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Fitting Digitality into a Museum's Human Dimensions

Raivo Kelomees (2/2017)

Leading Estonian electronic art theorist, Raivo Kelomees, reviews the major international exhibition on digital culture "ARS17: Hello World!" at Helsinki’s contemporary art museum Kiasma.



31. III 2017–14. I 2018
Contemporary art museum Kiasma
Artists: Ed Atkins, Andrey Bogush, Nina Canell, Cécile B. Evans, Lizzie Fitch & Ryan Trecartin, Melanie Gilligan, Juha van Ingen, Yung Jake, Ilja Karilampi, Nandita Kumar, Tuomas A. Laitinen, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner: Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, Luke Turner, Reija Meriläinen, Katja Novitskova, Jaakko Pallasvuo, Aude Pariset, Jon Rafman, Charles Richardson, Rachel Rossin, Jacolby Satterwhite, Hito Steyerl, Anna Uddenberg, Julia Varela, Artie Vierkant.
"ARS17"+ Online Art: David Blandy, Ed Fornieles, Juha van Ingen, Rachel Maclean, Florian Meisenberg, Reija Meriläinen, Pink Twins Juha Vehviläinen & Vesa Vehviläinen, Angelo Plessas, Jon Rafman, Tuomo Rainio, Charles Richardson, Jarkko Räsänen, Axel Straschnoy, Jenna Sutela, Amalia Ulman.
Curators: Leevi Haapala, Marja Sakari, Kati Kivinen, Patrik Nyberg, Jari-Pekka Vanhala.


The new normal or the digital environment surrounding us has in recent years surprised us, at least in the fine arts, with the internet's content returning to its physical space. Is this due to pressure from the galleries or something else; in any case, it is clearer than ever that the audience is not separable from the habitual space; there is a huge and primal demand for physical or material art. The short swift experience visitors have of the major exhibition "ARS17: Hello World!" is varied, diverse, colourful, in ways arbitrary, yet still clearly in touch with the trend.

The exhibition compels me to remark critically about curating as a discipline. The influence of curating on determining the precise body of artworks seems to be sometimes overrated. I can already hear your objections, but let me explain. A notion of curating has been formed, or is being presented to the public as such, that it is an extremely qualified human activity requiring extraordinary competence and that the intelligent curator is the creator of a whole that would otherwise never come into being. Yet in my opinion, the exhibition hall is itself a place where in principle all kinds of works and their combinations start to create meanings. The observer is able to build bridges between artworks that are not connected. The human consciousness can attach meaning to the seemingly meaningless, draw connections between the unconnected. With the help of the curator's explanation to find common denominators to the ambiguous and dissimilar, cohesion is more easily achieved. The human mind is flexible, it can be bent. Curatorial practices differ in this regard. And it would always be an ideal to expect the curated assemblage to create new information and new experience.

In light of this, and on the basis of the anticipated conclusion, "ARS17" does not create new experience nor information, at least from my point of view. It puts together the known, even repeating and reproducing it. This is also in regard to internet art as a format. With the postinternet theme that has experienced critical and even derogatory reception from the "establishment" arriving at the forefront, the exhibition "ARS17" creates a kind of puzzlement among circles of professionals. Of course, I lack the means to prove this scientifically. All I could do is refer to reactions in social media.

However, in her exhibition catalogue article "Digital Art Now: The Evolution of the Post-Digital Age", Christiane Paul is critical of the exhibition as well. Paul is a fairly known analyst and researcher of new media, and representative of the middle-aged generation of digital art theorists. Her main message is also that all this has been done before. In itself the statement lacks originality, but in the context of the postinternet apologists declaring the birth of a new mentality, the arrival of a new "after experiencing the internet" and "post-digital" generation, it becomes clear that indeed it is rather like shooting fish in a barrel, because art that is critical of the digital and interactive has existed since the 1990s, as have works concerned with the physicalisation of the digital experience.

The background to the exhibition is the discussion over "digitally created" art and the generation related to it. The notion of "digital natives" is related to the post-digital and post-internet generation and the notion of "post-contemporary" (i.e. art is not concerned with the contemporary but with the universal human condition). Apparently for the digital natives, the internet is not a way out of the world anymore, but an original experience in which the majority of their time is spent. At the same time, however, the internet is a natural information environment for people of all ages whose work involves data collection and intellectual work. Communication, thinking, information gathering and creation – all of these realms are related to the digital environment.

