet; that maybe more screens can break the single channel-induced stupor?
Allan Kaprow’s ‘Hello’ (1969), documents experiments with closed circuit video systems, in which participants would communicate via the artist’s instructions when they see each other on the screen, and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s ‘Surface Tension’ (1992), where a huge eye tracks your movement around the room, both anticipate communication through the screen and surveillance systems.
With so many works on display it seems pointless, impossible even, to find particular threads or analogies to bind this work together, even though they have been grouped under the banner of technology. And also in a kind of ‘history zone’, which we may as well call ‘pre-internet’, because this is what the show suggests.
So in historicising these works into a group, I start to wonder. To think about technology as a category by which to group something seems to chime with present-day thinking. After a while it becomes difficult to understand what these works have in common. Perhaps nothing at all. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Here, technology is understood as electric, computerised, modern and medium-oriented. The show itself starts to define the boundaries and parameters of technology.
Going back downstairs, back to where you enter the exhibition, you are in the present. It is bright and full of work. “What is it that makes the present so different?” asksJayson Musson in ‘ART THOUGHTZ’ (2010-12), originally a show on YouTube, in which he endearingly greets his audience as ‘Internet’. “Well,” he continues, “it’s the internet”. Musson’s film, a compilation of all his previous shows, is full of humour and satire, but it strikes with resonance a needed simplicity with which we can regard the internet. Maybe the internet is better understood as a process and not something that can be represented. It’s more like a practice. “This is the best time for the Layman to get into performance art”, says Musson, half joking, “the performative nature of the ritual of the everyday.”
But what kinds of performance might we get into? Musson jokes about the mundane, but maybe it’s also something else, like taking the neoliberal subject of excessive self-governance, faux autonomy and pseudo flexibility, and warping them into something more heightened, intensified, performed, pleasured, ephemeral –something like a technology of the person. Something like the characters in Ryan Trecartin’s film ‘A Family Finds Entertainment’ (2004). Trecartin hasstated about his films that he sees personality traits, behaviours, genders and identities as tools or applications rather than ways of existing: Tools that allow for a state of inventiveness and do not depend on labels.
So maybe this Superhighway is no longer electric but performative, with that category also being variable. Zach Blas’ ‘Queer Technologies’ (2007-2012), is a mixed-media installation that displays an array of consumer products –computer components, coding manuals and software operating systems –‘Queer tech’. On a screen a film speaks of ‘anti language’ and ‘Transborder immigrant tools’ – “walking equals true if you are born in the wrong place”, says the narrator. Here the highway need not be electric. This highway is about keeping moving, perhaps until you disappear out of sight completely, and escape.
Another kind of escape is echoed in Thomas Ruff’s ‘Substrat 34 1’ (2007), a chromogenic print that through technical process applied to found images abstracts the picture into a spectral play of colours that ripple into each other. The work has a fluid motion, edges that dissolve and also the feeling of detachment inherent in that there is only a notional connection to its founding body, the index image.
The ‘Net Art’ room shows works selected in collaboration with online organization Rhizome. Here, biographies are incorporated. In Ann Hirsch’s ‘Twelve’ (2013) as the artists chat room dialogues, and in Martine Syms’ ‘Reading Trayvon Martin’ (2013), an ongoing work that tracks Syms’ archiving and bookmarking of web pages relating to the case.
These notions of performativity, escape, modification and ephemerality suggest another way of thinking about technology, as any kind of tool or process between two states of affairs. So the technologies that are actually not electric –languages and orders of signification–seem to be the ones under scrutiny by the artists in the 2000-2016 part of this exhibition. The internet may be electric but the things now trying to be crashed and failed are not electrical systems but systems of information, representation and control.
I get the sense that the composition of this exhibition comes from viewing the previous state of affairs through the lens of today’s state of affairs –that in a time of digitally networked global computer systems, which are possibly beyond representation themselves, there is the overwhelming urge to call all electrical systems ‘technology’, but not apply the term to other systems and applications.
