Review by Morten Andenæs
From Chris Marker’s Second Life museum environments, via Florian Meisenberg’s virtual space, to the material studies of Ane Graff and the deep-sea explorations of Susanne Winterling, Myths of the Marble at Henie Onstad Art Centre immerses the viewer in a rich and layered experience. Play and theory, abstract thought and concrete ‘stuff’ converge to explore such slippery concepts as reality and truth, subjectivity, image, imagination, sentience and groundlessness in an increasingly opaque world that some of us feel has lost its marbles.
The title of the show references both NASA’s first photograph of the Earth as seen from space in 1972 (colloquially referred to as the ‘blue marble’), and the resistant yet pliablematerial of the stone itself. The curators Milena Høgsberg and Alex Klein use these references as starting points to talk about technology, virtuality and human comprehension as categories defined both by their limitations and their possibilities. But this is not an exhibition trafficking in the spectacle of Virtual Reality or the wonders of Artificial Intelligence. Instead, I found myself engaged with more pressing concerns about fear, ownership, desire, gender, race, consciousness and subjecthood at the dawn of the new millennium.
Consciousness, perception and the capacity for self-reflexivity, the staple of the human experience, is arguably always, and already, minimally virtual. Imaging and imagining, conceiving of ideological, political or technological possibilities – or one’s own shortcomings for that matter – involves re-presenting the world through language and images, and implies a certain distance from whatever is being perceived. Thinking or conceiving of the world also depends upon some material substrate, as does the supposedly immaterial technology we use all the time to aid perception and extend our comprehension. It’s debatable whether the aforementioned view from space led to a general perspectival shift ‘down here’, but it did offer a new perspective, and bringing it up now seems highly appropriate, even necessary.
As Høgsberg points out, the virtual is not simply an escapist technology: it is a correlate for how we inherently view and experience the world. In its most obvious embodiment – the virtual-reality simulation of Florian Meisenberg – it can function as a kind of mirror. Donning the VR headset and stepping out onto his warped tennis-court carpet, I found myself immersed in a world I thought I’d master, but over which I could assert little control – my will was anything but free. My first reaction: resignation bordering on despondency. However, standing there in the middle of the room, visible to all but oblivious to what was going on around me in the real world, I came to accept, even embrace, the artist’s imploration to confront these limitations in an age of supposed infinite capacity. The attempt to master the technology, the simple handheld controllers for instance, or coming to terms with the constantly looming black hole floating around inside this virtual space where my disembodied self was constantly teetering on the edge of an abyss, was a mirror of the human condition.
At this moment, when we find ourselves in the midst of a cacophony of nationalism and protectionism, of supposedly unequivocal one-liners and parallel realities, it is essential that we re-examine the basic building blocks of perception and knowledge, of subjective experience and objective reality, and try to gain a fresh look at simple concepts that we might have forgotten on our way to becoming one with our iPhones. Klein and Høgsberg stress the importance of the notion of the prosthetic. Limitations, lack with a capital L, are part of our very makeup – and of course of the technology we use – but technology also functions as a prosthetic aid, enabling perspectives hitherto unseen or literal embodiments of what was only imagined a decade or a century ago.
These thoughts are explored in the works of Shahryar Nashat and Susanne Winterling. In the latter’s video installation, a deep-sea exploration, 3-D enhanced and enlarged, reveals swirling bio-luminescent single-celled organisms, their blue light a form of communication, warning of predators, but also revealed by local fishermen to have healing powers. This interspecies communication is something from which traditional western thinking has largely kept its sceptical distance, but which is indispensable for traditional societies all around the world. Now that we have tools at our disposal to study such ideas in detail, it is high time we used them in order to try to fathom systems of thought outside of our own horizons.
Klein mentions Harun Farocki’s idea that the rise in digital-imaging technologies has allowed analogue mediums a greater freedom in pursuing goals other than simply rendering the world more precisely. Daria Martin’s 16 mm film, Soft Materials, seems a fitting example of this. In the quiet of a dark screening room, the familiar unevenly rhythmic sounds of the projector embrace us as we witness a crushingly tender interaction between a robot and a set of naked humans. In movements that span from gentle caresses to harsh and violent gestures, the robot-human pairs mimick the complex routines most of us take for granted in our daily dealings with others, in order to teach the robot something about the complexity of touch. The importance of the literal element of touch in allowing ourselves to be touched metaphorically is well documented: without bodily interaction and stimuli from others, human functioning is impossible; facetime and algorithms simply won’t do. The tender display of affection, or conversely the sudden retraction of a hand, is a latent capacity, a potential that requires reinforcement and nurturing. By showing this via a camera that dances intimately alongside these human-robot pairs, Martens reminds us how the haptic in general is under communicated in the visual arts. Sight and two dimensional representations can touch us – I see the picture of your face and ‘feel’ your lips – and what gives this exhibition its real strength is its focus on these types of deep visceral connections, encompassing and bringing into play all of the senses, which are what in the end render us true subjects.
Touch also plays a significant role in Ane Graff’s project, What Oscillates, where numerous materials such as copper, a substrate for what we perceive to be‘immaterial’ technologies are presented as luscious bands of silky fabric, or beautiful shimmering crystals suspended from the ceiling in a display structure with glass shelving. What Oscillates describes simply and poetically the fluctuations between two states – liquid and solid, on and off, wave and particle or life and death – upon which our technologies rely – their functioning dependent upon physical and chemical reactions that for most of us appear to be a sort of alchemy. At the same time, Graff reminds us of what’s at stake here: miners risk their lives and third-world countries their independence for these precious metals; when swiping across our Instagram feed we are fuelling the fluctuations of a commodity market benefiting whom exactly?, and in the end, the technology that we pick up so effortlessly has a deep and potentially devastating effect on the natural world.
Myths of the Marble, 3 February – 2 April 2017, Henie Onstad Art Centre, curated by Milena Høgsberg and Alex Klein.The exhibition is initiated by Henie Onstad Kunstsenter and conceived and produced in collaboration with the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, where the exhibition will travel in April 2017.