These new digital nomads travel from place to place and work in a "post-studio" environment. Christiane Paul writes in her catalogue article that while digital or new media was created, stored and shared via digital means, post-digital art addresses the digital without being stored using these same means. In other words, this kind of art exists more in the physical space.

 

A new aesthetic

Considerable reference also exists in relation to James Bridle's new aesthetics concept from 2012. In short, this refers to the convergence and conjoinment of the virtual and physical world. It manifests itself clearly even in the "pixelated" design of consumer goods or in the oeuvre of sculptors and painters, whose work has emerged from something digital. For example, the art objects by Shawn Smith and Douglas Coupland are made using pixel-blocks (the sculpture by the latter is indeed reminiscent of a low resolution digital image). Analogous works induce confusion, not to say a surprising experience, in the minds of the audience, for they bring the virtual quality of the computerised environment into physical surroundings. This makes the artworks appear odd and surreal, like some sort of mistake, errors, images and objects out of place.

The so-called postinternet generation artists are certainly not the only ones making this kind of art. As an example of this, there is a reference to the abstract stained glass collage of 11,500 pixels by Gerhard Richter in the Cologne Cathedral. It is supposed to be a reference to his 1974 painting "4096 Farben" (4096 colours), which indeed is quite similar. It is said that Richter did not accept a fee; however, the material costs were covered by donations. And yet the cardinal did not come to the opening of the glasswork, preferring depictions of Christian martyrs over abstract windows, which instead reminded him of mosques.

One could name other such examples inspired by the digital world or schisms of the digital and physical world: Helmut Smits' "Dead Pixel in Google Earth" (2008); Aram Barholli's "Map" (2006), which in 2011 was also exhibited at Kumu Art Museum in Estonia in a group show "gateways. Art and Networked Culture"; the projects by Eva and Franco Mattes, especially the printouts of Second Life avatars from 2006; Achim Mohné's and Uta Koppi's project "Remotewords" (2007–2011), computer-based instructions printed on rooftops to be seen from Google Maps or satellites or planes. There are countless examples where it is hard to discern whether the artist is deliberately and critically minded towards digital art or rather a representative of the post-digital generation who is not aware and wishes not to be part of the history of digital art.

Then there was the "Ars Electronica" festival (2006) that focused on the umbrella topic "Simplicity", which in a way turned its back on the "complexity" of digital art and returned to the physical space. Therefore, in the context of digital media based art trends, the last couple of decades have seen many expressions – works, events and exhibitions – of "turning away" from the digital environment that would outwardly qualify as post-digital and postinternet art.

From the point of view of researchers of digital culture, the so-called media-archaeological direction could be added to this as an inspirational source for artists today. Media archaeology or the examination of previous art and cultural experience signifies, in relation to contemporary media machines and practices, the exploration of previous non-digital cultural devices, equipment, means of communication, and so on, that could be regarded as the pre-history of today's digital culture and digital devices. With this point of view, the "media-archaeological" artworks of Toshio Iwai or Bernie Lubell coalesce. They have taken an earlier "media machine" or a scientific or technical device and created a modern creation on the basis of it.

 

Of the exhibition assemblage at "ARS17"

The aim of "ARS17" is of course to sum up the previous experiences and pack it into a whole. Although the vague and obtuse title "Hello, World!" seems to resign from responsibility and opinion, it is aimed at bolstering the viewpoint that for one generation an earlier communication medium or instrument of mediation has become an environment producing primary content.

An undoubtedly important part of the exhibition is the web project "ARS17"+ Online Art. In itself, creating a separate webpage for web projects is nothing new, but they raise the question of why they are in the web if they do not take into consideration the peculiarity of the environment and are merely "translated" by the internet. Examples of this are Ed Fornieles' project "Bathing" (2015), depicting a fox in the background of a low quality black and white image or David Blandy's "Ice" (2015), in which the alter ego of the author wanders in Caspar David Friedrich's famous landscape paintings. In a similar fashion, Rachel Maclean's "Let It Go" (2015) is a video project that conveys the conflict arising from the juxtaposition of the cloying song of the Walt Disney cartoon "Frozen" (2013) and its performers wearing grotesque make-up. Also with Jon Rafman, Charles Richardson and Amalia Ulman, the internet is an instrument of mediation just like the television could be, or nowadays, any other video sharing website.