Maybe artists now don’t even see the internet as a technology, but just a commonplace. Artists have been working on the internet since its inception and continue to do so. How can the gallery represent what is actually happening online? It can’t. And that’s fine. The show was good, in the sense that if you didn’t know any of the artists before then you can go away and look them up –or do it in the gallery on your smartphone. **
Zach Blas is presenting a lecture Conditions are Now in Transition: the Local, The Border at London’s Goldsmiths on November 23.
As an artist engaging with technology, queerness, and politics, Blas’ talk will focus on his recent work and writing around the limitations of digital calculation and visualisation of biometric recognition.
Eduoard Gilssant’s writing on opacity and his critique of transparency will present as a major reference point in the artist’s work towards a theory of ‘informatic opacity’, along with his own dystopian installations ‘Face Cages’ and his ‘Facial Weaponisation Suite’ project in thinking of art in technology.
The two-day festival, running as part of the Brighton Digital Festival 2015, builds on Lighthouse’s previous Improving Reality events, bringing together international artists and thinkers to build “new platforms for creating culture, connecting people and improving reality”.
In a time of significant upheaval in the western world, The Long Progress Bar examines not just the role of art but the roles of engineering and direct democracy, aiming to create a “real-time response to real-world issues”. Some of the participating artists and creatives include USA’s Holly Herndon, Mat Dryhurst and Zach Blas, UK’s Warren Ellis, Jam Cityand Benedict Singleton, and The Netherlands’ Metahaven.
As the 27th exhibition in fig-2/Outset Contemporary Art Fund’s 50-exhibition programme (done in as many weeks), Mirza’s The Ectoplasm of Neoliberalism will run at the London space for the entire week, complete with a selection of events throughout, including a Kundalini yoga and gong sitting on July 9 and a discussion with the artist about her use of materials on July 12.
The Ectoplasm of Neoliberalism comes as Mirza’s first solo exhibition in two decades, focussing in on women, bodies, and sites of resistance in a merging of occult and radical politics. With everything from large-scale collages, photo-prints, video pieces created with her collaborative partner Brad Butler, and conversations with artists like Zach Blas and China Miéville, the solo show positions itself as a week of provocation around the “possibility of evoking a new stance”.
A new exhibition and series of events titled Beyond the Interface opens at London gallery Furtherfield on April 24 and runs until June 21.
The group show and series features works by a handful of participating artists, beginning outside the gallery itself, whose external walls have been transformed into an immersive installation of lush water lilies and leaves, inspired by Monet’s Water Lilies, by US artist Nathaniel Stern‘s Compressionism series of work.
Inside the gallery itself, one can find Zach Blas‘s ‘Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face’, an HD video and vacuum-formed, painted, plastic mask, as well as Francesca da Rimini’s ‘Hexecutable’ a new LamdaMOO avatar installation and zine. Other works include: Jennifer Chan’s ‘Grey Matter’, a confessional remix video in which the artist “mashes up pop culture, net art, and teen-girl online aesthetic”; Branger_Briz‘s iPhone charging station, ‘A Charge for Privacy’; Heath Bunting‘s ‘Proto-type Off-the-shelf (OTS) British Anonymous Corporation’ documentation material and identity kit; Mez Breeze‘s ‘T[he]Issue: The Geospatial and Mixed-Locative Colonisation Act of 2014’; and Genetic Moo‘s multimedia networked installation ‘It’s Alive!’.
The lecture and workshop will take place alongside the Black Box Formula exhibition currently in the Henry Moore Gallery of the RCA which shows the works of five contemporary artists exploring the workings of ‘black box’ systems, i.e. any phenomena in which the input and output are known but the processes causing the output are not.
Blas’ lecture will explore what is described as “the contemporary aesthetico-political militancies, subversions and alternatives to the internet”, and will be followed by a discussion focusing on selected readings as well as a performative group exercise regarding the ‘Contra-sexual’ and the ‘Contra-internet’.
