The end, as always, is nigh. There is a murky spy-versus-spy world of data liberationists and anti-terror absolutists sprouting around us, and a Neo-Cold War on the horizon, so surely the days when the drones finally decide to take over is just a fortnight away. As Justin Jaeckle points out in ‘opti-ME*’ at Auto Italia South East, Dolly Parton once wisely sang: ‘We’ve been living in the last days ever since the first day, since the dawn of man.’ But what’s happening at Auto Italia and simultaneously at Banner Repeater’s group show ‘Snow Crash’ are two shows attempting to find the productive possibilities while we anticipate the supposed digital apocalypse, in what Jaeckle termed the ‘#memewhile’. Maybe, these shows suggest, instead of just being passively and unwillingly co-opted into the incipient networked world, we should be actively co-opting ourselves. Maybe, they suggest, we should be looking for the dawn of something else, a being that can take the cyborg ideology and just vamp with it.
The six-artist show at Banner Repeater is a morphing collection of works-in-progress, crammed into the small room whose four walls slowly dissipate as you get lost in the mental corners each work provides. The exhibition takes its name from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel, a sort of ironic cyberninja adventure story set within a future where everyone plugs in to an immersive version of the internet called the Metaverse. Stephenson’s book is an apt touchstone; it helped popularize the term ‘avatar’ as well as inspire more than a few programmers to imagine software like Google Earth. But Stephenson’s dated idealizations are also pointed; the titular Snow Crash is a virus that can infect people both in the Metaverse and the physical world, and in the story he proposes a form of programming as ur-language that can control the physical world, and the hacker as the essential liberatory role in society.
The ‘Snow Crash’ in front of us at the moment is similarly obsessed with language, but rather than using it as a means of liberation it is used to map a set of predetermined relationships to technology. Several of these are overtly apprehensive, from Tyler Coburn’s pamphlet Robots Building Robots, 2013/14, a hyper-conscious travelogue essay musing on ‘lights out’ factory production, to Ami Clarke’s ‘live app in development’ Impossible structures: ‘the eye that remains of me that was I’, where a floating mouth whispers a nine-minute monologue, catching phrases like ‘algorithms as actual objects, subsecond ultrafast extreme events’ – Samuel Beckett’s Not I, 1972, recast for a kitsch rehearsal of digital confusion rhetoric. A set of clipboards nailed to the wall displays Erica Scourti’s research into the book she’s making during the show: an autobiography, of sorts, written by a ghost writer who has been given only what information exists about her online. Hiring a data miner, social profiler and privacy researcher to supply the research for this ‘Google confessional’, the project is an embrace of big brother that attempts to turn the fiction of online presence on its head and data culling into critical introspection. But looking at her results and how actively she uses networking platforms (she is given a ‘Google history social people’ rating of 94: ‘One of the highest results we have ever seen!’), it is hardly surprising that there is a lot out there that can be used. It is more data narcissism as self-portrait, and circularly self-fulfilling.
‘Reflections cybersquaring, trying to hold onto the screen, and you hold on to time,’ is the nonsensical advice for a potentially more productive cyborg relationship. Anna Barham’s spoken-word piece Penetrating Squid, 2014, is a short text passed through a range of voice recognition software, casting technology as more of a welcome guest and a happy interference. It seems, though, paranoia wins the day in ‘Snow Crash’, as you are constantly reminded to be wary of where this dance with the digital might take you. A small yoga mat and a pillow sit in front of Jesse Darling’s untitled video, a new-age guided meditation video gone horribly wrong. A drone of sine tones fills the room as you follow the moving squares of color on the screen, the text narration of the video asking you to imagine a force moving through your arms, ‘breaking every bone in turn. Your hands are a soft useless pap. Relax.’
The slightly off new-age sheen also reverberates around the large empty sets at ‘opti-ME*’. At one event during the show, actor turned plagiarism philosopher Shia LaBeouf, now almost an institution in Postmodernism in himself, led a ‘Meditation of Narcissists’ session live via Skype: dressed in a track suit matching the oranges and greens in the display units in the show, he simply skipped rope for an hour. With the subtitle ‘visions and strategies for tomorrow, today’, Auto Italia invited Jaeckle, writer and artist Ingo Niermann, and modeling agency/artist project Special Service to create a series of workshops throughout the duration of the show, with the space itself designed as a ‘trade fair for identity capital’. Bright colors in oblong shapes adorn the walls and floors. Special Service, which claims to collectively ‘renegotiate their agency in the field of fashion’, has so far held an open call for new models. Niermann will hold a workshop on his concept of ‘drill’, advocating for humans to adopt more machine-like directives (a call echoed in Tyler Coburn’s pamphlet, citing Philip K Dick’s 1955 story ‘Autofac’). A video with a Star Wars-style scrolling text introduces Jaeckle’s ‘#memetime’ project, proposing a future where live streaming events have become the norm, and rampant exhibitionism our main commodity. He didn’t have to look far for substantiation, getting LaBeouf on board and streaming into the space the Diva, one of South Korea’s leading ‘mok bang’ celebrities, who make a living broadcasting themselves eating live online.
‘opti-ME*’ is a conscious staging of ‘intensified self-commodification’, as Special Service calls it, and from the display images in Auto Italia the models certainly achieve this: familiar vacant-eyed faces stare at us in soft focus. Delving into the future is no easy business, but the rehearsal of the modeling role and the roll-calling of LaBeouf seems to imagine a future defined solely by a fame economy, the new subjectivities they envision as simply magnifications of our current individualism. That surface dwelling seems not much of an update on the shallow celebrity-dropping of, say, Sam Taylor-Wood, Francesco Vezzoli or, um, James Franco. LaBeouf is also an easy target; in the age of unicorns farting double rainbow memes, we could also recognize that anyone could, or should, be skipping that rope, and that the memetime’s attention economy can also be diffuse, anonymous and accumulative.
This new cyborg being, it seems, is more than a little self-obsessed; between ‘Snow Crash’ and ‘opti-ME*’ there is hours’ worth of run-on texts and durational performances, with the sense of an adolescent constantly wondering out loud: ‘I wonder what I’ll be when I grow up?’ Both acknowledge, in their events and adaptations through their openings, that it is a changing set of entities in process. Yuri Pattison’s video colocation, time displacement, 2014, in ‘Snow Crash’ places footage from the Pionen data center, a high-security former civil defense center in Sweden that has been used by WikiLeaks and Pirate Bay, alongside texts from archival webchats by a figure who posted as ‘TimeTravel_0’. He comes, he claimed, from 2036, after a 2015 nuclear war, and when the Air Force have created time travel, here in our time to get an old IBM. The data center, itself modeled on 1970s sci-fi films like Silent Running, doesn’t quite mesh with the time traveller’s chats, which, as some theories go, were just a smart branding seed for a future Disney movie. Although these two layered fictions fail to mingle productively, Pattison’s pairing raises a pertinent issue: technology consists of and is formed by the fictions we want to believe – what type of vamping cyborg do you want to be?
Originally published in Art Monthly 377, June 2014.