The selection of works presented in the exhibition offers something for everyone and it would be difficult to find a common denominator for all of them solely on the basis of their external visual or installational features. But all of it fits into the repertoire of interactive and performative online projects. Such as the infamous "#ALONETOGETHER" (2017) whose authors are the young actor who became famous through Hollywood, Shia LaBeouf, but also Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner. In this case, the audience had the opportunity to communicate in real time via the internet with those three located in remote cabins in freezing Lapland. There was a similar log house ("mökki" in Finnish) built at Kiasma, with them "sitting" behind the screens. Also, the "digitally clastic" physical installations, such as Julia Varela's crumpled plasma TV displays in "X/5.000" (2016) or Nina Canelli's installation "Brief Syllables / Thin Vowels" (2014) made out of electrical and communication cables, indicating a physical reality.

Juha van Ingen's "ASLAP (As Long As Possible)" (2015) could be identified as an example of another work establishing an extremity. It is a thousand year long GIF animation with 48,140,288 frames. Every frame is presented for 10 minutes, thus making it a utopian creation of an eternal artwork. It is interesting also for alluding to similar projects that have inspired the author, such as John Cage's composition "Organ2/ASLSP" (As Slow as Possible, 1987), although in the case of Cage's composition, the year 2000 was set as the beginning and it should go on until the year 2640. It also alludes to Rodney Graham's work "Parsifal (1882 – 38,969,364,735)" (1990). To add another analogous example, it takes two trillion years for a machine to turn a block of concrete around its axis in Arthur Ganson's work of kinetic art "Machine with Concrete" (2008). These kinds of topics are part of a different discussion and food for thought. Although being temporal, they extend beyond the temporal experience of a person.

 

 

Melanie Gilligan The Common Sense

Melanie Gilligan
The Common Sense
2014–2015
Exhibition view at Kiasma
Photo by Pirje Mykkänen
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Max Mayer

 

 

 

Melanie Gilligan's "The Common Sense" (2014–2015) is a dystopian fiction about the possibilities of transferring feelings in the future. It was realised as an installation of episodes or short movies in which the viewers had to set the sequence with their movement – a good example of a movie installation in an exhibition setting. There were other impressive video and film works, such as Ed Atkins' "Ribbons" (2014), Cécile B. Evans' "What the Heart Wants" (2016), Hito Steyerl's "Factory of the Sun" (2015), which all try with their technical complicacy and certain surrealism to say something about the times we live in. Steyerl's video, which was first shown during the 2015 Art Biennale in Venice, is a hybrid of a news report, documentary, video game and web-based dance video.

 

 

Hito Steyerl Factory of the Sun

Hito Steyerl
Factory of the Sun
2015
Exhibition view at Kiasma
Photo by Petri Virtanen
Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery


 

 

The connection with Estonia

Our sympathy for "ARS17" is entirely justified since Katja Novitskova from Estonia is included in the exhibition. Novitskova needs no introduction in her homeland, since she represents Estonia at the 57th international Art Biennale in Venice. She is reputedly a young artist who has a bachelor's degree in semiotics from the University of Tartu and a master's degree from the school of New Media at the University of Lübeck, and who has subsequently lived and worked in the Netherlands and Berlin.

True, Novitskova is not exactly a newcomer to digital art. The format she now practices can rather be called post-digital. But I have a personal memory of Jekaterina Novitskova's "digital period" from 2006 when she was minoring at Tartu Art College. There she participated in Chris Hales' "Interactive Digital Moviemaking Workshop". Her prelim was an interactive video project "DjVj" (2006) that I still use in my lectures as an example of Estonian interactive movie history. It is a tasteful and wholesome multimedia screen work in which viewers using a keyboard can choose different dance moves for the performer on the screen and adjust their speed and repetition. Hence, compared to the various artists who have adapted to and run with the postinternet trend, Novitskova has gone through digital art studies herself and in a way gone even further by addressing a general tiredness from technology and the overabundance of information.

All in all, "ARS17" aims to provide a summary of the current times, and in some respects it achieves that. The selection of works and artists shows that the curators wanted to be on the safe side by choosing recognised artists or re-exhibiting works that had already been presented at major exhibitions. These resource demanding works make it more difficult to experience the exhibition. Seeing yet another familiar 40-minute video makes one feel like suggesting to the organisers that they should display the full duration of the videos so interested viewers could plan their time better. In the end it is a comprehensive exhibition about digitality and the radical changes the internet has caused, and it fits nicely into the gallery setting.

 

Raivo Kelomees is an artist, art historian and theorist, working as a senior research fellow in the faculty of fine arts at the Estonian Academy of Arts. He holds a PhD from the department of art history at the Estonian Academy of Arts (2009).

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