“We have lost the game of the internet,” warns Peter Sunde. Recently released from jail, the former Pirate Bay founder speaks alongside other participants and organizers at the transmediale 2015, commencement address. The opening presentation, as the next few days demonstrate, fittingly contextualises the idea between the opposing speeches of the BitTorrent spokesperson and Jennifer Lyn Morone. In contrast to Sunde’s warning to abdicate from digital media, as he has done, Morone briefly and somewhat nervously explains her project of incorporating her identity and data as a form of resistance. The year’s theme is ‘Capture All.’ It focuses on current trends and methods of data accumulation, centering around, yet not limited to, this process as it relates to internet activity and monitoring.
On opening night the main group exhibition, titled Capture All and located in the exhibition hall of Haus der Kulturen der Welt, is crawling with visitors. Partitioned with black barriers forming geometric shapes around each work, it seems akin to a manufactured beehive. I flip through the books made for the ‘Networked Optimization’ (2013) piece by Silvio Lorusso and Sebastian Schmieg. The works function as optimised versions of self-help bestsellers and feature only their most highlighted lines, as derived from Amazon’s former feature of seeing the activity of e-book users. I explain the basics of the work to another viewer confused by the lack of context. They ask me if I had created them. We stand around the replicated version of the Amazon patent for product display, the positioning and lights of which intend to streamline the digitising process, removing the need for post-production. In this simplified, doubled version of something which itself is aiming for simplification and replication, it is tempting to lie. ‘Trust is the highest form of human motivation’, can be read on a page of one of the books, surrounded by an otherwise blank space. I resist.
Returning on a quieter day, the black walled exhibition is barely populated and the impression is more ominous. Screens project out onto darkness, austere and quixotic objects are illuminated with a quality of sacredness. Zach Blas‘ ‘Face Cages’ (2013-2015) rest on two pedestals with their prisoners looking out from video screens behind them. Art is Open Source’s ‘Stakhanov’ is positioned under flags bearing religious symbols. This so-called ‘BigData God’ prints predictions that pile in an unread ribbon of paper on the floor. In the back of the space, Timo Arnall’s hefty documentation ‘Internet Machine’ (2014) quietly pans along the cloaked and impenetrable physicality of the internet. An overall “the-future-is-now” affect of the exhibition itself is felt alongside the actual works – something that transmediale projects in general.
The entire festival has a surreal quality to it, bordering on the (science-)fictional. Continuously, the lectures and panels consider the means in which life has been taken up into the cloud. In some cases, this is brought up in the deterioration between private/public or leisure/labour spheres, as happening within social media. At other times, this can be seen through visualizations of the quantities of data collected from all internet activity. The result is a distorted sense of what exactly composites reality. Of course a lot of this information is at least vaguely familiar, but entering this web of consistent verbal reinforcement gives it an abstract tangibility as it cuts away at the physical world.
At the keynote lecture called ‘Work’ in HKW’s Auditorium, sociologist Judy Wajcman lists off current buzzwords for the dependence on and transformation due to digital media. “‘Business & distraction,’ ‘digital addiction,’ ‘digital detox,’ ‘mindfulness,’ ‘timeless time,’ ‘demise of clock time,’ etc.” I find myself writing. A slight comedy presents itself as Wajcman turns to the idea of cohabitation and co-development. These structures and mechanisms are not developing ahead of us, but rather they are shaped by our own desires for them, she suggests. But then as ‘Networked Optimization’ implies and one of its creators, Sebastian Schmieg, later clarifies at a panel, the clearing up of time and technological augmentation questions what exactly is intended with the time that we want freed up and the improvements we wish to see in ourselves and our machines. This paring-down seems to almost be a willed-for drive for disappearance.
This aspect of counter-reality reaches its peaks in the artist talk panels, held in HKW’s Konference Raum 1. Though art’s relation to reality is usually one of some degree of distance and, therein, reflection, the practices of certain artists present cross this separation into more standardised disciplines, such as chemistry or economics, only to step out of them again.
“Do you ever wish you were invisible?” asks Heather Dewey-Hagborg in the video accompanying her piece ‘Invisible’ (2014). In answer to that question and the possibility of electronic data collection turning to the biological, she has created two chemical products. One erases 95 per cent of DNA traces from any surface that may contain them, and the other obfuscates the remaining five per cent. The practicality of using these products to actually remove all traces immediately seems unfeasible, bringing to mind an obsessive-compulsive ritual of self-obfuscation. Nonetheless, they are functional items and can chemically succeed in this intention. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lyn Morone’s response to undermined individual rights and a complete lack of privacy is to turn her person into a corporation. With ‘Jennifer Lyn MoroneTM Inc.’ (2014), she privatizes and places all her personal attributes on the market. What exactly this means in legal terms for any of her data collected by third parties remains unclear. Similarly, she herself seems unsure of the concrete implications of potential transactions. Nonetheless, in the advertising video accompanying the piece/business venture, the gestures of the ill-fitting business suit she wears and the green screen in front of which she stands point to the theatricality of corporate identities. Perhaps the irony of the entire project – gain through defeat – suggests that while Pirate Bay’s Peter Sunde’s claim, ‘the internet game is lost,’ stands true, another game can be played.
Erica Scourti’s ‘Body Scan’ (2014) delves more personally into Big Data and the reorganization of the body. The artist shows the results of an intimate exchange mediated through data-recognition software, moving from pictures of skin to Google-esque collections of similar images narrated by a robotic voice. A similar restructuring of data can be seen in Jonas Lund’s piece ‘FIFY’ (2015). Made specifically for transmediale, the present-through-absence work is based on an algorithm that interprets the descriptions of prior transmediale exhibitions. With a borrowed phone, a visitor can walk to numbers painted on the floor, dial, and be told of the potential work that could be there, as according to past patterns. Lund’s practice is generally algorithm based. He has created an extensive network of contemporary artworks, artists, curators, and galleries, which he then runs through a programmed system. This leads to the production of future pieces deemed by this system to have probable success. As Scourti shows the reduction of the body and the emotional individual to an expanse of electronic patterns and data potentially valuable for advertisement, so Lund breaks the market economy of art into a predictable method, turning it also into a game, but one that can be won.
In a final artist talk in K1, the relations between art and labour, and labour and time is brought up. It features Sam Meech, Elli Harrison, and Oliver Walker from the FACT-curated Time and Motion, a transmediale guest exhibition. Walker discusses his piece ‘One Euro’, which shows screens documenting various forms of labour. Each video lasts the time it would take for its labourer to earn a euro. The other two artists examine the division of their own time. Meech’s knit tapestry, ‘Punchcard Economy’ (2013), reads ‘8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest.’ The slogan is taken from Robert Owen’s 8 Hour Day movement, while the tapestry’s pattern incorporates Meech’s own irregular and freelance labour schedule. In ‘Timelines’ (2006), Harrison displays four days from a carefully recorded month, during which she had tracked each activity based on its duration.
In contrast with these personal works, Walker’s ‘One Euro’ and the ‘75 Watt’ (2013) piece by Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen (not present at this particular talk) bring into question the relations between labour, the body, time, and control in broader contexts. ‘75 Watt’ specifically documents assembly-line workers in China creating an object with no function other than to choreograph the workers’ movements. These are documentations of or interventions in the facets of oppression and formation in labour. It’s curious how these labours and their political or ethical implications are transformed when they are carried over into the artist’s work, especially one made for a potential market value.
Whose labour is it at this point? And what does it entail for someone to interrupt another’s work process to document, only to then return with the documentation back to the gallery, unscathed? These queries flowed with the others gleaned from the five days of Transmediale as I tread up and down the stairs of HKW’s elaborate architecture. I’m mentally trying to organise the excess of information gathered, and figure out what could be done with it beyond storage and categorisation. **